Before Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started working together, comic books would never have been mistaken for anything you might call literary. Then came writer Lee and illustrator Kirby’s groundbreaking work, “The Fantastic Four,” in 1961.
“I was trying to take these comic book characters and treat them as if they were in a book by some famous author, by Charles Dickens, and make them real,” says Lee.
Lee — who, along with Kirby, created some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved franchises, including “Four,” “X-Men” and “Iron Man” — is just one of several comic book industry legends and admirers interviewed in “Robert Kirkman’s Secret History of the Comics,” a new six-part documentary series premiering Sunday on AMC at 11 p.m. (Future episodes air Mondays at 10 p.m.)
“The Walking Dead” creator and comic book writer Kirkman is joined by filmmaker Kevin Smith, “X-Men” actress Famke Janssen, 1970s “Wonder Woman” star Lynda Carter, rapper Method Man and others, each offering insights into the comic book world — an industry, as viewers will learn, rife with feuds, rivalries and drama.
The premiere episode focuses on the birth of Marvel Comics — and the productive if problematic partnership of Lee and Kirby in the 1950s and ’60s. The two men were a curious team — Lee, the charismatic words man and self-promoter, who famously dreamed up superhero plots while working on his tan at a standing desk in the backyard of his Hewlett Harbor home; and Kirby, the more awkward, cigar-chomping artist who preferred drawing in a cramped basement studio in East Williston that he and his family called “the dungeon.”
The two created characters the likes of which had never been seen in comic books before — Peter Parker of “Spider-Man,” say, or Bruce Banner of “The Incredible Hulk” — flawed heroes who struggled with their own personal demons as much as with dastardly villains.
Ego and financial inequity each took its toll on the relationship, but not before these two men created a “Marvel Universe” that still dominates entertainment.
“Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are the Lennon and McCartney of Marvel Comics,” filmmaker and comics lover Smith notes near the end of the first episode. “And just like the Beatles, eons from now people will still be talking about these characters and the people who created them. They’re the gods who created the gods.”