Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the Fantastic Four

During this Thanksgiving weekend my brother and his family came over to my parents’ house. It was a nice time to spend with family. As I reminisced with my brother, we reminisced about the comic book collection that we once had as children. Somewhere in my parents’ garage is a box of old comics that my brothers and I used to collect.

Among my favorite comics was a one of a group of superheroes called the Fantastic Four. The first comic book I ever read was an old Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby Fantastic Four reprint that I found in my grandparents’ home when I was around 7 and it got me hooked. Though I had started reading comics long after Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had long broken up their partnership, I saw a lot of their work from old reprints that Marvel used to produce of the old Fantastic Four issues. They were a major inspiration for me to want to be an artist.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started collaborating on comic books in the 1950s. Both had brought extensive experience into their collaboration. Stan Lee came into the comic book business through the connections of his cousin-in-law, Martin Goodman, who owned Timely Publications, a company that published pulp comics. Through this connection Stan became a leading comic book writer for the publication and during the 1950s he was the chief writer and editor of the Atlas comic book line. Jack Kirby was a major comic artist innovator and creator, collaborating with his childhood friend, Joe Simon, to create Captain America, the Boy Commandos, Boy’s Ranch, Young Romance and other comics that sold millions of copies. After creating Challengers of the Unknown, a popular adventure comic with a quartet of nonsuperpowered heroes, Jack went to Atlas and began to collaborate with Stan.

The Fantastic Four came out in November 1961. At that time, the rival comic company DC came out with a successful comic book called the Justice League of America, which was a group of superheroes consisting of Superman, Batman, the Flash and other superheroes of that company. In response, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created a superhero group of their own. It was like nothing that the comic industry had seen at the time. This group of superheroes did not have flawless personalities like their DC counterparts. The members of the Fantastic Four had very human personalities: they were vain, ill tempered, jealous, and constantly bickering among themselves. In the early issues, these characters had problems paying the bills and even resolving romantic issues.

The Fantastic Four consisted of Reed Richard, a scientific genius but an aloof and somewhat arrogant man; his wife Sue Storm, a kind but somewhat shallow woman; Sue’s brother Johnny, a hot tempered teen who is interested in girls and hotrods; and Ben Grimm, Reed’s best friend and a tough pilot. During an experimental space flight, the group are exposed to cosmic rays and each members gains a super power. Reed Richards gains the ability to stretch his body. Sue is able to turn invisible and create force fields. Johnny has the power to turn to flames and fly. Ben Grimm gains incredible strength, but at the price of being trapped in a hideous rock like body. They live in the top floors of the Baxter Building in New York City, where Reed can work on his scientific experiments. Since they do not have secret identitities, random people frequently stop them on the street or gawk at them when they pass by. Ben has a fan club of street toughs on Yancy Street that alternately teased him and admired him.

From reading these comics, I could tell that Stan and Jack had a lot of fun creating these comics. Stan and Jack would get together to hash out a general plot, then Kirby would do his art and work out the details of the story. Lee would then dialogue and narrative captions. Their collaboration brought out the best in each other’s talents. Stan Lee’s dialogue was by turns, dramatic, funny, and full of personality. Often the characters sounded like narrators from an old radio drama, with certain words highlighted so it seemed like the characters were always shouting something dramatic at each other. Jack Kirby provided these very powerful art with dramatic compositions, stretched perspectives and highly detailed backgrounds. I loved the way he did machinery and came up with the weirdest looking aliens. As his style took a more bold look, he began experimenting in collage and they were some of the most interesting artwork I’ve seen in comics. His story telling skills were wonderful, and he often did these full page panels that would add a dramatic emphasis to the pace of the story.

In this, Kirby was ably assisted by the people who inked his work. Since Kirby did the art of many comics in the Marvel line, he would do pencil art and let someone else finish the art by inking it. My favorite inker of Jack Kirby’s art is Joe Sinnott. Sinnott did these wonderful thick lines that made Kirby’s figures seem more imposing and powerful. His inking style is a great influence on how I ink my own cartoons.

Stan and Jack collaborated in over 100 issues of the Fantastic Four. It advertised itself as the World’s Greatest Comic, and for a time in the 1960s, it lived up to its title. That time was an especially fertile time for great comic books. Stan Lee was collaborating with Steve Ditko on another wonderful comic book called Spiderman that was breaking new ground of its own. Carl Barks was still creating great comic books with Donald Duck. Harvey Kurtzman was producing parody comics like Goodman Beaver and Little Annie Fanny. And the underground comics produced great talent like Robert Crumb.

