Whether you are a casual movie goer or deeply involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) fandom, you are probably aware that Marvel’s first female-led movie, Captain Marvel, is now in theatres. And with the head of Marvel Studios making comments about Captain Marvel being front and center and leading the next phase of the MCU, she is definitely a character you will want to know more about. As a member of the Carol Corps (yes, we Captain Marvel fans have our own name), I invite y’all to jump right in and learn more about Captain Marvel in this introduction to Carol Danvers, both the comic and movie character.
Who is Captain Marvel?
Several characters have taken on the name Captain Marvel throughout the years (for further reading, check out this deep dive), but today, the title belongs to Carol Danvers. As a full bird colonel in the Air Force, Carol outranks Captain America in the comics, and she frequently enjoys reminding him of this fact. Before taking on the title Captain Marvel, Carol used several different aliases, including Binary, Warbird, and her original moniker, Ms. Marvel (currently being used by Kamala Khan).
Carol Danvers is a tough, stubborn, smart, fiercely loyal, independent, Star Wars–loving hotshot pilot. Behind all her superpowers, though, is a need to prove herself and her abilities. Kelly Sue DeConnick, who wrote Captain Marvel from 2012–2013, sums up Carol perfectly in this quote from an interview with Polygon: “Carol falls down all the time, but she always gets back up—we say that about Captain America as well, but Captain America gets back up because it’s the right thing to do. Carol gets back up because ‘F**k you.’”
What is Captain Marvel’s backstory?
Carol Danvers was originally introduced in 1968 as a colleague of Walter Lawson, the human alias of a Kree spy and hero, Mar-vell. She was the Security Chief of a restricted, military base (NASA) and officer in the Air Force. Carol was involved in an explosion with a Kree weapon, but was rescued by Mar-Vell, which resulted in some fused DNA, and made her a human-Kree hybrid. Your basic superhero origin story!
Carol took on the name Ms. Marvel, and in 1977 got her own comic book, which was marketed at the time as a progressive, feminist take on superheroes. Through the years, she has joined the Avengers, worked with the X-Men, and teamed up with Alpha Flight and the Guardians of the Galaxy. As with many superheroes who have been around for over 40 years, she has gone through some changes, including (but not limited to) losing her powers, regaining her powers PLUS some, losing memories, having memories returned, time traveling, several romances, and a tweak or two to her origin story. In 2012, Carol Danvers was given a costume update (by the wonderful Jamie McKelvie) for her solo comic relaunch and officially took the Captain Marvel name.
For more information on Carol’s comic history, check out our primer, complete with comic recommendations!
What are Captain Marvel’s powers?
As a hotshot pilot, Carol has always been a badass. But now with superhuman abilities and superhero powers, she is damn near unstoppable. Let’s break it down!
Her mutated DNA gives her superhuman strength, dexterity, stamina, and reflexes. She can also manipulate molecules, no big deal.
She can create and produce energy, which she channels as energy blasts through her hands. They don’t call her Princess Sparklefists for nothing.
She still pilots a jet (or spaceship) from time to time, but Captain Marvel can achieve flight all on her own now—including going faster than the speed of sound, and into space. The helmet is purely a fashion choice, she can breathe up there just fine without it.
And of course, we save the best for last: Captain Marvel’s binary powers, allowing Carol to essentially become as powerful as a white hole, generating and controlling any form of radiation and gravity.
How powerful is Captain Marvel?
The short answer: VERY. She ranks as one of the fastest, strongest, most durable, and most intense characters in the Marvel universe. She can go toe-to-toe against iconic characters like Captain America and has no problems punching dinosaurs. According to Kevin Feige, she will be “by far” the most powerful superhero in the MCU.
Who plays Captain Marvel in the movie?
Academy Award–winning Brie Larson is the actress stepping into the role of Carol Danvers in the Captain Marvel movie.
