Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the Mythical Marvel Bullpen

Best wishes to Ken -- Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

“Best wishes to Ken — Stan Lee, Jack Kirby”

The website for the Jack Kirby Museum, which honors the legendary comic book artist, somehow came across a scan I made of a page with two autographs. It’s a sheet of mid-1960s Marvel Comics stationary which says, “Best wishes to Ken” followed by the signatures of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Robert Steibel posted the image on the Museum’s website with the comment, “If anyone knows the original owner of this piece I’d love to know the story behind it.”

I’m the owner of the piece. Here’s the story behind it.

As a young lad I was — like so many others — a fan of Marvel comic books: Spider-Man, Daredevil, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Thor, and the entire stable of Marvel characters. In addition to being fascinated by these superheroes, I was equally intrigued by the creative talent behind them: writer Stan Lee; artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, and Don Heck; inkers Joe Sinnott and Vince Colletta; and many others.

Lee and the team at Marvel were clever marketeers who created wonderful folklore about the writers and artists behind the comic book superheroes. The “Stan’s Soapbox” column written by Lee frequently contained anecdotes about the antics of the Marvel bullpen — the offices where the editors, writers, and artists brainstormed ideas and created the tales of my youth.

It seemed like a magical place. All those talented men and women trading ideas, playing pranks, goofing around — and creating great art at the same time.

When I was around 11, 12, or 13 years of age, I thought it would be great to get the autographs of this assemblage of talent. I sent a note to the address listed in the fine print at the bottom of the opening page of the comic books — 625 Madison Avenue — asking whether they could pass a piece of paper around the bullpen for the gang to sign.

Stan-Lee-Jack-Kirby-Autograph-Kendall-Whitehouse-300x388I was thrilled when I received an envelope in the mail from Marvel Comics. Hurriedly opening it, my eye fell on the stationary with the two signatures. I’m now somewhat embarrassed to admit that, at first blush, I was a bit disappointed.

First, I was taken aback by how Lee had truncated my name. I had always been known by my full name, Kendall, but Stan had addressed the note to Ken. My dad, Kenneth, was known as Ken; I was Kendall.

And only two signatures? Where’s the rest of the gang? Where are Steve Ditko and Don Heck? Where are Joe Sinnott and Vince Colletta?

Years later I realized that, by the 1960s, the Marvel bullpen was largely a myth. There was a time when the artists and writers worked together in Marvel’s original offices in the McGraw-Hill building on West 42nd Street and later in the Empire State building. By the time the Marvel offices had moved to Madison Avenue, the bullpen existed principally in the tales spun by Stan Lee.

By then artists typically worked at home and stopped by the office only to drop off artwork or have a brief story conference with Lee. Sometime in the mid-1960s artist Steve Ditko stopped speaking with Lee entirely. Ditko would plot and draw his Spider-Man and Dr. Strange stories on his own and drop off the artwork for Lee to add dialog and captions.

As comics historian Blake Bell writes:

The greatest myth of Marvel Comics in the 1960s: an actual bullpen, a gang of raucous comrades, whooping it up all day in the tiny offices at 625 Madison…. Such is the charm of Marvel Comics during the “Silver Age of Comics.” Stan Lee’s hyperbole made you want to believe it all.

And believe it I did. Hence my confusion and disappointment as I stared at those two lone names on the paper.

The intervening years have greatly changed my perspective. This tattered piece of paper is now a treasured asset. Yes, it only holds two signatures, but what a pair. Stan Lee, the most influential writer/editor in comic book history, and Jack Kirby, the medium’s greatest artist.

Even Lee’s truncation of my name now seems a charming reflection of his ebullient persona. Of course Lee assumed I was being overly formal in using my full name and would personalize his response by calling me Ken. It’s classic “Smilin’ Stan” — always friendly, always jovial, always promoting his comic books and the Marvel brand.

“Best wishes to Ken — Stan Lee, Jack Kirby” on 1960s Marvel stationary. What could be more perfect?

