With Great Chutzpah Comes Great Responsibility: JACK KIRBY VS. MR. FANTASTIC

August 8, 1961 forever changed the lives of Jack Kirby and Benjamin Grimm. On that day, a new era in comics began, the Marvel Age. A generation of more realistic heroes with flaws, relationship problems, insecurities, and even money problems, was sparked when Marvel Comics released the Fantastic Four #1, drawn by Jack Kirby and written by Stan Lee.

Benjamin Grimm, AKA The Thing, was the character who most closely resembled Jack Kirby as seen in our last article. Both Kirby and Grimm were stocky, stubborn, cigar-smoking, tough Jews from the Lower East Side. Yet, under their rocky demeanor, each was very sensitive.

Kirby and Lee constantly debated who deserved the most credit for their creations. They had a love/hate relationship that lasted over 50 years. The relationship between Kirby and Lee mirrored the tension between Fantastic Four teammates Grimm and Reed Richards, AKA Mr. Fantastic.

The Fantastic Four are the First Family of Superheroes, but Grimm isn’t an official family member. In the Fantastic Four, Susan Storm is Johnny Storm’s sister, and Reed Richards is Susan’s husband. Grimm is the only one of the Four who is not related.

Similarly, Kirby was never an official member of the Marvel family. At Marvel, Kirby was a member of the bullpen, a quasi-family of creators. Lee is related to Martin Goodman, the publisher of Marvel, who married Lee’s aunt. No matter how much Kirby felt a part of the bullpen, he would never be part of the Marvel family that Lee was. To this day, Lee is well taken care of by Marvel (he is more than set for life, hell, I bet his pet’s puppies’ puppies are set for life!). Kirby, on the other hand, retained no rights for the characters he helped create and was not even given his original artwork until decades later.

What If #11, Published October 10, 1978, written and drawn by Jack Kirby, featured the bullpen becoming the Fantastic Four- Lee was Richards and Kirby was Grimm

The creation of the Fantastic Four is the main point of conflict between both Grimm & Richards as well as Kirby & Lee.

During the mission to space that gave the Fantastic Four their powers, Grimm was the pilot while Richards is seen as the mastermind behind the expedition. When the Marvel Age was created, Kirby was the pilot while Lee took much of the credit. Kirby and Lee created comics using the Marvel Method in which Kirby would be given Lee’s brief outlines with plot points, Kirby would draw from those, and Lee would add the script later. Kirby had a growing influence on plots, and while Lee got much of the credit, it was Kirby who steered the ship.

Throughout college, Grimm was Richard’s best friend – a handsome, promising football player and pilot. Before boarding the ship that caused the team to be bombarded with radiation, Grimm warned “You know we haven’t done enough research into the effect of cosmic rays! They might kill us all in Space”. Grimm was right. Although the mission didn’t kill the group, it did turn the attractive young man into the monstrous Thing – something neither Grimm nor Richards will ever forget. Grimm forever carries the resentment that his friend’s experiment turned him into a physical freak, while Richards carries the guilt of having caused his friend’s transformation.

Lee’s version of the Fantastic Four’s creation goes like this: Martin Goodman was playing golf with DC publisher Jack Liebowitz. Liebowitz was bragging about creating a huge hit by uniting DC’s most popular characters: Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Flash, and Green Lantern into a super group called The Justice League of America. Goodman ran back to Lee and told him to create a similar team. At the time, Lee was burnt out and on the verge of quitting Marvel. His wife told him if he was going to quit anyway, he should “just do it the way you want to, work your ideas into the comic book. What are they going to do, fire you?” The rest of the story involves Lee making the kind of heroes he always dreamed of.

Kirby tells the tale differently stating “Marvel was on its ass, literally, and when I came around, they were practically hauling out the furniture, they were beginning to move, and Stan Lee was sitting there crying. I told them to hold everything, and I pledged that I would give them the kind of books that would up their sales and keep them in business.”

Lee’s story is what is accepted as cannon.

In a 1987 interview on the New York radio station WBAI on Jack Kirby’s 70th birthday, Kirby discussed his input, stating he created the comics “panel by panel” and that he “did everything but put the words in the balloons”. No matter what Kirby did, Lee was always the media darling who received the most credit. Like Grimm, Kirby was a rougher, rockier person than Lee. Lee was Marvel’s brand ambassador, known for the hip, jive lingo he used in his Stan’s Soapbox columns and interviews. Next to Richards and Lee, Grimm and Kirby were both the Thing.

Susan Storm, the Invisible Woman, can be seen as a metaphor for the media. Just like Kirby never understood the media’s infatuation with Lee, Grimm didn’t understand Sue Storm’s love for Richards. After the failed space mission in issue #1, Grimm grumbles to Sue “How could you care for that weakling when I’m here!?” In that same issue, Richards states to Grimm “Ben, I’m sick and tired of your insults… of your complaining!” Grimm retaliates “And I’m sick of you… period!”

In recent comics, Grimm and Richards have grown closer and much of their conflict has passed. In that same 1987 interview, Stan Lee, who had not talked to Kirby for over five years, called and wished Kirby a happy birthday. He said to his distant friend “I just want to say that Jack has, I think, made a tremendous mark on American culture if not on world culture, and I think he should be incredibly proud and pleased with himself and I want to wish him all the best, him and his wife Roz and his family…. Jack, I love you.” Jack replied “Well, the same here, Stan. But, yeah, thank you very much”

Kirby and Lee co-created Thor, Hulk, The Avengers, The X-Men, Black Panther, Silver Surfer and many more. You cannot talk about one without the other. I see their relationship as an analogy for a rocky marriage, it has its ups and downs, but the couple always ends up getting back together. Their story goes like this: Kirby leaves because he feels neglected; Kirby goes to DC where he creates the Forth World and makes a character, the Funky Flashman, mocking his old partner; Kirby returns to Marvel only to leave again in a rage. Kirby then goes to work in the independents; Kirby reconciles; fights again; comes back; and on and on and on…

After a period of feuding within the press, Jack Kirby last spoke to Stan Lee at the 1993 San Diego Comic Con. Lee recalls that “Jack said something strange to me, he called me over and he said… and again, I felt Jack wasn’t full with it, you know… He said to me, ‘you have nothing to reproach yourself about, Stan.’” Jack Kirby died of heart failure on February 6th 1994.

“If only we could be like the super heroes in some of these comic magazines.”- Reed Richards, Fantastic Four #9

See you guys and gals in two weeks when we look at Kirby and Grimm’s relationship to Judaism as an analogy of Jewish assimilation in America.

Sources: Grantland

From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books by Arie Kaplan 

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story


Jay Deitcher, LMSW(@mrdeitcher) is an educator on comic history and runs successful Free Comic Book Day events yearly.  You can see a listing of his incredible articles at JayDeitcher.com.