Like other Marvel Cinematic Universe characters, Carol’s origin story will be streamlined and changed for the film, though how exactly is anyone in fandom’s best guess. We do know that the movie is set in the ’90s and features a younger, two-eyed Nick Fury, so how exactly Carol fits into the MCU timeline is going to be interesting to see. Between the pager shot of the post-credit scene in Avengers: Infinity War, the time vortex reference in Ant-Man and the Wasp, and that pesky Time Stone, I think it’s safe to speculate that some sort of time travel will be involved.
When is the Captain Marvel release date?
After years of waiting, watching for the original release date, and living through several rescheduled dates, I am so pleased to say Captain Marvel’s movie release date was last week: March 8, 2019.
Can Captain Marvel beat Thanos?
I suppose we’ll have to wait until Avengers: Endgame hits theatres on April 26, 2019 to know the answer for sure. As far as this Carol Corps fan’s thoughts on the matter, well, she’s saved the world before in the comics universe. I don’t think saving the galaxy at the last minute would be any different.
When it comes to escapism, you’re an expert. To help you discover your next out-of-this-world read, we rounded up books based off the biggest movie and television adaptations featured at 2018 San Diego Comic-Con, the annual comics-turned-everything convention where fans collide with artists, actors, authors, and more.
From the stories to read before they hit the screen to the backstories of your favorite heroes and villains, these are the books to keep you entertained and in the know.
That’s Not How It Happened in the Book…
Impress (or irritate) your friends and family with details about what Hollywood changed from each of these beloved stories.
Between a Castle Rock and a Hard Place
Unleash the horrors of Castle Rock, a fictional town where Stephen King set many of his most chilling tales, before the adaptation premieres on Hulu.
Over My Walking Dead Body
Too far gone? Return to better days of the apocalypse with the original comics and the prequel novels about notorious villain The Governor.
Just What the Doctor Who Ordered
Before the 13th Doctor steps into her T.A.R.D.I.S., travel all of space and time with these Time Lord novels, including one from iconic sci-fi legend Douglas Adams.
Female superheroes are where it’s at. Just ask Wonder Woman (but we don’t speak of the Justice League movie). I’m glad film studios are finally realizing people want to see movies starring female heroes. I’ve been waiting for this adaptation since they announced it in, what, 2014? Carol Danvers is kickass in every way you can be. Smart, strong, powerful, and hilarious – she’s a kick ass, smart ass badass. Whether she’s beating baddies from outer space or palling around with the rest of the Avengers, she’s always got a zinger up her sleeve. She is tied with Wonder Woman for my favourite superhero and I cannot wait for the movie. To help hold me—I mean you—over until the movie, here are 20 Captain Marvel quotes!
“My name is Carol Danvers. Ever since I was a little kid, I didn’t fit in. See, I always wanted to fly.” —Captain Marvel Primer Pages (2017)
“Even with my back against the wall—I don’t give up!”
—Ms. Marvel Vol 1 #17
“You don’t have to thank me. I absorbed you. We’re practically related.”
—Captain Marvel Vol 7 #8
“I don’t need a power-up to kick your ass, slimeball. I got some moves”
—Captain Marvel Vol 8 #14
“This isn’t a question of what I’m not. This is a question of who I could be.”
—Giant-Size Ms. Marvel Vol 1 #1
“I couldn’t tell them the truth…it wasn’t that we couldn’t go back…it was that I don’t know if I wanted to.”
—Mighty Captain Marvel Vol 1 #9
“Yeah, laugh it up, Mr. Potato Head. Let’s see, which tiny appendage should I rip off first?” —Ms. Marvel Vol 2 #17
“I’m sorry…sorry I’m a badass.” —Captain Marvel Vol 7 #16
“These are not the droids you’re looking for. …It was worth a shot.”
—Captain Marvel #1
“Don’t you ‘lady’ me, son. I’m an avenger.”
—Avenging Spider-Man 9
“Preeeetty sure nothing bad can happen when I’m wearing my lucky hat.”
—Captain Marvel #9
“But being the best you can be…That’s doable. That’s possible for anybody if they put their mind to it.” —Ms. Marvel Vol 2 #50
“Now if you’ll excuse me…I need to go punch a dinosaur.”
