New Stan Lee documentary raises age-old question: Who created the Marvel Universe?

The new documentary on Disney+ about the life of Marvel Comics' writer/editor Stan Lee caused the son of Lee's collaborator, the late writer/artist Jack Kirby to release a statement about the relative credit for the creation of Marvel superheroes.

Neal Kirby wrote:

"It's not any big secret that there has always been controversy over the parts that were played in the creation and success of Marvel's characters. Stan Lee had the fortunate circumstance to have access to the corporate megaphone and media, and the used these to create his own mythos as to the creation of the Marvel character pantheon. He made himself the voice of Marvel. So, for several decades he was the "only" man standing, and blessed with a long life, the last man standing (my father died in 1994)."

Neal Kirby refers to the conflict between Stan Lee and writer/artist Steve Ditko over creator credit for Spider-Man. In the documentary, Lee says the character was his "idea," but describes Ditko countering that it was his bringing that idea to life that really matters. Neal Kirby wrote:

"In 1502, the Opera del duomo commissioned a 26-year-old Michelangelo to sculpt a statue of David for the Cathedral of Florence – their idea, their money. The statue is called Michelangelo's David – his genius, his vision, his creativity."

Neal Kirby questions whether Lee even came up with the idea for The Fantastic Four.

Indeed, most comics historians recognize that my father based the Fantastic Four on a 1957 comic he created for DC, "Challengers of the Unknown," even naming Ben Grimm (The Thing) after his father Benjamin, and Sue Storm after my older sister Susan."

And yet there's documentary evidence that the idea for the Fantastic Four may have originated with Lee: there's a two-page synopsis of the concept that Lee had typed up. But did he type it up after Kirby came to him with the idea?

As much as I'm on Team Kirby and Team Ditko, I have to admit that the documentary did give a pretty fair airing of Kirby and Ditko's case, including a recording of a surprising radio interview in which Lee and Kirby actually have an argument about creation and writing credit. In the documentary, Lee honestly describes the "Marvel Method" of writing comics, in which he would give as little as a sentence of plot to artists like Kirby and Ditko, who would then draw an entire comic book, maybe even ignoring that sentence, leaving only the dialog for Lee to insert.

It's a decades-old question among comic book historians, and as fascinated as I am with it, it really doesn't matter much. They're all creators of their characters and the relative credit is splitting hairs. Certainly nothing financial was ever at stake for creation credit: whoever created whatever, the company owned the intellectual property. (Writing credit is another story: as far as I've seen, Kirby and Ditko only got page rates for drawing, not for their additional responsibility of plotting/structuring/writing.)

I've chosen to think about it in movie terms: Kirby and Ditko were the writer/directors, and Stan Lee was the movie producer who happened to have the additional odd task of writing the dialog to be dubbed in after the movie was made.