Both Stan and Jack were liberal, and in keeping with the times, they expressed their politics in the Fantastic Four. They introduced the Black Panther, the first black superhero, and I suspect they named it after a radical political party called the Black Panthers. An issue of the Fantastic Four had the Silver Surfer trying to get the world to unite against him to show the world the futility of war. The character of Galactus, a creature that can devour worlds, was symbolic of the nuclear bomb and its ability to destroy the world.

A few years ago, Marvel Comics began reprinting all the old Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby Fantastic Four comics in a collection called Essential Fantastic Four. It gave me a chance to read the comics that I missed as a child. My favorite of the old Lee/Kirby comics were the run of Fantastic Four issues from when they meet the Inhumans, to when they meet a group of scientists called the Citadel of Science who are trying to create the perfect creature that would help them rule the world. In the midst of these stories is the most famous of the Fantastic Four stories, the introduction of Galactus and the Silver Surfer.

My favorite Fantastic Four story is a one issue comic called “This Man This Monster“. It concerned a scientist who is jealous of Reed Richards’ fame and glory and decides to impersonate the Thing to try to kill Richards. He finds though that Richards is a selfless and sacrificing man who is about to embark on a dangerous experiment far from the glow of the press. This gives the scientist a change of heart and he decides to sacrifice his own life to save the life of someone he had once been jealous of. It’s a story about second chances, and making a life that serves others. It gets to the heart of what being a hero really is about.

Sadly the Stan Lee/ Jack Kirby partnership ended rather badly. Due to the nature of their partnership, the issue of credit over the writing of the stories became a growing thorn in their collaboration. Jeet Heer wrote an article that explained their dissolution :

“Kirby became the cornerstone of the Atlas line for a number of reasons: he was fast, his art was always solid and, most importantly, he could turn out stories with minimal script assistance. Since Lee had to write almost all the Atlas books, he didn’t have time work out detailed stories. Instead, he developed a method whereby the artists did the primary plotting and Lee would simply add in the dialogue. Later known as the “Marvel Method,” this technique had a beneficial side-effect, since it gave priority to dynamic visual storytelling. On the downside, however, it made the question of authorship extremely murky: if the artist came up with both the plot and images, could Lee really be seen as the sole author of his work?

…Alas, the Lee-Kirby team-work couldn’t last. As Marvel Comics became more popular, the firm increasingly used Lee as a figure-head and spokesman. With his family ties and managerial position, Lee became the public voice of Marvel Comics. In innumerable interviews with journalists, Lee often made it sound as if Marvel comics sprang spontaneous from his imagination, with artists like Kirby and Ditko serving merely as hired hands who carried out his vision. Equally galling was the fact that Lee would receive a sizable salary, comparable to that of a top CEO, while most of artists who worked with him drew a meager free-lancers salary, often without health benefits or a pension. 

Lee’s credit-hogging and relentless self-promotion proved too much for Kirby, who left Marvel Comics for greener pastures in 1970…”

 

The Fantastic Four was an important part of my childhood memories. It was a great influence on my growing interest in art and it helped expand my imagination. I will always be grateful to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for the wonderful stories and artwork that they produced. This post is not about politics or activism, but just about the feeling of nostalgia that one gets during the holidays. Sometime this month I’m going to go back to my parents’ garage and take a second look for that box of comics.

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About angelolopez

I’ve wanted to be an artist all my life. Since I was a child I’ve drawn on any scrap of paper I could get a hold of. When I went to San Jose State University, I became more exposed to the works of the great fine artists and illustrators. My college paintings were heavily influenced by the humorous illustrations of Peter De Seve, an illustrator for the New Yorker magazine. I also fell under the spell of the great muralists of the 1930s, especially Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera. I graduated with a degree in Illustration. Since my time in college, my goal has been to be a successful children’s book illustrator. I’ve illustrated 3 books: Two Moms the Zark and Me by Johnny Valentine in 1993; Night Travelers by Sue Hill in 1994; and Cherubic Children’s New Classic Story Book Volume 2 for Cherubic Press in 1998. I’ve painted murals for Lester Shields Elementary School in San Jose, the Berryessa branch of the San Jose Public Library, and Grace Community Church in Los Altos. I’ve had a few illustrations published in South Bay Accent Magazine and I will have an illustration published in the January/February issue of Tikkun magazine.
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