—Captain Marvel #9
“No one steals my flerken cat!”
—Captain Marvel Vol 8 #2
“Have you ever seen a little girl run so fast she falls down? There’s an instant, a fraction of a second before the world catches hold of her again…A moment when she’s outrun every doubt and fear she’s ever had about herself and she flies. In that moment, every little girl flies.”
—Captain Marvel Vol 8 #1
“Make the coffee and I might let you live.”
—Captain Marvel Book 2: Stay Fly (#7-11)
“Fear is not a choice. What you do with it is.”
—Captain Marvel #10
“Let’s rewrite some history, shall we?”
—Captain Marvel #2
“You wanna be excellent? Really excellent at what you do? Then be excellent every day, in every part of your life. That’s how the great ones do it.”
—Avengers (2018) #11
“Well…First there was nothing, then there was everything…Then the good lord saw fit to bring me into the world to kick the asses of those who need it most. So get ready ’cause this day or the next, it’s coming.”
—Avengers Vol 5 #19
And a bonus from the movie trailer:
“I’m not going to fight your war. I’m going to end it.”
Here it be: the List. Our favorite comics of the year. They may not be yours. The lovely thing about comics is that there are millions of them and there is something for everyone. We’d love to hear what yours were. In addition. Let’s celebrate the fact we all love this crazy-mixed up-free for all of a medium.
THE ADVENTURE ZONE: HERE THERE BE GERBLINS BY CAREY PIETSCH, CLINT MCELROY, GRIFFIN MCELROY, JUSTIN MCELROY, AND TRAVIS MCELROY (FIRST SECOND)
This year, I played D&D for the first—and probably last—time. As a socially anxious introvert, the game itself exhausted me. But I did enjoy the world-building and the choose your own adventure-ness of it all, and so I began reading comics built around D&D. This graphic novel based upon “The Adventure Zone,” a popular comedy podcast that follows a D&D campaign, blows them all away, mostly because of its fantastic sense of humor. I found myself literally LOL-ing on every page. And it didn’t hurt that the protagonists themselves were also gaming noobs. I eagerly await Volume 2.
AMERICAN CARNAGE BY BRYAN EDWARD HILL, LEANDRO FERNANDEZ, BEN OLIVER, AND RAFAEL ALBUQUERQUE (DC/VERTIGO)
Disgraced FBI agent Richard Wright is asked by the Bureau to infiltrate a white supremacist organization. Asked by his old mentor because he’s biracial and can pass for white. Once inside, however, Wright discovers he likes the power being part of such a group offers. Perhaps a bit too much. Hill’s brutal, honest writing is everything we need right now.
BINGO LOVE BY TEE FRANKLIN AND JENN ST-ONGE (IMAGE)
Franklin lives a couple towns over from me, so I get a kick out of the sense of familiarity I feel when I enter the world of Bingo Love. But more than that, I’m including this comic here because St-Onge’s artwork is to die for, and Franklin’s story shattered my heart into a billion tiny pieces. The story, at its most basic level: two young women meet at church bingo in 1963 and fall in love, only to be kept apart by both their families and by society. Decades later, they meet again. Dun dun DUN. This came out back in February, but Image just released a Jackpot Edition, containing a TON of bonus material.
BLACKBIRD BY SAM HUMPHRIES, JEN BARTEL, AND FIONA STAPLES (IMAGE)
Gods. Monsters. That color palette. A woman on a quest for the truth and for her sanity. When I interviewed Sam at SDCC before issue 1 dropped, he confirmed that Harry Potter meets Riverdale was an apt description and I have not been disappointed. This book is tightly written and absolutely gorgeous. I’m excited for each new issue and I can’t wait to see where it swerves next.