 

7 thoughts on “Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the Mythical Marvel Bullpen

  1. Jack Kirby: They were moving out the furniture.

    Drew Friedman: My dad (Bruce Jay Freidman) actually worked at Magazine Management, which was the company that owned Marvel Comics in the fifties and sixties, so he knew Stan Lee pretty well. He knew him before the superhero revival in the early sixties, when Stan Lee had one office, one secretary and that was it. The story was that Martin Goodman who ran the company was trying to phase him out because the comics weren’t selling too well.

    Dick Ayers: Things started to get really bad in 1958. One day when I went in Stan looked at me and said, “Gee whiz, my uncle goes by and he doesn’t even say hello to me.” He meant Martin Goodman. And he proceeds to tell me, “You know, it’s like a sinking ship and we’re the rats, and we’ve got to get off.” When I told Stan I was going to work for the post office, he said, “Before you do that let me send you something that you”ll ink.”

    Larry Lieber (Stan Lee’s brother): It was just an alcove, with one window, and Stan was doing all the corrections himself; he had no assistants. Later I think Flo [Steinberg, secretary] and Sol Brodsky [production manager] came in.

    Romita: There was a huge bullpen when I worked there in the 50’s. And this was even after he’d laid off a lot of people. Gene Colan, John Buscema, John Severin (who had all been on staff). They were gone by the time I got there.
    When I went back (1965) there was no bullpen at all. There were only three people there Stan, Flo, and Sol.
    When Flo was hired 1964 it had been only Stan with Sol working in the office part time as freelance production help.

    Kirby: I had to make a living. I was a married man. I had a home. I had children. I had to make a living. That is the common pursuit of every man. It just happened that my living collided with the times. Circumstances forced me to do it. They forced me. There wasn’t a sense of excitement. It was a horrible, morbid atmosphere. If you can find excitement in that kind of atmosphere it was the excitement of fear.

    Stan had a testy to icy relationship with both Kirby and Ditko (even worse with Wood).
    Romita explained why he felt the Lee/Romita Spider-Man outsold the Ditko version.

    Romita: “Ditko was plotting, and they weren’t even talking. It already had probably gotten a little bit confusing to readers for about a year.”

    Stan didn’t have a real good idea of what was going on in the work Ditko was plotting because Stan for some reason wouldn’t even speak to Ditko.

    Steve Ditko: “Stan never knew what was in my plotted stories until I took in the penciled story, the cover, my script and Sol Brodsky took the material from me and took it all into Stan’s office, so I had to leave without seeing or talking to Stan.”

    Romita: “The only thing he used to do from 1966-72 was come in and leave a note on my drawing table saying “Next month, the Rhino.” That’s all; he wouldn’t tell me anything; how to handle it.”

    Mark Evanier: “Some artists asked to work “Marvel method” found that they just couldn’t do it. Others didn’t like doing the extra work without making extra money. Joe Orlando was especially bothered by the amount of redraws he was asked to do on every job he did that way. He’d draw whatever he was given in the way of a plot and then Stan would look at the pencil art and say, “Well, you should have had the characters doing other things here…redraw these three pages.” Joe said he wouldn’t have minded the redraws if he’d been paid for them but he wasn’t. So he was basically being paid because Stan wouldn’t tell him what to draw and made him guess…and then he was penalized for having guessed wrong. Orlando said that on the Daredevil issues he did, he had to draw 25-30 pages to get 20 that Stan would accept, and the page rate wasn’t that wonderful for 20 in the first place. He finally refused to do redraws on a Giant-Man story without additional pay because, as he put it, “I drew what Stan told me to draw and then he demanded I erase half of it and draw something else.” That was his last Marvel job, and Stan wound up having Ditko do the redraws, then published it with Ditko credited as sole penciller.
    This later became an issue between Lee and Kirby on some issues where Stan decided after the story was drawn that he wanted things to go in a different direction. Kirby did not like the Marvel method, partly for creative reasons — he felt that the guy who controlled the plot should control the dialogue — and partly because he felt it led to him not receiving sufficient pay or credit for his story contributions.
    Kirby later had a similar dispute and at one point, he seems to have been promised that he would be paid for redraws…but somehow, he never was.”

