Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Who created Spider-Man?

Superman was created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster.

Wonder Woman was created by writer William Moulton Marston.

(Although I note that recently the Wikipedia entry on her was also crediting H. G. Peter who drew her first story. That’s a sign of the problems to come.)

Batman was created by... well the credit given in the comics is “Created by Bob Kane” (the original artist). However many have argued that contribution of writer Bill Finger was such that both should have been credited. That’s a battle I’ll leave to others to slug it out over.

The above examples should give some idea of how different comics characters were created differently, and also how contentious the precise label of “creator” can be. There is also a strong tendency amongst comics fans (and a lot of comics historians are fans) to oversimplify things into clear cut heroes and villains (okay we are often talking about an era when the comics themselves did that), to take sides in “battles” between creators who may be long dead and to try to right perceived wrongs.

And so we come to the mess when applying this question to Spider-Man.

Spidey’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 has a simple credit at the bottom saying “Stan Lee & S. Ditko”. Stan Lee, usually credited as the writer/editor, is by far the best known of the two, having been the public face of Marvel Comics for several decades now. Steve Ditko, artist and later credited as a co-plotter then plotter, is a total recluse who almost never gives interviews, not even when Jonathan Ross made a brilliant documentary about him a few years ago (now available on YouTube – Jonathan Ross in Search of Steve Ditko). Nor does he allow his photo to be taken much, hence the use of a self-portrait from the 1960s.

For a long time it has been standard to credit Lee as the sole creator, especially outside of the comics world itself. As comics historian Peter Sanderson notes in passing this is probably because in most of the wider world there is normally a single creator or primary creative force for a particular work. However in comics in later years it has become commonplace to treat the writer and artist as coequal creative forces, coming up with ideas together. This is particularly true with the “Marvel Method” whereby many stories are created by a writer coming up with a rough outline of the plot, giving it to an artist to draw and then adding dialogue afterwards. Sometimes the plot and dialogue are done by separate writers, sometimes the writer and artist develop the outline together, sometimes the artist comes up with the plot all by themselves. All of these methods have been used on Spider-Man stories over the years.

To a very great extent this whole question of who created what hinges very heavily on the precise definition of “created”. It is not uncommon for talented people to have a meeting and each come away thinking they’ve come up with at least the primary components of an idea. It’s also the case that precise records are often not kept of who suggested what – after all in 1962 who knew that a cultural icon was being created? And the whole issue about creators’ rights in the comics industry didn’t really kick off until the 1970s. And just to compound things Stan Lee claims to have a notoriously bad memory, and has also said (part jokingly) he’ll take any credit that isn’t nailed down, whilst Steve Ditko’s lack of interviews means that it’s hard to evaluate his claim in depth. For what it’s worth Lee has said that he believes the creator is him as the person who came up with the initial idea, whereas the argument for Ditko as co-creator is that the initial idea on its own is not enough and it took the artist to flesh out the concept into what became successful even though he wasn’t the first artist given the assignment.

And those aren’t the only two names in this.

The original artist assigned to the strip was Jack Kirby, who had co-created Captain America back in 1941 and more recently had collaborated with Lee on the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Thor and other strips. Kirby reportedly told Lee of an aborted proposal for a character called “Spiderman” by Joe Simon (the other co-creator of Captain America) who would have been a boy living with an old couple who got powers from a magic ring.

It’s all rather complicated! It’s probably fairest to say that Lee came up with the initial idea, inspired by either the 1930s pulp character the Spider and/or seeing a spider climb a wall (the story varies in interviews, perhaps also because many audiences will not remember the Spider), and then discussed picked up ideas from discussions with Kirby who drew some pages but they weren’t what Stan was looking for (although Kirby subsequently drew the famous cover after Steve Ditko’s take on the same concepts – reproduced on the right – was rejected). Then Lee finally gave the assignment to Ditko who brought the concept to life. The input from Simon and Kirby was sufficiently minimal that they don’t really rate on the same level as Lee and Ditko.

Perhaps to side-step the whole issue the Spider-Man movies have carried the credit “Based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.” Note the precise wording focuses on the finished comic and does not make a definite statement about the creation of the character. (For what it’s the same wording is used on the Fantastic Four and Incredible Hulk movies in regards Lee & Kirby. I presume other Marvel movies have similar – I haven’t checked them all.)

However the 2008 animated series The Spectacular Spider-Man goes for "Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko". So has Marvel's position on this matter shifted, or did they fail to send a memo or did the series producers have carte blanche on this matter?

Has Stan Lee unfairly stolen Steve Ditko’s credit? No, I think Lee and Ditko are both right by their respective definitions of what constitutes “creating” Spider-Man and it’s certainly not Lee’s fault that Ditko has not taken the opportunity to tell his version of the story more widely.

But does it precisely matter? At the end of the day the Spider-Man strip and character was successful because of both the writing and the art, and it’s silly to get too wound up over how to precisely word a creator credit.

Besides there’s never been a creator credit on Spider-Man anyway (unlike Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman.)

1 comment:

  1. It's worth noting that, if indeed Jack did tell Stan about 'Spiderman' (no hyphen), according to Joe Simon, Jack didn't tell Stan that the idea was originally the brainchild of Joe and Jack Oleck.

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