EXORSISTERS BY IAN BOOTHBY, GISÉLE LAGACÉ, KARI, PIA GUERRA, DAVID LAFUNTE (IMAGE)
I’m ashamed to admit Exorsisters wasn’t on my radar until I happened to notice the title on the Image advanced review list one week and decided to check it out. I’m really, reallyglad I get that email because I absolutely adore this tale of sibling exorcists, snarky demons, and secret deals with the denizens of the literal underworld and can’t recommend it highly enough. The art has that Chilling Tales of Sabrina aesthetic with a tiny bit of Emily the Strange thrown in for good measure and there’s one panel that’s currently the wallpaper on my laptop…I don’t want to ruin the hilarity but you’ll know it when you see it…
Deathcap is a mushroom battling mental illness. To this end, Deathcap engages in self-care, gets a pet, and tries to socialize. I love Deathcap so much.
INFIDEL BY PORNSAK PICHETSHOTE, AARON CAMPBELL, AND JOSE VILLARRUBIA (IMAGE)
I’ve mentioned Infidel many, many times on this site. And with good reason. I started reading as soon as the first issue dropped, back in March, and found it to be so well done I couldn’t stop. About an American Muslim woman haunted by evil entities that seem to feed off xenophobia, this comic’s social message may seem in your face, but actually contains many layers. When a full volume was released in October, I reread the entire thing, marveling at the ways in which the story came together, oohing and ahhing over the gorgeous artwork, and just generally enjoying the deliciously creepy horror of it all. Infidel is the best horror comic I’ve read, hands down.
We need light comics this year. And we need light comics that shows how we find light in the darkness, either literally or figuratively. Lucy is unpopular at school, at home, and even with most animals. Things start to look up when she auditions for a rock band in disguise, and gets a sweet puffer fish for a pet.
MAN-EATERS #3 BY CHELSEA CAIN, KATE NIEMCZYK, RACHELLE ROSENBERG, AND JOE CARAMAGNA (IMAGE)
Just three issues in, Man-Eaters is proving to be a delightfully fun commentary on the ways in which women are controlled by society. Cats and sparkles are also in abundance, which are two weaknesses of mine. I swear, every time I finish an issue, I want to plaster the walls with its pages. Except that I also don’t want to deface my copies. Maybe I need two copies of each issue? (Y/N?) The basic premise is that a mutation in toxoplasmosis somehow causes menstruating women to turn into ferocious killer wildcats. Society adapts by finding ways to prevent menstruation. By issue three, the young girls at the heart of this comic shift from powerless to powerful (and hella clever).
NANCY DREW BY KELLY THOMPSON, JENN ST-ONGE, TRIONA FARRELL, AND ARIANA MAHER (DYNAMITE ENTERTAINMENT)
This five-issue reboot of one of my favorite childhood heroines kicked off in June, and I loved every second of it. I already mentioned up above that St-Onge is one of my favorite artists, and I really dug how Thompson and St-Onge paired up to breathe new life into this gang of super-sleuths. Just pure fun, and I have my fingers crossed for a second arc. In the meantime, if you want to wait, the volume that collects all of these issues together—Nancy Drew: Cold Case—is available at the end of February.
Honestly one of the cutest and sweetest graphic novels I’ve ever read. His parents may be looking for his future bride, but all the crown prince really wants is the freedom to express himself—and if that means sometimes wearing a dress, that really shouldn’t matter should it? It certainly doesn’t to Frances, the seamstress he hires and trusts with his secret. The job turns into a friendship and the friendship maybe even turns into something more as they navigate what it means to be young and to be true to yourself. Honestly, just a feel good story with lovely illustrations that everyone should read if only to put a smile on your face.
RAINBOW BRITE #1 BY JEREMY WHITLEY, BRITTNEY WILLIAMS, VALENTINA PINTO, TAYLOR ESPOSITO, KEVIN KETNER
In this garbage fire year that has been 2018, I can’t even begin to tell you how much I needed a delightful comic about friendship that also drowned me in nostalgia and made my ‘80s-loving heart squee. Williams is one of my favorite artists and Whitley always creates comics about girls on adventures that just make my heart so happy. I can’t wait to follow along on Wisp and Willow’s adventures.
