Stan Lee and Jack Kirby: The Fathers of Modern Marvel
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby: The Fathers of Modern Marvel
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were Wayward Americans. The emphasis there, is on the were, as today, these two men are responsible for some of the most successful franchises in the history of Hollywood. It wasn’t always that way though. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were the original creators of the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Avengers, and many more of the mighty Marvel Comics characters that society is very well aware of today. These two men weren’t always viewed as some of the fathers of this modern zeitgeist, however, and during the sixties and seventies when they created many of the characters, they were for an ever shrinking comic book reading audience. Lee, a comic book writer, and Kirby, a comic book artist, were not working in a mainstream medium. The two could have been spending their time writing novels, or making hit movies or television shows, but instead, for countless decades, chose to spend their lives working in a much lesser-known medium. This makes their accomplishments all the more impressive, while also showing why these two men might be considered wayward Americans. While these well-known intellectual properties are one side effect of the pair’s passionate work in comic books, the exciting combination of Kirby’s storytelling abilities plus Lee’s exciting script would usher in a new era of creation, and would help to present America with its most successful genre book, the super hero comic.
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were wayward Americans for a number of reasons. To begin with, the characters they created were very much unlike any of the other major super heroes that had been on the comic book scene. Stan and Jack’s creations were, as Stan described them, “characters [that were] different in the sense that they had real emotions and problems…and it caught on” (Lacter 96). The Fantastic Four was a family, one who lived, learned, and loved together. Readers could look at Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny, and would feel things that they might be feeling in their everyday life, or view scenarios of emotions getting out of control all too common for us real human beings. These were relatable, human characters with real, relatable human problems. Spider-Man was a loner, loser, and a nerd. The X-Men were hated and feared, a common sentiment felt by many racial minorities during the civil rights period of the 1960s and 1970s.
Shown here are human reactions to the actions of some mutants, specifically the Beast in Issue 8 of X-Men. The hatred and prejudice, even when judged against morally right actions, were too strong for the humans to overcome, and these sentiments are a common theme from the inception of the series through to present day comics. Mutants, hated and feared, even when doing the right thing, are seen as dangerous and conniving.
One of the great, longstanding success with these larger than life characters is that anyone can, in at least one instance, find a little bit of themselves in these super heroes. The waywardness, at least for the time, of creating iconic super hero characters with personal problems, concerns over whether one will be able to support themselves and their family, and losing your temper and arguing with others was uniquely a Marvel Comics shtick, and more importantly, uniquely Stan and Jack.
While many super heroes that exist in the Marvel Comics universe could have easily been created for any other medium, the monthly grids of comic books are where they were born. This allowed for a kind of soap operatic style of storytelling, with cliffhangers being dropped at the ends of issues and little nuggets being planted for payoff years down the line. The comic book medium was vital for the birth and proliferation of these characters, and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s acceptance of this as fact is a key factor to their waywardness. Comic books were lambasted by the media as corrupting the youth of America, a worrisome idea in the heart of Cold War America, but this did not stop Marvel mighty architects from creating real, living, breathing relationships, nor did it stop Stan and Jack from shying away from the personal problems that arose from the likeness to reality.
The comic book medium allowed for dozens of stories to be told a month, with hundreds over the course of a year. The periodical format’s absolute embrace by Marvel allowed for a unique experience, one that would have been diluted in formats where actors would be able to make their own interpretations of the art, or where the readers imagination would have to create the pictures Kirby so masterfully presented.
Captain America’s joining of the Avengers shows one of the many interesting aspects of the comic book medium, and that is that they are constantly evolving. That the times change along with the readers instills in them a sense of growth and that these stories and themes and the problems the heroes face, will grow and change along with them. This issue highlights that growth by bringing back a legend from older comics, creating the sense of a living, breathing universe with which many other forms of entertainment media could not provide.
The problem with creating a far out world that still relates to real world problems is that people of all kinds and opinions share in those real world problems. Characters like Captain America of the Avengers was a beacon of American patriotism, and, for a country in turmoil during the time of the Vietnam, Korean, and Cold War, a pro war, pro American policy super hero was an idea many butted heads with. This did not slow Captain America down. The X-Men, minorities among the humans of the Marvel universe, were hated and attacked for being different, while teams like the Fantastic Four and Avengers were praised. Their differences were genetic, something they were born with, something minorities in America have been fighting to overcome for generations. The X-Men, with their humanity amplified by amazing powers and abilities, personified that fight, and even though they were hated by humans, they fought the bad guy so that they might eventually be accepted and find peace. That Stan, Jack, and the rest of Marvel’s comic book creators did not shy away from these issues is another example of their waywardness not just as Americans, going against cultural norms, but as creators, putting their beliefs ahead of what might sell a little better.
Stan and Jack were busy building worlds in the 1960s and 1970s, using the comic book medium to create heroes and places that would outlast even them. Recently, however, with the advent of the super hero Hollywood movie, their creations have transitioned from little read comics with a knowable character to blockbuster hits. Cyclops, Iron Man, The Human Torch, and Thor are household names now for kids and adults of all ages and backgrounds. With this new found popularity, society has welcomed into their hearts the relatable, real characters created way back then when audiences were much smaller. It could be argued then, that the new mass appeal of these characters might dilute their original meaning, taking out the heart and soul that allowed them to live and created corporate mouthpieces bringing in untold dollars through movies, television, advertising, and merchandising. I would argue, however, that that is not the case, and that the relatability that these characters were born to encompass is alive and well in their interpretations today. The Fantastic Four is still a family that, through thick and thin, sticks together, showing the strength these bonds can create and helping to foster new ones. The X-Men still protect and serve a world that hates and fears them, and though their mission is not over, the purpose that drives them gives strength to all those who might feel pushed down and subjugated. And most importantly, the ideals and morals these heroes stand for are still bright and true, giving kids who grow up with the Avengers something to believe in. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s creations were the epitome of a wayward cultural product. While the abstract waywardness these men exhibited may have changed meaning with the times, if they had not gone against the grain back then, their success today might have not had anywhere near the power it will have for generations to come.
People in the sixties were concerned, rightly so, over the ever growing threat the Kremlin and the Soviet Union posed. These were real problems that real people dealt with. Shown here, Sue Storm and Ben Grimm before the four adventures take off for space to be transformed, accidently, into the Fantastic Four. Fear in the face of communism is an ideal that was relatable for readers reading this book at the height of Cold War tensions, and having the characters feel more real than any other comic book characters was something much of Stan and Jack’s work strived to be.
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