“It’s complicated” is a simple term that’s creeped into all facets of our lexicon. It’s now become something more than just a placeholder of a particular status category on social media. But let’s face it; whenever we deal with real people who live on planet Earth, things tend to get complicated. There are no simple answers. Even the shades of gray have shades of gray. And that’s the proper mindset for jumping into John Morrow’s phenomenal new book Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said.
This book is a fascinating deep dive into contentious relationships between the men, and women, who would shape what pop culture now regards as the Marvel Universe. There are so many questions: Who contributed what? Did the writer actually write the stuff? Who came up with the ideas originally? Why didn’t everyone get along better? Marvel now generates billions of dollars in business, so we have to wonder if all involved had been compensated fairly? (Spoiler alert: “no”.)
There seems to be a lot of excitement for this book. “John Morrow has done it again,” said Emil Novak, Sr, a pioneering comic book retailer since 1969. “Stuf’ Said chronicles the perplexing conversation of who fundamentally created most of Marvel’s comic book characters. And the results will change your thoughts and history forever.”
Documenting the Documentaries
Like everyone one else, I’ve been watching a few excellent documentaries lately. Last week I really enjoyed the American Masters: Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me documentary. The week before, I watched Netflix’s FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and loved it. And there’s another documentary on the Fyre festival playing on Hulu that I’m hearing great things about.
I’ve been in a documentary state-of-mind, and was very receptive to the innovative format that author/publisher John Morrow developed for Stuf’ Said. This book reads like a documentary in print. Instead of the short clips that you’d see in a broadcast documentary, Morrow uses fonts and color to designate what the different principals had said or had written over the years.
For many fans, they first passionately care about the characters. As they continue in fandom, there’s a tendency to develop a passionate interest in the creators. The behind-the-scenes adventures can be more interesting than what happened “on stage.”
It’s easy to understand how many who grew up getting know Stan Lee in the Marvel movies frame Stan as the kindly, but creative, grand-uncle. He’s funny, he’s self-deprecating and he’s seemingly omnipresent. But to many he’s a villain.
There are many vocal Jack Kirby who fans are outraged by what transpired over the years and by the way history is being written (or re-written). Part of it is often an anger towards Stan Lee, whom they consider a loud braggart who claimed credit for beyond what he contributed. Surely, Stan Lee’s personal wealth, in stark contrast to the financial endings that many of his collaborators faced, gives one pause.
Morrow’s book explores all of that and paints the picture of several men who were building something grand for the ages… and simultaneously were trying to simply pay the mortgage.
And the nuanced portraits painted remind us that no one is perfect. Although Sean Howe’s excellent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story revealed much of this, I was struck by the parts of Stuf’ Said that detailed how in 1966 Kirby essentially took his employer’s side of things instead of that of his past partner, Joe Simon.
Likewise, there’s a depressing detour explaining the predicament of Carl Burgos, the creator of the Human Torch. Stuf’ Said explains how one comic book adventure (from Fantastic Four Annual #4) that young fans regarded as a simple team-up of heroes from different generations, was actually a mean-spirited poke in the eye from Marvel to Burgos.
The Elephant Galactus in the Room
Professor Laurence Maslon, from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, enjoyed the book, but was worried about the author and “confirmation bias”. He observed:
This is a very important piece of work. Morrow very diligently excavates, examines, and parses every statement, interview, and passing comment from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in an attempt to apportion credit and blame to these titanic creators. It’s an engaging read, like a great police procedural. However, the author’s attempts to claim objectivity are as transparent as Sue Storm: he says as much in the introduction, having been an expert witness for the Kirby clan in a seminal lawsuit. This is too bad; all of the Kirby enthusiasts enter this complex arena with a Skurge-size axe to grind.
Also, there’s a Mole Man-esque myopia (ok, I’ll stop) about what makes comics–particularly the Marvel Age of Comics–so memorable. It’s not just the action sequences or the panel-to-panel conflict; it’s the characterizations, the interior monologues, the dialogue, the ongoing story lines, the catch phrases. There’s no discussion about, say, the still-resonant Spider-Man#50, which Kirby had nothing to do with, let alone the innumerable soap operas, classics taglines, and personal dramas that must of have been Stan’s sole purview. And what’s wrong with being the promotional voice of Marvel? Stan’s Soapbox, small and large, was what told a generation of comic fans that they were to be respected and shared a deep personal commonality. Weighed against, say, Kirby’s turgid, impenetrable Fourth World universe, I think Stan’s vision for comics was more transformative and inclusive, when the day is done.
Of course, Stan’s passing, which was not anticipated by the author, makes this all the more poignant. I’d ask fans of the Universe–rather than Kirby partisans–what made the Universe so memorable and made it feel like a special club all their own. And a lot of that has to do with Stan.
It’s a fair point, but I would contend that by using quotes from the creators, and helping the reader understand the context of each and the changes made over time, Morrow brings balance and soberness into the proceedings.
All in all, this is a blockbuster read. But it’s not only for comic fans. Stuf’ Said also includes lessons for business-minded people who are curious about entrepreneurial and/or creative start-ups, the relationships that can make them great and, at the same time, produce heart-breaking tragedies.
Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said by John Morrow. 159 pp Two Morrows $24.95