Sunday, April 10, 2011

Marvel Worldwide, Inc. et al v. Kirby et al - Stan Lee's FF #1 Synopsis & Jerry Bails

More information from the Marvel vs Jack Kirby's estate court case.  This is the stuff that court cases are made of, solid, irrefutable evidence. I’m sure that when Marvel’s lawyers first saw these two pages they rejoiced, absolute proof that Stan Lee did write a synopsis for Jack Kirby to follow for the first issue of the Fantastic Four. Does it get any better? Possibly not, except that the veracity of this document has been called into question with such a degree that, as believable evidence, it appears to be about as genuine as Bob Kane’s 1934 sketches of Batman.

There’s always been mixed reactions to this document. Some claim that it’s not believable at all and are stunned if anyone, even Stan Lee, believes that this was written before Jack Kirby began to draw the first issue. Those who subscribe to that theory believe that it was written well after the event, possibly after the book was produced, perhaps in the 1970s or even the 1980s, in which event it’s not likely that Stan wrote this as a guide for Kirby to follow. It’s just too perfect to be true. However there are those who do believe that Lee did sit down and write a synopsis for jack to follow. Greg Theakston is one of those. In his soon to be published biography of Jack Kirby, Theakston states that Lee, “…typed up a two page plot synopsis outlining the first adventure, and contacted his go-to guy, Jack Kirby. Jack was notified of the new project and given Lee’s synopsis. From this, Kirby refined the action and art, and returned the pages to Stan for dialogue.”

Other theories also abound. One is that Stan sat with Jack and together they worked out the idea for the book. After Jack left Stan then sat down and typed this up for his own reference, filed it away and promptly forgot about it. Another theory, and this one is a favourite with those who believe that Kirby created, wrote and edited everything at Marvel alone, is that Stan wrote this at some point in the 1980s when the copyrights came up for renewal at the request of Marvel in order to make the waters a bit more murky. After all, if Stan Lee had been holding onto it since 1961 then why did it take that long for it to come to light? Only Stan Lee would know the answer to that. Still, as a document it is fascinating indeed. When was it done? There are several theories.

What lets this document down is the lack of date and the lack of witnesses from the time period. Simply put there’s no real proof as to when and where it was written – if the synopsis had been mentioned previously to the 1990s then perhaps, just perhaps. We know that Larry Lieber wrote full scripts, because he’s said this all along, and hasn’t deviated from that line. But then there are no existing scripts by Leiber from the 1960s either – as with most documents of the time period they would be long gone, discarded as rubbish once they’d served their purpose. Sadly there’s been no similar synopsis produced by Lee for any other title of the time, imagine if another such document surfaced with the details of Spider-Man, or Iron Man – the cat would truly be amongst the pigeons then.

(Click on any image for a larger view)

The other interesting artefact on display here is a two page letter from Stan Lee to Jerry Bails, dated January 1963. In this letter Lee addresses a number of issues, from the quality of the art of Al Hartley and Steve Ditko, through to the creative process of Stan and Jack on the Fantastic Four. Strangely enough, the process that Lee described in 1963 sounds very familiar; he and Kirby would discuss the plot, Lee would send Kirby his version of the plot, Kirby draws it, Lee then dialogued the story – a true collaboration.

It’s also fascinating to read Lee talking about the forthcoming creation of Dr Strange, and mentioning that Strange is the creation of Steve Ditko. What Lee clearly appears to believe in the letter is while Dr Strange was, “…nothing great,” the character was scheduled primarily to keep Steve Ditko happy at Marvel. But then neither Stan Lee nor Steve Ditko would have known just how popular Strange would become in the Marvel Universe.


Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

This is a total side note to this very interesting thread, but is there anyone else who feels that the early Fantastic Four felt like "Challengers of the Unknown" with superpowers?

Or am I just weird?

Daniel Best said...

Steve, it's a question that's being asked a lot in this case. Lee was asked, outright, about it during his deposition ( and here's what he had to say:

Q. I'm not going to go over testimony you've given in the prior deposition, but I do have one question. To your knowledge, was anything in The Fantastic Four based on a previous work by Kirby called "Challenges of the Unknown"?
STAN LEE: No. I had never -- to this day I've never read "Challenges of the Unknown," and I really know nothing about it, except that there is or was a book of that title.


Mind you it would appear that a lot of it came from Kirby - there's similar concepts to be found in Sky Masters strip as well.

Kid said...

Ah, if only it were that simple. On the first Dr. Strange story - Stan seems to be saying that the story was Steve's idea, not necessarily the character. In fact, Dr. Strange was simply a reworking of Dr Droom, a product of Stan and Jack, but even if it was Steve's idea to do a story about a "Master of Black Magic", that doesn't preclude Stan's contribution to his origin several stories later. If Stan was a major contributor to Strange's origin (which is extremely likely given its similarity to Droom's) then he is fully entitled to credit as co-creator.

Daniel Best said...

Absolutely Strange was a reworking of Droom. I can't help but wonder if Ditko came to Lee with Strange as a concept, only to have Lee attach the Droom origin for the first story.

It's plausible. And yes, that would mean that Lee should be considered a co-creator.

Kid said...

On the matter of the FF synopsis, I seem to recall Stan saying that he had discussed the premise with Jack before writing the synopsis. I believe that Stan also often wrote a synopsis for stories he had his brother Larry write, so it doesn't really seem that unlikely in my estimation. I'm sure that I read (in Alter Ego perhaps) that a synopsis also existed - or had been seen when it did exist - of FF #8 (The Puppet Master).

Daniel Best said...

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying it's a fake. My point is that more than one person has called it's veracity into question. Larry has indeed said he worked from plots, and has said he supplied full scripts to Kirby, this has been dismissed by the Kirby's. I believe Larry.

I guess the issue that most people have with the FF#1 synopsis is that it's just too good. But then I do lean towards Lee writing that after discussing the idea with Kirby. Did he give it to Kirby? Possibly. But we may never know for sure.

Kid said...

The only similarity between the Challengers and the FF is that there are four of them who survive a crash, but there are also significant differences. First of all, the Challengers' plane crash - in which they should have died - is the prime motivation behind their subsequent adventures. They're living on borrowed time, so decide to live dangerously in the pursuit of adventure.

The FF's rocket crash, on the other hand, is merely a "MacGuffin" for explaining how they got superpowers - their survival is not what motivates their battle against evildoers. The Challengers utilise the extra time they've been given BECAUSE of their survival; the FF, had they not received superpowers, would merely have continued their lives as before. It was the result of the flight, not the crash, that motivates the FF.

Also, if Jack had come up with the FF on his own, I doubt he would have used The Human Torch, who was a character he did not create, or even Mr. Fantastic, who was merely a Plastic Man rip-off. The use of the Torch - and later Sub-Mariner - seems to be as a result of editorial direction, rather than something Jack would have come up with on his own.

It should be remembered that there is ample evidence - even amongst Jack's own supporters - that his memory was every bit as dodgy as Stan's. At least Stan admits it.

Kid said...

Meant to say, great blog by the way.