It’s one of the big, fundamental questions that lies at the heart of the origin-myth of perhaps Marvel Comics’ most popular single character, and its one that has been discussed and debated at length by those with some degree of insider information: how much did Jack Kirby have to do with the development of Spider-Man, and how much of the final product was based on his ideas.
As is typical in these instances, I think the actual answer amounts to: Jack was definitely involved, and Spider-Man would not have existed without his involvement. But I also think the version of the character that was published owed relatively little to his conception and what he put forward–even though it was ultimately derived from those ideas.
A lot of this history has been covered elsewhere in a variety of places. I’m going to attempt to put everything that I know together here in one place. As I’m certain that there are details and nuances that I’m either forgetting about, misremembering or simply wasn’t aware of, I welcome any and all corrections and alternative viewpoints. But this is what I’ve managed to piece together over the years.
The saga of Spider-Man actually begins almost a decade before Peter Parker would make his eventual debut in AMAZING FANTASY #15. In 1953, the studio of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby was providing work to a number of different comic book publishers, but one of their main accounts was Harvey Comics, published by Simon’s friend Al Harvey. 1953 is noteworthy in that it is the year that Fawcett Publications decided to pull the plug on their own comic book line, facing continuing legal challenges from DC/National Comics in the form of an ongoing lawsuit claiming that their Captain Marvel was an obvious infringement on Superman. With the marketplace becoming more difficult and the outcry over the content of comic books on the rise, Fawcett chose to leave the field–and this left the talent pool who had made Captain Marvel an enormous success looking for work.
Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had worked on the first issue of CAPTAIN MARVEL ADVENTURES back in 1940 and liked the character. They also liked the work of C.C. Beck, the artist most closely associated with the character. Accordingly, Simon got in touch with Beck and suggested that they work up a new series that Beck could work on through the S & K Studio. Jack Oleck was also involved in these conversations and he would wind up writing the eventual script and story springboards, regardless of which man came up with what ideas along the way. The character that they devised was called the Silver Spider.
Beck’s sample pages for the Silver Spider proposal still survive, and have been reproduced above. From what we can see here, the series is very reminiscent of Captain Marvel, with a young orphan boy, Tommy Troy, finding an old ring with a spider’s crest on it that contains a strange genie. The genie endows Tommy with the ability to transform himself into the Silver Spider when he rubs the ring. The Silver Spider himself isn’t especially spidery, though–he seems like just a typical big, strong guy in the Captain Marvel mold, without any of the attributes we’d associate with Spider-Man particularly.
In any event, Simon pitched the concept to Harvey, and a young editor named Sid Jacobson wrote a blistering critique of what he had been shown, over the course of two memos to his bosses. His overall criticism was that there wasn’t anything about the Silver Spider that was new or different, that the strip was “strictly old hat” and wouldn’t work. Jacobson went on to suggest that the character’s spider-motif should be played up further:
Physical appearance- The Silver Spider should be thought of as a human spider. All conclusions on his appearance should stem from the attributes of the spider. My first thought of the appearance of a human spider is a tall thin wiry person with long legs and arms. He should have a long bony face, being more sinister then handsome. The face of the Submariner comes to mind.
Powers: The powers of the human spider should pretty much correspond to the power of a spider. He therefore wouldn’t have the power of flight (author’s note: something hinted at in Simon’s proposal) but could accomplish great acrobatical tricks, an almost flight, by use of silken ropes that would enable him to swing ala Tarzan, or a Batman. The silken threads that the spider would use might come from a special liquid, from some part of his costume that would become silken threads in much the same way as the spider insect. These threads would also be used in making of a web, which could also be used as a net. The human spider might also have a “poison” to be used as a paralyzing agent.
The Silver Spider didn’t sell, and C.C. Beck went into retirement from the comic book industry.
At some point, as they were continuing to develop series both for other publishers and for their own efforts in their self-owned publishing venture Mainline, Simon and Kirby considered trying to make something out of the Silver Spider material. Accounts differ depending on whether you were speaking to Simon or Kirby, but one or the other of them suggested retooling the idea as a series called SPIDERMAN. Regardless of which man came up with the new moniker, Joe Simon went ahead and worked it up into a prototype logo. But nothing further happened with the project and so the logo and everything else wound up in the S & K files.
During this same time, Simon and Kirby also were developing a series called NIGHT FIGHTER that also never came to fruition. This is noteworthy in that Night Fighter was intended to be a scientific adventurer who used a number of high-tech gadgets to carry out his adventures–one of the most basic of which would be magnetic boots which would allow him to walk up the sides of buildings–like a spider. It’s impossible to say whether there was any point in which these two concepts converged, even tangentially, but we know that Simon and Kirby were working up both during the same period.