SAGA VOLUME 9 BY FIONA STAPLES AND BRIAN K VAUGHAN (IMAGE COMICS)
If you’ve been meaning to catch up with this FANTASTIC series, now’s your time. This latest collection is a gut-punch of emotions, full of heartbreak, violence, and the sweetest small moments that show what it’s like to be alive.
THE SANDMAN UNIVERSE #1 STORY BY NEIL GAIMAN, WRITTEN BY DAN WATTERS, KAT HOWARD, NALO HOPKINSON, DOMINIKE STANTON, AND SIMON SPURRIER (DC/VERTIGO)
I mention this one not because it’s the best of the comics that have emerged from Gaiman’s Sandman universe since it returned, but because it brought all of these writers and artists together. Sebastian Fiumara, Max Fiumara, Tom Fowler, Domonike Stantion, and Bilquis Evely are all featured in this stunning introduction, which featured seven variant covers. The return was exciting and anticipated, and I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the four different stories and threads that I first glimpsed in Sandman Universe #1.
—Leah Rachel von Essen
SNOTGIRL VOL 2. CALIFORNIA SCREAMING BY BRIAN O’MALLEY, ART BY LESLIE HUNG; WITH RACHAEL COHEN AND MARÉ ODOMO (IMAGE COMICS)
The story of fashion blogger Lottie Person is strange, bizarre, and occasionally even hard to follow, but the ludicrous personality of our main character, the mystery of the surrealist things that keep happening to her, the new best friend who is maybe murdering people? The bright, poppy art style combined with a plot line about influencers, gossip, and drama, kept me hooked all the way through.
With the gifting season upon us, we figured it was time for a little shopping inspo for those awesome comics nerds in our lives. I endeavored to find a solid variety of products, and it wouldn’t be too hard to branch out from here with something a little more personal if you like a style but not necessarily the property I chose. Check out a few choice gifts for comic book lovers below, and tell us what you’ll be rockin’ under that shiny gift wrap for someone special.
The comic book industry has lost another legend. On November 12th, Stan Lee, former writer, editor, and publisher of Marvel, passed away at the age of 95, after an astonishing 79 years of being professionally involved in comics.
Lee was unquestionably the most famous single individual ever associated with the medium, and tributes have poured in from around the world. But the in-industry tributes are notably more measured, more complex, and more restrained than the broader entertainment ones. This speaks not just to the difficulty comics pros and fans are having with reconciling the loss of someone whose influence and brand have permeated the field so completely, but to the fact that over the decades, Lee has become an increasingly controversial figure, one whose contributions are impossible to measure as much for their murky origins as for their extensiveness.
First, the facts: Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922 to Romanian Jewish immigrant parents, and grew up working class in New York City. In 1939, at the age of 17, he was hired as an assistant at Timely Comics, the company that would become Marvel, doing things like filling inkwells and fetching lunch. He wrote his first stories in 1941, using the pen name “Stan Lee” to hide his real name, since comics were considered unsavory at the time. That déclassé reputation and the attendant lack of competition served him in good stead when he was named interim publisher just before his 19th birthday, although the fact that he kept the company afloat during the tumultuous decade just goes to show what a boy wonder he was. He would remain editor-in-chief until 1972, when he took over as publisher.
After a (non-combative) stint in the military during World War II, Lee returned to Marvel, writing across genres from romance to science fiction. According to popular lore, he was considering leaving comics by the end of the 1950s, but DC had just kicked off the Silver Age with their reinvention of the Flash, and publisher Martin Goodman asked Lee to create a superhero team in response. Lee’s wife Joan suggested he go nuts with it, since, after all, he was going to quit.
And thus Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four, a team of flawed, humanheroes who bickered constantly. They went on to create the X-Men, the Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man; with Steve Ditko, Lee co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange; with Bill Everett, he co-created Daredevil.
At the risk of reiterating an oft-told story, the characters Lee created were shockingly different from the gleaming, square-jawed perfection of their DC counterparts, even if it is hard to look at Reed Richards from the lens of 2018 and see much difference from Barry Allen. The assortment of characters listed above were neurotic. They worried about money. They fought with their loved ones. They pined for impossible romances. Some of them, most notably the Thing, the Hulk, Spider-Man, and of course the X-Men, were shunned by society or trapped in monstrous bodies or both.
