The epic debates about who was responsible for creating the characters and conceptualizing the stories found in the earliest Marvel comics are on par with the most legendary battles contained within the pages of those very comics. In the early 1960s, the desperate drive to simply publish books that would sell did not allow for the idea that, someday, these creations would be fixtures of public consciousness worth literally billions of dollars. A partial list of these Marvel characters created in this era would include: The Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Nick Fury, Wasp, Dr. Strange, the X-Men, the Avengers, Black Widow, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, Daredevil, Hawkeye, Medusa, Ka-Zar, S.H.I.E.L.D., the Inhumans, Hercules, Silver Surfer, Black Panther, and Peggy Carter. Had the foresight existed to know just how important and valuable these properties would become, the informal and slapdash methods responsible for the genesis of the Marvel Universe would surely have been better documented. Unfortunately, we are left with the spotty and often contradictory claims and recollections of the only men who were in the room, and most often, that was just Stan Lee and either Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. Who, if anyone, is primarily responsible for the creative explosion of characters, teams, and ideas which took place at Marvel Comics in the early 1960s? Both Lee and Kirby claimed it was them (and Ditko claimed credit to certain characters), and in the absence of documentation, a satisfying answer to the question is elusive. There is no way of definitively knowing exactly what transpired in those organic-soup days of the Marvel universe, and so it becomes a battle of clues, inductive reasoning, and conjecture. I believe, however, that an examination of Stan Lee’s creative output during the time periods before and after his collaborations with Jack Kirby is actually quite damaging to Lee’s claims. I’ve worked in a creative field for over 30 years and understand well that folks who can generate fresh ideas, think conceptually, and not get mired in repetitive solutions are few and far between. It is not just a matter of “getting lucky” once or twice, but rather a self-driven pattern of consistently delivering work that resonates on multiple levels. Nothing Stan Lee did in his life, pre or post early-to-mid-1960s, demonstrably shows he is that type of creative force. In fact, when left on his own, the ideas he did generate tended to be sophomoric, uninspired, and cheap. In the time period leading up to Marvel’s heyday (1961–1967), and in the decades afterward, Stan Lee pitched a mountain of ideas, some comic-related, some not. Even in an industry that operates on the principle of “throw things out there and see what sticks,” the sheer volume of Lee’s pitches that fell flat is noteworthy. Given a lifetime of creative failures, it is just not plausible to conclude that Stan Lee is responsible for the explosion of conceptual ideas that gave birth to the Marvel universe in the early 1960s.
Whether or not he possessed inherent creative talent, Lee’s early tutelage in the publishing industry may have played a role in his lifetime of uninspired ideas. Unlike many comics professionals who were drawn to the industry by their love of the genre, Stan Lee got his job at the company that would become Marvel Comics through the nepotistic gesture of a cousin-by-marriage, Martin Goodman, whose publishing philosophy is encapsulated by his statement: “Fans are not interested in quality” (Riesman, 2021). “For [Goodman], success meant jumping and pumping–jumping on a successful trend and pumping multiple similar titles (with the least possible investment) through the pipeline as fast as possible in order to rake in as much profit as possible” (Riesman, 2021). For the first two decades of his career at Atlas/Timely, from the 1940s through the early 1960s, Stan Lee operated under this premise. Later, after Stan replaced Goodman as publisher in the mid 70s, he couldn’t quite shake that cynical creative playbook. “…in the realm of magazines, he was churning out piles of low-grade, derivative content in an effort to grab eyeballs on the newsstand” (Riesman, 2021). Underground comics legend, Denis Kitchen, a man who spent decades discovering and publishing some of the most innovative creators in comics, observed of Stan: “What he was always good at was spotting trends and then, frankly, mimicking trends” (Riesman, 2021).