    Stan describes how he created Thor in “The Origin of Marvel Comics.”
    Dig the perhaps Freudian aside about Stan’s rubber stamp.

    Stan in his own words from The Origins Of Marvel
    Comics :

    “The only one who could top the heroes we already had would
    be a Super-God, but I didn’t think the world was quite ready for that
    concept yet. So it was back to the ol’ drawing board.
    I must have gone through a dozen pencils and a thousand sheets of
    paper in the days that followed, making notes and sketches, listing
    names and titles, and jotting down every type of superpower I could
    think of. But I kept coming back to the same ludicrous idea: the
    only way to top the others would be with a Super-God.
    As far as I can remember, Norse mythology always turned me on.
    There was something about those mighty, horn helmeted Vikings and their tales of Valhalla, of Ragnarok, of the Aesir, the Fire Demons,
    and the immortal, eternal Asgard, home of the gods. If ever there
    was a rich lode of material into which Marvel might dip, it was there—and we would mine it.”

    Stan then goes into a long digression about how his brother Larry
    Lieber came to write Thor which contains this amusing quote:

    “Myself when born was christened Stanley Martin Lieber— truly an appellation
    to conjure with. It had rhythm, a vitality, a lyricism all it’s own. I still remember one of my earliest purchases being a little rubber
    stamp with my name on it, which I promptly stamped on every book and
    paper I owned— and even on some I didn’t.”

    Back to Stan’s account of his creation of Thor:

    “Historians of the future will wish to note that Larry Lieber acquiesced when asked if he’d pen a new superhero strip for the greater glory of Marveldom. Let the record show that Jack Kirby did likewise when offered the illustrating chore.”

    Jim Woodring: I met Jack in 1982, my job was to wait for Jack Kirby to come in with a big thick stack of crescent board tucked under his arm on which he had drawn anything which came into his mind in terms of characters and possible show ideas. Every Monday he would saunter in with a thick stack under his arm. All the in-house cartoonists would gather to look at them one by one, and pore over them. Jack was treated with great respect because he was an elder and a legend, but the awed admiration we all demonstrated for his work was not polite deference. His drawings were inspirational to all of us. He was like a wild spraying geyser of the substance we struggled pitifully to evoke in driblets. Even those among us who had never read super hero comics and saw Jack without his aura, so to speak, stood in awe of him. He was more than a master; he was the comic book impulse incarnate.
    We loved to draw him out in conversation because he was completely unpredictable: his mind was nimble and unfettered by convention. I never heard him tell an anecdote that was not heavily spiced with benign absurdity. As with his drawing there was something precociously fragile about his sledgehammer approach to storytelling. One sensed that a hard life had made Jack tough, but that the great child’s heart of which he was the custodian had been sheltered and saved at all costs, and that this heart was the force that drove him.
    He seemed interested in us, too. When my son was born the Kirbys gave him a magnificent rattle, which we still have.

    Steve Ditko’s letter to Comic Book Marketplace magazine published in issue #63. :

    In your Comic Book Marketplace #61, July 1998. page 45, Stan Lee talks about “…a very famous scene…” of a trapped Spider-Man lifting heavy machinery over his head. The drama of that sequence was first commented on and popularized by Gil Kane. Stan says “I just mentioned the idea…I hadn’t thought of devoting that many pages to it…” I was publicly credited as the plotter only starting with issue #26. The lifting sequence is in issue #33. The fact is we had no story or idea discussion about Spider-Man books even before issue #26 up to when I left the book. Stan never knew what was in my plotted stories until I took in the penciled story, the cover, my script and Sol Brodsky took the material from me and took it all into Stan’s office, so I had to leave without seeing or talking to Stan.
    Steve Ditko, New York