They were astonishing. They were spectacular. They were uncanny.
They changed comics.
How, you may ask, did Stan Lee manage to write every Marvel comic for years on end? Well, True Believer, therein lies both the brilliance and the problem. Lee and his artistic collaborators, like Kirby and Ditko, used an approach that’s been dubbed “the Marvel Method.” Lee and the artist in question would discuss the plot of the issue, or Lee would provide a synopsis. The artist would draw the whole dang thing, Lee would request any necessary changes, and finally, when the art was finished, Lee would fill in the dialogue. (Here are a few really fun depictions of how this worked from old school Marvel comics themselves, although please take them with the requisite grain of salt.)
Stan Lee and Steve Ditko poking fun at Lee’s reputation.
The problem was, as Marvel got bigger and Lee’s responsibilities grew, he had less and less time to collaborate. Increasingly, artists were writing the comics too, especially trusted ones like Kirby and Ditko, and Lee was just coming along and tweaking the dialogue. (Sometimes this put the art in opposition to the words, as the fascinating blog Kirby Without Words painstakingly explores.)
In other words, Lee wasn’t really writing the comics anymore, but he was still taking full credit for them—especially because the public at large didn’t (and still doesn’t) really understand how comics are made. Even when an artist is provided with a full script, as was happening at DC then and with most comics now, people unfamiliar with the process tend to assume that the writer is doing all of the creative labor, and the artist is just putting someone else’s genius on paper.
And whatever else Lee was, he was 5’11” of pure charisma, as anyone who’s seen one of his cameos in a Marvel movie knows. He was the voice and the face of Marvel Comics—of the industry, really, because there was never anyone at DC to rival him. He did the interviews. He responded directly to the fans in the letter columns. He splashed his name all over every book.
Stan Lee’s cameo in Marvel’s Iron Man
Therein lies both his tragic flaw and his greatest contribution. Because by branding Marvel Comics with, well, himself, Lee wasn’t just self-aggrandizing. He was giving it a human face. Yes, the face was his own—but that branding did for Marvel as a corporate entity what Peter Parker’s neuroses and the Hulk’s self-loathing did for Marvel as creative entity. It made it real. In an era when DC was aiming for six-year-olds who couldn’t have cared less who Mort Weisinger or Julius Schwartz were, and Disney fans were still referring to Carl Barks as “the good duck artist” because he was forbidden from signing his work, Marvel proudly proclaimed that its comics were made by real people, with quirks and flaws and goofy nicknames. (Smilin’ Stan! King Kirby! Jazzy Johnny [Romita Sr.]!) Check out those Marvel Method comics linked up above. Don’t they endear you to the creative staff, as ridiculous as they are?
Lee helped the readers see the Marvel team as real people…and made it clear that he saw the readers that way too. While DC’s letters at the time are mostly pedantic kids trying to catch DC out on continuity errors (plus ça change…), Lee struck a conversational (if hyperactive) note, and cultivated a playful us-versus-them attitude by referring to Marvel fans as “True Believers” and to DC, tongue firmly in cheek, as both “the Distinguished Competition” and “Brand Ecch.” Under Lee’s reign, comics weren’t just a piece of disposable entertainment you bought for a dime and rolled up in your back pocket. They were an identity. You weren’t just a kid who sometimes read comics (i.e. basically every kid at the time). You were a Marvel fan. You were a True Believer.
Combine that approach with Lee’s (and Kirby’s, and Ditko’s, and so on) cast of outcasts, misfits, and neurotics, and is it any wonder that comics increasingly became a place for readers who felt like they didn’t belong anywhere else? If you felt geeky or monstrous or just plain ordinary, Marvel gave you a place full of people like you, on and off the page. A place to fit in. And yes, this clubhouse for outcasts eventually fostered a community of intensely toxic gatekeeping that we’re still dealing with today (hello, Comicsgate!), but it’s also the reason that comics became an industry supported by passion above all. That’s a complicated thing, but it’s not solely a bad thing. (It’s also worth noting here, would-be gatekeepers, that Lee co-created the first black superheroes in comics with Black Panther and the Falcon, as well as the X-Men with their message of tolerance and acceptance of the Other, and frequently railed against bigotry and hatred in his letter columns. Ahem.)
