Stan Lee’s legacy has changed the face of pop culture forever. Almost 60 years since he put pen to paper on Marvel’s first comic, Fantastic Four #1, his many superhero creations are more famous and celebrated than ever before.
But Lee didn’t do it alone. Part of his genius was in identifying talent, which led to him working with some of the 20th century’s (other) most celebrated artists and creators, with whom he dreamed up Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men and many, many more.
With the posthumous release of Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick of Light – on which he teamed up with Kat Rosenfield, Luke Lieberman and Ryan Silbert to create a modern update on the superhero myth for Audible – we’ll take a look back at those earlier collaborations that quite literally changed the world.
If any one name is most closely linked to Lee’s, that name is undeniably Jack Kirby. Together, the pair were one of the most powerful and prolific creative forces in comics history. Lee’s fellow New York City native Kirby had already found fame as the creator (with Joe Simon) of Captain America in 1940. Initially, his work with Lee was mainly in pulpy science fiction stories about invading aliens, monsters and mutants (including the giant, sentient tree Groot, created with the help of Lee’s brother, Larry Lieber), but 21 years after the birth of Captain America they teamed on Fantastic Four as part of a new venture called ‘Marvel Comics’.
The story of the dysfunctional superhero family was a runaway success, and Lee and Kirby quickly followed it up by creating a raft of what were destined to become legendary characters. That very long list includes the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and the rest of the founding Avengers, as well as Black Panther, the X-Men, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Inhumans, the Skrulls, Scarlet Witch and many more. Practically every issue of their early Marvel comics introduces new heroes, villains and concepts that still feature in new comics, film and TV stories today.
While Kirby had his differences with Lee and Marvel – leaving the company for rivals DC in the early ’70s before returning later in the decade to launch his SF saga The Eternals – the impact of their collaborations was huge, and today Lee and Kirby’s names are frequently seen side-by-side in the credits of many a record-smashing Hollywood blockbuster.
If any creator can hope to rival the Lee-Kirby collaboration, it is Steve Ditko. The famously reclusive creator of DC’s the Question, the Creeper, and Hawk and Dove might not have had as prolific a partnership with Lee, but theirs had the distinction of creating the world’s most famous – and probably most beloved – superhero, Spider-Man.
Dikto and Lee’s other creation – and one very different from Peter Parker – was the Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange. The adventures of the somewhat sinister and definitely strange hero were influenced by the mid-century interest in ESP and occultism, and thanks to Ditko’s psychedelic imagery, they became a favourite of the ’60s counterculture. Ditko left Marvel abruptly in 1966, but, although he consistently refused interviews and publicity thereafter, continued to work in comics, including stints at his old publisher, for the following decades. One of his final Marvel creations was the beloved comedy character Squirrel Girl, famed for defeating Thanos and Doctor Doom single-handedly.
John Romita Sr
With the departure of Dikto, John Romita stepped in to take up artistic duties on Amazing Spider-Man. While Romita and Lee didn’t create as many original characters together as in some other partnerships, they did oversee Spider-Man overtaking the Fantastic Four as Marvel’s bestseller. Romita also designed the distinctive look of Spider-Man’s future wife Mary Jane Watson, who had first been mentioned as a joke in Amazing Spider-Man #15 – a potential blind date for the unwilling Peter Parker – but didn’t properly show up on the page until issue #42.
Romita was involved in the creation of the villains Kingpin and Rhino, as well as – in projects not involving Lee – Wolverine, the Punisher, Luke Cage and the Hobgoblin. He worked on Amazing Spider-Man on-and-off for several years, and went on for a long stint as Marvel’s art director. His son, the artist John Romita Jr, followed in his dad’s footsteps, working extensively at Marvel – particularly on the Spider-Man comics.
Not all of Lee’s collaborations were entirely clear cut. For instance, while he worked on Iron Man with Kirby, Larry Lieber and artist Don Heck were part of that mix too, and collaborated with Lee on Tony Stark’s first story in Tales of Suspense #39. Shortly after that, Heck replaced Kirby as artist on Avengers from the ninth issue, working alongside Lee on the comic for the next handful of years.
Heck seems to have had a bit of a line in villains turned heroes. Together with Lee, he created Hawkeye and Black Widow, who started out as Iron Man antagonists before eventually moving on to Avengers membership and, eventually, film stardom. Heck went to work for DC in the ’70s, but returned to Marvel several times until his death in 1995.
Writer-artist Bill Everett’s collaboration with Lee is another that predated the creation of Marvel Comics. Everett was the sole creator of Namor the Sub-Mariner – an anti-hero and sometime-villain who was later be incorporated into the Marvel Universe – in 1939 and worked with Lee on a very un-Marvel project in 1953. This one-shot horror story starred Simon William Garth, aka the Zombie, which did pretty much what it says on the label (the character even joined Marvel when he was revived in the ’70s for the Tales of the Zombie series).
In 1964, Everett and Lee came together again to create Daredevil, the blind, billy club-wielding defender of Hell’s Kitchen. Unfortunately, Everett couldn’t balance the work with his day job, and was replaced by artist Joe Orlando from the second issue. He was later able to return to Marvel, reuniting with Lee to tell more stories of Namor in Tales to Astonish.
Isn’t it nice to see siblings getting along? We’ve already mentioned Lee’s brother Larry Lieber, who was nine years his junior. Lee was good at keeping things in the family – he began working in comics for his cousin Jean’s husband, Martin Goodman – and as things began to hot up for Marvel in the ’60s, he turned to Lieber for help. Lieber served as co-writer on the origin comics for Thor, Iron Man and Ant-Man. He continued working at Marvel – including a nine year run on the western series Rawhide Kid – working at Atlas/Seaboard Comics before returning to his original publisher.
In 1978, he began collaborating with his brother on the Incredible Hulk newspaper strip, drawing the adventures of Bruce Banner and his big green alter ego. In the ’80s, he moved on to the Amazing Spider-Man strip, once again working with Lee. Lieber stuck with the daily comic for an incredible three decades, finally retiring in 2018.
Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick of Light is available on Audible now.