The Black Panther movie hit the theaters this past weekend, setting all sorts of Box Office records as once again the Marvel Universe proves itself a franchise to be reckoned with both in terms of quality and revenue. The Black Panther character first appeared in the Fantastic Four comic book in 1966 (issue #52) while artist Jack Kirby and writer Stan Lee were at the height of their partnership helming the books that helped establish Marvel as a major player in the field. Among the other characters and teams that originated with those two were Thor, the Hulk, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, and Ant Man (Captain America sprung from Kirby’s partnership with Joe Simon in the 1940’s, and Kirby had at least a hand in the creation of Iron Man). The question that has been raised many times is whether these characters truly came from a collaboration between Kirby and Lee, or was one of the two more instrumental in the creative process. That is hard question to give a definitive answer to, and both men have had their say over the years. But if you look back at the accomplishments of Jack Kirby over his life, I believe you can get a good picture of where the majority of the creative force came from for Black Panther and many of the Marvel characters he worked on.
During his career, Jack Kirby worked in two acclaimed partnerships–with Joe Simon then with Stan Lee–and he worked on his own. During that time, some of the best known characters in the world of comics came into existence including Captain America, the Boy Commandos, The Challengers of the Unknown, The Fantastic Four, Thor, The Hulk, Darkseid and the New Gods, Kamandi, the Eternals, and many, many more. But was Jack Kirby the primary creative driving force on these (the answer is yes with the last three mentioned above), or did his partners do more of the creating while Kirby just fleshed out the concepts?
There seems to be little doubt about how it worked with the first team that Kirby participated in. Joe Simon was also a writer and artist and the two appeared to work closely together, bouncing ideas off one another and picking up where the other left off. However, despite their similar talents, it is also often accepted that Jack Kirby focused more of his energies on the creative side while Mr. Simon handled more of the business matters (including negotiating with the publishers for a percentage of the profits for the books they worked on). But after they parted ways in the late 50’s, Joe Simon produced little of note in the years that followed. True he had mostly exited from the comics industry to work in advertising, but he still did some work on the Archie Comics line of superheroes in the early 60’s (with an assist from Kirby) and also later produced some long forgotten titles for DC like Brother Power, the Geek and Prez. By 1960, Joe Simon had mostly faded from significance in the comics scene, but Jack Kirby was just getting started.
After the Simon and Kirby team split, Jack Kirby did some work for DC and Atlas (soon to become Marvel) to bide his time. During this period, he worked on an assortment of monster, sci fi, and western titles, but also created for DC the Challengers of the Unknown series (allegedly with some help from Dave Wood). He then went onboard full time at Atlas where he and Stan Lee would eventually team up to create the infamous Marvel Universe beginning with the Fantastic Four.
As this period began, Stan Lee claimed to have devised a process of creating comic books called “The Marvel Method” in which the writer and artist would pow-wow over an idea and come up with a basic summary for a story. The artist (usually Jack Kirby) would then work from this outline and the writer (usually Stan Lee) would then provide the final script for the book. This was how the majority of Marvel titles were produced from the 60’s and on. And this was how Stan Lee was able to attach his name as writer to so many titles during the heyday of Marvel’s rise to fame. And this is also what has led to much controversy over how much creative input Stan Lee had on the Marvel titles he became famous for.
Jack Kirby was already recognized by this time as a creative dynamo, whereas Stan Lee was known more as a hack writer producing mostly second-rate, knock-off stories for the struggling Atlas line of comics. Did the pairing of these two really lead to some of the most renown comics in the history of the industry? And was it just a coincidence that their first collaboration, The Fantastic Four, was really just a re-imagining of Kirby’s recent creation, The Challengers of the Unknown, with superpowers? Many have suggested that the majority of the creative production during the beginning of the Marvel Era came from Jack Kirby while Stan Lee mostly just worked PR and took credit for what happened. In an interview later in his life, Kirby went so far as to claim that Lee never wrote a word and that it was he that created all of the Marvel characters including Spider-Man.
Few people will believe that view of history, but when you start to look at Kirby’s output later in the sixties and how this suggested what would follow from the artist in the seventies, it’s easy to accept him as the dominant creative force in the partnership during that time. When you consider the cosmic themes that began to dominate the Fantastic Four and Thor titles, you see Jack Kirby coming through loud and clear. And it is no secret that as the sales of Marvel titles began to explode during the sixties, Stan Lee become much more pre-occupied with non-creative matters and leaned more heavily on his artists to carry on with the story-telling (Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, left Marvel in part because of this).
Ultimately, it is difficult not to acknowledge Jack Kirby as co-creator of most if not all of the titles he worked on for Marvel, and it also seems apparent that he heavily influenced the overall tone and direction of the titles he stuck with such as FF and Thor (and I would say that the later issues of those title are mostly Kirby, with Stan just adding some dialogue). And you also have to acknowledge that once Kirby left Marvel in 1970, Stan Lee created little of note from that point forward. Kirby, on the other hand, just moved on into the next phase of his career where he produced such renowned books as the Fourth World series, Kamandi, The Demon, and The Eternals. And while these may not have been the commercial successes of the Marvel titles he worked on during the previous decade, they have gone on to be well remembered titles and the characters have become integral to the companies that produced them.
In any case, you cannot deny that Jack Kirby was a creative force to reckon with. Whether the partnerships he worked in energized his creative muse or whether he commanded the driver’s seat when producing stories, his vigor is renown. Stan Lee likely provided input, as did Joe Simon before him, but Kirby ran with the stories and characters and made them very much his own, especially from the mid-60’s forward. Jack Kirby’s imagination is boundless and whether working alone or in a team, he created lasting tales and beloved characters that have lived on and cemented his legacy as a great creator.