An anti-racism editorial from Lee in 1968.
And here we return to The Problem, because in branding all of Marvel with his own name, Lee elided and overshadowed the massive contributions made by his cohorts. As much as he praised his collaborators—he frequently referred to Kirby as “the greatest artist of all time” and was the one who dubbed him “the King”—he also made sure that his own name always came first on the masthead. In his telling, he’d be struck with another lightning bolt idea and assign it to Kirby to draw…but to wax rhapsodic, as he frequently did, about how the Fantastic Four came to him belies the obvious fact that they look a heck of a lot like the Challengers of the Unknown, who Kirby created for DC four years prior. In fact, Kirby later claimed to have come up with the original ideas for both the Fantastic Four and the Hulk.
Credit wasn’t just a sticky issue for Kirby—Ditko left Marvel four years after co-creating Spider-Man, by which point he and Lee were no longer speaking to one another, and other contemporary artists such as Wally Wood have taken potshots at Lee for stealing credit—but it looms largest in Kirby’s legacy. This is partially because of his own massive output—he drew over a hundred pages a month for Marvel at its Silver Age peak, a volume that gives me carpal tunnel just to think about—and partially because for the past posthumous quarter century, Kirby’s own star has been on the rise. Many consider him to be, as Lee breezily called him, the greatest comic book artist of all time, an auteur who nearly single-handedly shaped the medium as we know it without ever doing anything so gauche as to say that’s what he did. It helps that the irascible combat veteran, born in poverty and plugging away without recognition for decades, makes a damn fine underdog. Comic book publishers are also notorious for fleecing creators out of the royalties they’re owed for breathing life into billion dollar properties like Superman and the X-Men—and Stan “the Man” Lee, editor and publisher to Kirby’s mere freelance staffer, was literally The Man. Kirby was the exploited genius; Lee was Marvel the Corporate Entity, turning Kirby’s bombastic metaphors for the human condition into breakfast cereal and raking in the cash.
Kirby wasn’t shy about calling Lee out, either. After he left Marvel in the ’70s, he wrote and drew the Fourth World saga for DC: four interlinked series that many consider his magnum opus. In Mister Miracle, he introduced a wheeler-dealer and impresario named Funky Flashman, a false-mustache-and-toupee-clad leech described as “the driven little man who dreams of having it all!!!—the opportunistic spoiler without character or values who preys on all things like a cannibal!!!—including you!!!” (His treatment of Lee’s protégé Roy Thomas, depicted as the sniveling servant “Houseroy,” is even more vicious.)
Funky Flashman and Houseroy in Kirby’s Mister Miracle.
Some Kirby partisans take Funky Flashman pretty much as literally as possible. It’s hard to avoid the temptation. After all, Kirby died in 1994 and Ditko spent the last three decades as a furiously objectivist recluse before dying earlier this year, while Lee popped up in movies and on red carpets and across dozens of branded projects. Someone needs to speak up for the guys who aren’t entering rooms to the tune of their own theme music. (Side note: for more on this history, please read this excellent Lee obituary by Spencer Ackerman.)
And yeah, it can be maddening to see Lee still receiving the lion’s share of the credit for Marvel’s…everything. I’ve seen him hailed for everything from creating Captain America (he was still filling Kirby’s inkwells when Steve Rogers debuted) to the 2012 marriage of Northstar and his husband Kyle (characters he did not create, decades after leaving Marvel). He’d gleefully take credit for ridiculous things, too, like creating the first gay character in comics…because a character he revamped in 1960, the Rawhide Kid, was depicted as gay in a 2003 miniseries.
