During a recent radio interview, comic book legend Stan Lee was asked to address something that the mainstream media rarely asks him about: his relationship with longtime collaborator Jack Kirby.
Specifically, Lee was asked what his last interaction was, and what the last words that the late "King of Comics" said to Lee when he was alive.
"I saw him at a comic book convention," Lee says in the video you can see above. "And I walked up to him, and he said 'Stan, you have nothing to reproach yourself for,' which I thought was kind of an odd thing. I liked hearing it, but it was odd for him to say it."
In spite of being somewhat puzzled by the expression, Lee says he understood its meaning, which is that Kirby was telling him he didn't hold any personal grudge against Lee.
Lee explains, "A lot of people who were big Kirby fans always thought that I was taking the big share of the credit and Kirby wasn’t....I don’t determine how much credit people should get."
Lee and Kirby created dozens of characters together, including the lion's share of the Marvel Universe's most memorable superhero characters.
Most of those collaborations happened during the 1960s, when Lee was the Editor in Chief at Marvel and differentiated the publisher from DC and other competitors in part by branding the Marvel bullpen as a fun group of over-the-top personalities that fans would love to get to know personally -- so for years, the idea among fans was that the Lee-Kirby relationship was as close in person as it was represented in the letter columns. That was sometimes true, but it was a lot more complicated than that, according to various later accounts.
Nearly ever major character's creation story at Marvel has an official house explanation -- usually provided by Lee in the pages of some letter column or maybe an early interiew -- and then at least one alternative interpretation. Since the pair worked together so regularly, Kirby -- and, yes, his hardcore fans -- had the most disagreements with Lee on just how things happened, and at times, who deserved what credit.
To Kirby fans, the fact that his post-Stan Lee career saw him head to DC and create dozens more memorable characters, while Lee moved to the business side and rarely created anything in the years after he worked with Kirby, helps to cement the notion that Kirby was the creative genius who got screwed on credit. Most impartial observers seem to suggest there's some truth to that, but that it's an oversimplification. Because these issues were not particularly well-explored by the media during Kirby's lifetime, it's not clear there will ever be a definitive clearing of the air on some of these issues -- but according to Lee, Kirby's last words were those of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Even if Lee had no idea what he was supposed to be being forgiven for.