    Romita: “Ditko was plotting, and they weren’t even talking. It already had probably gotten a little bit confusing to readers for about a year. ”

    Wally Wood: “The Question was definitely giving Steve’s position on the issue of credit . . and other things. I envy him, and I can’t agree with him . . I want the credit (and the money) for
    everything I do! And I resent guys like Stan Lee more than I can say! He’s my one reason for living… I want to see that no-talent bum get his…

    Patrick Ford

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  2. Can’t really let Patrick’s comments go by without suggesting any reader needs to look at the original interviews in full…which provides a slightly different picture to the snippets he gave.

    For example, Romita’s quotes can be found in the book ‘John Romita and All that Jazz’. His description of the creation of villains (Romita working from Stan’s name) is followed by many other statements, e.g. how Stan would keep ideas he liked, or discard those he didn’t, how plotting sessions varied (sometimes went for an hour, sometimes more/less, sometimes Stan would give beginning/end, sometimes not etc). Actually, it is pretty much the process described in the plotting backups in the sixties annuals (Fantastic Four, Spiderman, first Daredevil annual). Romita’s respect for Stan’s work as a writer, plotter/co-plotter, editor etc is clearly immense.

    I also don’t think we can say that Stan and Steve Ditko hated each other, as suggested earlier. They had a dispute…this happens with people in all walks of life. They met years later to discuss the possibility of Steve drawing ‘Savage 2099’. The meeting was witnessed and the account can be found elsewhere on the net (and in a Wizard article)…Stan/Steve are described as appearing to have great respect for each other.

    It is true that Stan did let Steve take over all the plotting of Spidey, as it was easier for Stan (reduced arguments) and Steve’s plots were obviously good (and selling). But it was a more collaborative effort in the beginning. To quote Steve himself:

    “In 1961 I was working with Stan Lee (writer/editor) at Marvel Comics in producing material (stories and art)…”. “Briefly in regards to our working method, Stan provided the plot ideas. There would be a discussion to clear up anything, consider options and so forth. I would then do the panel/page breakdowns, pencil the visual story continuity and, on a separate piece of paper, provide a very rough panel dialogue, merely as a guide for Stan.”

    “Stan would provide the finished dialogue for the characters, ideas, consistency and continuity. Once lettered I would ink the pages”. (Ditko later mentions that the the working method was more involved with Amazing Fantasy 15 “because the ideas were greater”.

    It is no secret that Stan was primarily a collaborator. Look at ‘Origins of Marvel Comics’ and see how many times he uses ‘we’ at crucial points. Look thru the excellent ‘Comic Book Artist’ series and the ‘Stan Lee Universe’ Book and see all the quotes from those who worked with him. You will see sometimes he provided full plots(e.g. to Herb Trimpe on the Hulk)sometimes not. He was the writer (i.e. scripter)…but plots were either a collaboration or came from the artists themselves (a fact acknowledged by Stan many times).

    Kirby definitely created much of the early Marvel universe. But he created it with Stan…who expanded it with many other artists. Stan was the voice/editor of Marvel. Kirby’s early interviews with Stan indicate a much more collaborative approach. Sadly, Kirby grew (understandably) bitter about not sharing in the ongoing rewards/recognition for his input. As others have suggested, it was probably only after he left to work for DC that it became obvious how much Stan had contributed to his success. (As with Ditko, Kirby had taken over full plotting of his later Marvel work).

    As for Wally Wood…he had a sad life,was an alcoholic and also became very bitter (with lots of things in life…not just Stan). His full story can be found elsewhere.Stan apparently did rely on him heavily for the plotting of Daredevil (in the full account Wood notes most of the ideas came from himself). Wood didn’t like this and quit, as was his right. But it all needs to be considered in context.

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  3. It’s really, really, really simple.