And yet it was hard to get too angry about it. My reaction to Lee and his spotlight hogging was always less fist-shaking and more your grandpa lying to you about leading the invasion of Normandy. Like, “Aw, Grandpa, that’s not true at all! Here, have another Werther’s.” Heck, I had to go back and revise almost every paragraph of this article when I realized I’d referred to Kirby and Ditko by their surnames throughout, but to Lee as “Stan.” I’m just fond of the guy. I think most of us always will be.
The truth is, it’s impossible to say who “really” created those all those wonderful comics half a century ago, because comics are a truly collaborative art. There’s no separating the story from the pictures, because the pictures are the story and the story is the pictures. Add in the time that’s passed and the fact that everyone involved told a slightly different story in every interview they gave, and you’re looking at leads that went cold decades ago. Besides, if the marriage wasn’t seamless, the comics wouldn’t have been so damn good.
It’s just as impossible to say to what degree Lee took credit or had it given to him, or how much he was motivated by ego, or a shrewd understanding of what was needed for Marvel to thrive, or spite, or simple involuntary charm. Only Lee knew for sure…and honestly, maybe not even him. What matters now, I think, is not assigning credit or blame, but appreciating what all of these creators gave us—and applying the lessons learned to ensuring that creators today get their due, especially in the face of the vastly larger IP factories they work for.
I’ve heard people say that Stan Lee’s death marks the end of an era, but I don’t think that’s an accurate statement. An era is a stage of being, a period in time, a slice of the pie, and Lee wasn’t only a stage. He was there at the beginning; he was here until this month. I don’t know that comics knows how to be comics without him.
What we have as we move into this brave new post–Stan Lee world are the characters he gave us, but perhaps more importantly, the community he built. We have the belief that comics can be smart and incisive; that they can be a place to belong; that heroism lies within the overlooked and the ostracized. He gave us all that great power, and he left us with a great responsibility—and if there’s a chance to wield it more wisely than he did, well, isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
Excelsior, Stan. May your memory be a blessing, always.
Stan Lee poses with Spider-Man during the Spider-Man 40th Birthday celebration in 2002 in Universal City, California. MICHEL BOUTEFEU/GETTY IMAGES
Born as Stanley Lieber to immigrants, he was an avid reader who dreamed of literary fame. He found his way into comics. First, he filled inkwells in the years when the medium was considered a public menace.
Soon, he was writing comics. He split his first name into two in the credits (he legally changed his name in the 1970s) of his earliest works, implying that his new comics imprint, Marvel, had more writers than it really did. And those credits appeared on stories about heroes who were a little more human than the caped crusaders that dominated the comic book shop shelves. Spider-Man might save the day, but he still has to do his homework. The Fantastic Four were a formidable fighting force that couldn’t stop bickering at times. And Wolverine … well, was Wolverine.
The characters also lived in the real world, and Marvel comics sometimes addressed social issues of the time.
Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately.
It wasn’t Lee’s political stances that earned him professional ire, though. From The New York Times:
Mr. Lee was often faulted for not adequately acknowledging the contributions of his illustrators, especially Mr. Kirby. Spider-Man became Marvel’s best-known property, but Mr. Ditko, its co-creator, quit Marvel in bitterness in 1966. Mr. Kirby, who visually designed countless characters, left in 1969. Though he reunited with Mr. Lee for a Silver Surfer graphic novel in 1978, their heyday had ended.
Many comic fans believe that Mr. Kirby was wrongly deprived of royalties and original artwork in his lifetime, and for years the Kirby estate sought to acquire rights to characters that Mr. Kirby and Mr. Lee had created together. Mr. Kirby’s heirs were long rebuffed in court on the grounds that he had done “work for hire” — in other words, that he had essentially sold his art without expecting royalties.
The Marvel characters didn’t stay in the comics forever. As we all know, the screen adaptations of Spider-Man and, later, the Avengers, found gigantic audiences on screen. Marvel now generates billions of dollars in ticket sales with each new blockbuster. The comic books that were once a menace are now a goldmine. And the characters that were once for kids are now for everyone.
Stan Lee may have lived an American story, but then he ended up creating them.