Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko: The Men Who Made Stan Lee Great
We’ve seen the same conversation over and over since his death. People widely consider Stan Lee as one of the greatest comic book writers, having created some of the world’s most beloved characters. He pushed social justice ahead of his time, as we all know how Black Panther and the X-Men came about. We’ve likely all seen that wonderful essay he wrote on the absurdity of bigotry by now.
Stan Lee is one of the most widely influential people in comics. Without him, superheroes wouldn’t be the big cultural juggernaut it is today. But here’s the thing: he didn’t do it alone. He may be one of the most recognizable creators in the industry. However, he also worked with some of the greatest comic book artists of all time. And those collaborators had an equal (or in many cases, more) weight on Marvel’s early output. To solely credit Stan Lee with the rise of comic books would do these artists – and Stan Lee – a huge disservice.
Alongside Stan Lee: Other Great Creators
We can’t talk about Stan Lee’s legacy without mentioning some of the “greats” he’s worked with. In fact, one might say the world of comic books had become so much colorful thanks to how these figures helped bring life to Stan Lee’s – and other writers’ – works. It’s through the creative expression of these writers and artists that led to wonderful stories we’ve been reading through the years. Granted, comic books has had ups and downs throughout its history. However, one can’t deny the mention of “Stan Lee” will bring to light these names as well.
To many comic book fans, Jack Kirby is simply known as “The King.” And when you look at his creations, it’s clear why. Kirby, along with Joe Simon, created Captain America, along with a host of other iconic characters.
His partnership with Stan Lee proved to be especially fruitful. Together, they ushered in the Silver Age of comic books, courtesy of the Fantastic Four. Instead of depicting superheroes as larger-than-life characters as DC Comics was wont to do, Lee and Kirby decided to make the Fantastic Four as human as possible. Their take on the characters provided stories with quirks and failings that were a constant source of drama and tension.
Despite the Fantastic Four’s comparative naturalism, Kirby threw all of his imagination in the book. People may perhaps recognize his signature cosmic style precisely because of this collaboration. Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four collaboration reached its pinnacle with the Galactus Trilogy, an epic three-issue comic book arc that introduced the Silver Surfer and Galactus, the Planet-Eater. This trilogy opened up the cosmic side of Marvel for writers and artists to explore in the decades to come.
Unfortunately, this partnership didn’t last and Lee and Kirby had a falling out. Kirby moved to DC Comics where he created the Fourth World and the New Gods. He also created the Funky Flashman, which served as his satirical take on Stan Lee. Comic book fans consider the Fourth World as Kirby’s greatest solo work. And when Kirby returned to Marvel, he tried to recreate his success with The Eternals, to little success.
Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s other creations include the Hulk, Iron Man, Doctor Doom, and the original X-Men. In fact, most of the classic Marvel’s visual cues can be traced back to Kirby’s pen. Artists still emulate the Kirby Krackle today, arguably one of his signature visual flourishes.
Stan Lee initially turned to longtime collaborator Jack Kirby when he was creating Spider-Man. Kirby drew a muscular hero that was not dissimilar to Captain America, and Lee felt that it was at odds with the concept he was developing: a hero struggling with the realities of being a teenager. Steve Ditko gave it a shot, creating a weird, lanky, superhero with a webbed blue and red suit. This was the Spider-Man we all know and love today.
Stan Lee always considered Spider-Man his greatest character. Despite Spider-Man transitioning from one creator to the next, nobody lost sight of Peter Parker’s core characteristic. That, at the end of the day, he’s just a guy, trying to do well, and struggling with life. Parker proves heroes struggle to balance his powers and his responsibilities. It’s true, Stan Lee provided solid writing enough to cement this characteristic. However, Ditko made sure we all saw the concept come to life. It’s his rendition of Peter Parker – that hunched over nerdy kid with the glasses – that struck a chord with fans.
Eventually, Ditko moved from Marvel to Charlton Comics. His work there allowed him to create and co-create Ted Kord (Blue Beetle), the Question, and Captain Atom. Readers may recognize the three as Alan Moore’s inspiration for Watchmen. After Charlton, Ditko moved to DC Comics where he eventually created Creeper and Hawk & Dove.
However, if we are to locate Ditko’s “signature,” we should probably look away from Spider-Man. Instead, you should check out his other collaboration with Stan Lee: Doctor Strange. We can all thank Steve Ditko for the trippy style of the film’s visuals. It’s actually his art style that encapsulated the weirdness of Strange’s adventures.
Beyond Kirby and Ditko
Kirby and Ditko may be two of Stan Lee’s greatest collaborators. However, let us not forget other collaboratos that defined a lot of the known Marvel Universe. These include Bill Everett, who co-created Daredevil, John Romita Sr, whose work in Amazing Spider-Man is second only to Ditko in terms of being iconic, and Don Heck, who worked with Lee and Kirby in creating Iron Man.
It’s often easy to encapsulate the contributions of many behind the pedestal of a single person’s achievements. We shouldn’t discount Stan Lee’s many contributions to the realm of comic books. Indeed, a lot of veterans and newcomers may owe a lot of their experience with the fandom with Stan Lee. A cameo may have gotten them curious to the Cinematic Universe. Others may have been long-time followers of Spider-Man. However, it’s important to remember that oftentimes, great people also make a difference with the help of other great people with them. And if we want to make a change the same way Stan Lee did, we need to stop thinking we’re alone for the ride. Rather, let’s bring our dreams to life with the many people we have to support us.
Photo of Jack Kirby retrieved from the Kirby Museum website. Susan Skaar took the original photo, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Photo of Steve Ditko retrieved from Marvel, as published by the Guardian.
Photo of Stan Lee retrieved from the official Marvel YouTube channel.