    Jack was a lousy businessman, and didn’t have the courage to stand up for getting paid for the work he did.

    Oh, he was big on complaining. And he was big on gripes. And he’s got a whole lot of people now who are desperate to paint him as the victim, and Stan Lee as Satan.

    I assume they’re just upset that Stan was better at business, and still to this day proves Jack simply didn’t do what was necessary to get the full value of his work.

    Even to this day, the seeds sown by Jack’s inability to retain ownership of work he created on hire for other people? They live on.

    Jack Kirby may have been a lot of great things, but having the conviction and courage to say “no” to other people having total control over his creations was not one of them.

    I also agree Pat Ford has used some VERY selective editing. Par usual.

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  4. “Jack was a lousy businessman, and didn’t have the courage to stand up for getting paid for the work he did.”

    What a load of CRAP.

    Marvel & DC (and others) were run by people with GANGSTER mentality. Do what they say, take what they give you, or hit the road. PERIOD.

    Jack Kirby spent 3 entire years using a lawyer trying to get a contract with Marvel in the late 60s, before finally throwing up his hands and accepting an offer from Carmine Infantino at DC, who DID offer him a contract.

    A concerted effort to bad-mouth Kirby and minimize his actual contributions (creating the series, creating the characters, writing EVERY story he worked on in the whole of the 60s) in order to make it look like the “creation” was really the work of a salaried full-time employee, so it could be considered “work for hire”. It’s as SIMPLE as that.

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  5. The arguments over who did what to make Marvel comics in the 1960’s such a massive success will go on, but as a ten year old kid who became a life long lover of fantasy almost solely because of the impact of Marvel on myself during the years 1964-1970, I can truthfully say it couldn’t have happened without both Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It’s been stated many times that Stan provided the humanity and Jack provided the grandeur. Simple but true. Stan also gave readers the image, whether true or false, of a gang of creators who made readers feel as though we were involved in a way that DC comics never could. The Bullpen Bulletin page was as anticipated as the stories. The Marvel Universe, although the name came into use only later, gave us the feeling of being part of a complete world which we could immerse ourselves into every month. If Stan is given most of the credit for this feat, then deserves the accolades. However his efforts to obtain credit for the creation of the content has been a shameful exercise which tarnishes Stan’s legacy. It’s clear to any informed person that the imagination and supernatural talent of Jack Kirby was the main driver which allowed this fantasy world to be sustained over years. He created the characters, the concepts, and presented them in such a masterful and believable way, especially in the Fantastic Four and Thor, that thousands of kids like me were drawn into his world and fifty years later still honour Jack Kirby’s career and his legacy. It’s too bad he never received the acclaim during his lifetime, but the present age of communication we now live in will guarantee that Jack Kirby’s name will live on well into the future.

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  6. I have to admit that I bought into the whole Marvel bullpen mythos myself until exactly five minutes ago when I read this article. I really did buy into it, especially when the comics would often draw the bullpen. I remember reading a Thing comic where he went into the Marvel office, and it was full of cubicles and people sitting at easels, all hard at work on the next issue. It was exactly what I imagined. To know that was all an invention, and imagining Stan Lee in his little office kind of makes me sad, like finding out there was no Santa Clause. And I’m 43. I feel kind of gullible now

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    1. @Nigel:

      As I mention in the article, there was an actual bullpen — with a warren of tables where pencillers and inkers worked closely together — in the earlier days of Marvel (back in the Timely and early Atlas eras). As John Romita Sr. states in the quote supplied by Patrick Ford in a previous comment, “There was a huge bullpen when I worked there in the 50’s.”

      But by the mid-1960s when I wrote to the company asking for everyone’s autograph, the artists and writers worked mostly at home, stopping by the offices only to drop off work or for story conferences. Hence my childhood disappointment when the letter I received included only two names. In the intervening years, however, I’ve come to treasure this memento signed by both Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. As I said in the piece: What could be more perfect?

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