But the 1950s were a rough time for would-be comic book publishers, and Simon and Kirby experienced a downturn in their fortunes which wound up severing their partnership. The specific details of the falling out have never been completely disclosed, but the end result was that Joe Simon largely left the field of comic books behind, while Jack Kirby was left to make the rounds on his own to other publishers, looking for work. Their combined assets were divided up among the two men, with Kirby apparently getting title to CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, another series the pair had innovated that never quite made it pas the planning stage (and which Kirby would wind up selling to DC/National) as well as the SPIDERMAN logo. Simon, however, kept the Silver Spider presentation pages and notes.
A few years later, in 1958, Joe Simon had the opportunity to develop a pair of super hero comic books for Archie Comics. Super heroes seemed like they were poised for a comeback based on a few things that were starting to gain traction in the marketplace, and Simon was able to capitalize on that. He called in Jack Kirby to work alongside him on these two series, though there were also other hands involved as well in the manner of the S & K Studio, especially when it came to stories and issues after the first. One of the two books the pair produced was THE DOUBLE LIFE OF PRIVATE STRONG, which was an extensive reworking and updating of the 1940s MLJ/Archie super hero character The Shield. DC/National, though, thought the character veered too close to Superman and threatened legal action if the series continued beyond two published issues, and so private Strong mustered out.
The other book they produced, however, was the Silver Spider. Except that, in the years that had come since, the monster movie THE FLY had been a runaway hit at the box office. Wanting to disguise the provenance of the character, knowing that John Goldwater would blow his top if he found out that Simon was peddling Harvey Comics rejects to him, he and Kirby reworked the original story–turning the genie into the otherdimensional fly alien Turan, and Tommy Troy’s costumed alter ego into The Fly.
The story was the same, but the script was different. Additionally, the Fly incorporated a number of insect-based gimmicks into his arsenal, including the ability to walk up walls, the power of flight, a sting-like “buzz gun” and the ability to see in all directions at once. He was also vulnerable to direct bright light, which made him lose his equilibrium. But like Captain Marvel, he was still a kid who transformed into an adult super hero. Simon and Kirby instead made a spider the Fly’s first major villain, Spider Spry
Kirby only worked on the first two issues of THE FLY before moving elsewhere, and Joe Simon himself only lasted four before being ousted by Archie. Once he had departed, the new creative team aged up Tommy Troy, making him an adult litigator and eventually bringing in a female Fly Girl to be his partner. Nevertheless, THE FLY lasted for a good portion of the 1960s, transitioning into FLY MAN towards the end in an ill-considered attempt to draft off the popularity of Spider-Man.
Kirby, meanwhile, migrated to Martin Goodman’s Atlas Comics–“washed up there”, as one account put it, without anywhere better to go. Kirby knew that Goodman had cheated Simon and he out of Captain America royalties back in the early 1940s, but that that moment he needed the work. And he was anxious to do super heroes. According to Kirby, he campaigned to start doing some regular super hero series for months before Goodman heard from one of his contacts at his distributor that DC’s JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA was selling enormously well on a percentage basis, and this led him to instruct his editor Stan Lee to begin trying some new super hero titles, the first of which was FANTASTIC FOUR.
At some point early on, either after FANTASTIC FOUR had proven to be an immediate hit or even before, Kirby continued to pepper Lee with ideas, and many of these grew out of the material he had developed with Joe Simon but had never reached fruition. It’s impossible to say for certain which man hit on the notion of doing a series called SPIDERMAN, but it seems more likely that Kirby was the one who pitched the idea to Lee. He described it the way Joe Simon and Jack Oleck had conceived it: a young man who gets super powers and becomes a super hero. Again, it’s difficult to know what was going through everybody’s mind at any given point, but at least according to Lee’s accounts (which always need to be taken with a grain of salt given his tendency to mythologize events) his take-away was that Spiderman was still going to be a young scrawny-seeming guy even after his transformation.
Regardless, the strip was slated to run in AMAZING ADULT FANTASY and the decision was made to have Steve Ditko ink the strip. And that’s where the trouble first started, it seems–because when he received the first batch of pages for the job (representing five penciled pages, apparently–no idea whether they had been scripted and lettered, though if they had been given to Ditko to ink then they almost certainly would have been) Ditko recognized how close to THE FLY this new series was veering.
