“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 that 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. I was equally intrigued by the creative talent behind these superheroes: writer Stan Lee; artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, and Don Heck; inkers Joe Sinnott and Vince Colletta; and many others.
Lee was a clever marketeer who created wonderful folklore about the writers and artists behind the comic books. His “Stan’s Soapbox” column 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.
I was thrilled when I received an envelope in the mail from Marvel Comics. Hurriedly opening it, my eye fell on a sheet of paper 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. 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 mid-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 only 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 and writer Stan Lee stopped speaking 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?