Kirby’s SPIDERMAN pages have never surfaced in all the years since then. Will Murray did find a quote in an obscure interview with Ditko that implies that Ditko threw them out once he was done with them, which is entirely possible. But Ditko did give his recollections as to what Kirby’s SPIDERMAN was like in the article posted above. He described the hero only being seen on the opening splash page, the other four pages that had been drawn were all set-up to the adventure. Kirby’s Spiderman was one of his typical powerful fighting heroes in the Captain America mold. He wore a cowl and carried a holstered “web-gun”. In the opening pages, we meet the young hero, who is an orphaned teen living with his Aunt and Uncle. Ditko describes the Aunt as being maternal and kindly, whereas the Uncle, a retired police captain, is gruff in the manner of Thunderbolt Ross and gives the kid grief. Elsewhere in the city, a scientist is beginning to work on an experiment, and in the final panels drawn, the kid is heading to the scientist’s lab, where he will eventually be turned into Spiderman.
Kirby had also apparently produced at least one and more likely a number of presentation boards that detailed his ideas for the character. These too have not been seen publicly–but one person who does remember having seen and held one in 1969 is former Marvel EIC Jim Shooter. On his blog, Shooter described the contents this way:
Kirby Spider-Man pages: I saw, and held in my hand, exactly one such page. It was a page of design drawings. I remember that his version of Spider-Man had a “Web-Gun” and wore trunks, I think, like Captain America’s. He was far bigger and bulkier than Ditko’s version. There were no similarities to Ditko’s Spider-Man costume. I think he had boots with flaps. There were notes in he margin that described the character, again, nothing like the Ditko version. I think there was something about him being related to, or having some connection with a police official, which was how he’d find out about trouble going on. It was a long time ago, I can’t swear to that last item, but I can swear to the fact that it wasn’t similar to the Ditko version. I remember thinking, “This isn’t at all like Ditko’s.” http://jimshooter.com/2011/03/my-short-lived-inking-career.html/
In fact, what both Shooter and Ditko’s description of Kirby’s Spiderman design sounds the most like is the eventual design for Ant-man once it was decided to launch that character as a super hero series. In particular, this very first image of Ant-Man, before Kirby simplified the details of his uniform over time. If you take away the helmet and replace it with the Night Fighter’s cowl, I think you’d wind up with a fair approximation of Kirby’s Spiderman.
At this point, either at the behest of Stan Lee or Martin Goodman or both, Jack Kirby exited the project and Spiderman (soon to be Spider-Man) was handed over fully to Steve Ditko. Lee and Ditko focused on excising any elements that were reminiscent of the Fly–they threw out the idea of the magic ring causing the transformation, and they went ahead with Lee’s notion to keep Spider-Man scrawny in his costumed identity as well as in his civilian form. Very late in the game (late enough that it’s only used infrequently in the earliest stories) a dash was added to the name Spider-Man
Ditko also designed an entirely new costume for Spider-Man, possibly with some input from his studiomate Eric Stanton. There’s one other wrinkle that I feel the need to mention here–and that’s the Ben Cooper Spider Man Halloween costume. In the 1950s, beginning in 1954, Ben Cooper offered this costume as one of its yearly releases, and it has some definite similarities to the costume Ditko eventually settled on. That said, I tend to believe that this was a coincidence, parallel development and nothing more. There are only so many avenues to go down when creating a character called Spider-Man, and employing a web motif is one of the most obvious ones. So you never know what may have been an influence, but I don’t think there was any deliberate correlation between Ditko’s Spider-Man design and this earlier costume. The one thing it did do was to open the door to Ben Cooper acquiring a very early license to produce Amazing Spider-Man Halloween Costumes, possibly the first such license of Marvel hero merchandise.
So with all of that said, how much of Jack Kirby exists in Spider-Man? It’s undeniable that he was an important link in the chain of causality that led to the creation of the character. And it’s entirely possible that story ideas that he had suggested in his pitch presentation boards were used in some of the earliest Spider-Man stories, as has been conjectured by knowledgeable comic book scholars. By that same token, there’s also a bit of Joe Simon and Jack Oleck and Sid Jacobson and C.C. Beck in there as well. And truly, the factors that made Spider-Man the success it became were primarily the work of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Success has many fathers; failure is an orphan. And nobody cared about the Silver Spider until Spider-Man became such an enormous hit. That said, there is also plenty of credit to go around, and so I think we need to view each of these gentlemen as being in some small part in the journey to the creation of Spider-Man.