The late Stan Lee was the single most famous comic book creator in the history of the medium. That fact is not up for debate. We can argue about who was the greatest or most important, and we will, but there is simply no denying that Stan Lee’s name was the most widely-known. To the general public, Stan Lee was synonymous with Marvel Comics and the attendant Marvel Universe movies, with superheroes, with comic books themselves. If you ask passers-by to randomly name someone who created comic books, I guarantee you Stan Lee’s name would the most common answer, and by a margin as wide as The Negative Zone. ‘Nuff said.
For many, that very fame is what tarnished Lee’s legacy. But Stan Lee earned his fame. He didn’t do it alone, and others deserve a significant share of the credit, but anyone who denies that Stan Lee was an important figure in comics is, frankly, an asshole.
Stan Lee did not set out to have a career in comics. It was a paycheck, that was all. Stanley Lieber was an aspiring writer, still in his teens, when he went to work for Timely Comics in 1939; his cousin Jean was married to Timely’s owner, Martin Goodman. Lieber’s early duties were grunt work, and involved no creative endeavor. When these duties called upon him to write a text story for Captain America Comics # 3 in 1941, Lieber didn’t want to use his real name; he wanted to become a respected novelist some day, and he didn’t want to cheapen his name by association with cheap trash like comic books. Lo, there shall come a pseudonym: Lieber chose the nom du biff bang pow Stan Lee.
Stanley Lieber’s great American novel remained unwritten. Goodman put Lee in charge of this lower-tier comics line in 1941, with no real illusion of competing with powerhouse comics publishers like Dell, Eastern Color Printing, and Detective Comics (the latter firm still with us, now called DC Comics). Lee stayed on as decades passed, as Timely became Atlas Comics and eventually Marvel. In 1961, the success of DC’s superhero revivals prompted Goodman to order Stan Lee to come up with Marvel’s answer to The Justice League Of America. So Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four. The rest is history.
In the early ’60s, Stan Lee was writing most, if not quite all, of Marvel’s output, while simultaneously serving as the line’s editor. That’s a lot of work. For the sake of efficiency, the stories were created by what came to be known as the Marvel method: Lee and an artist would work out a basic plot, the artist would transform these ideas into pencilled pages, and Lee would script captions, dialogue, and–where appropriate–the occasional FOOM! or SKRRAKK! It was a true collaboration, perhaps not always (if ever) 50-50, but the end result was what mattered.
The buzz about Marvel seemed to generate almost immediately. The success of The Fantastic Four led to more Marvel superheroes, to The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, The Invincible Iron Man, The Astonishing Ant-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man, to revivals of Captain America and The Sub-Mariner, two characters that predated Lee’s debut. It lead to The Mighty Avengers and The Uncanny X-Men. The comics attracted an older audience, including college kids, and even celebrated filmmakers like Federico Fellini. This was the cheap trash that Stanley Lieber didn’t want to dignify with his real name? No, not by then. This was pop art. This was a revolution. This was The Marvel Age Of Comics.
Lee was a natural-born pitchman, and some of this buzz should be attributed to his charm and his (perhaps unconscious) marketing savvy. It wasn’t just hype–the comics were solid, and the audience embraced them–but the experience was enhanced by the rapport Lee established with readers. Lee created an illusion of camaraderie within a mythical Marvel bullpen: Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby, Sturdy Steve Ditko, Jovial Joe Sinnott, Dazzling Dick Ayers, Jazzy John Romita, Rascally Roy Thomas, Mirthful Marie Severin, Dashing Don Heck, even including secretary and receptionist Flo Steinberg and a hapless fictional staff member named Irving Forbush. They were all stars in a way comic book writers and artists never really were before. And not just stars; to Marvel readers, they were family. By the end of the ’60s, Marvel was actively and very successfully competing against its seemingly stodgy competition, and on its way to surpassing the shocked and stunned management of DC Comics as the industry’s undisputed leader.
Stan Lee received most of the credit. He deserved a lot–a lot–of that credit. But the sheer amount of credit that was accorded Lee alienated some of his collaborators, and understandably so. Lee was the editor and the bylined writer, but his creations were not solo works. Steve Ditko, the artist and co-creator of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, was the first to bristle and depart, ditching Marvel in 1966 for lower-paying work elsewhere; Ditko would never work with Lee again.
And in 1970, the very same year that The Beatles broke up, Jack Kirby left Marvel in favor of work at DC. Marvel had been the house that Stan and Jack built. It was like John Lennon joining The Rolling Stones, or Paul McCartney becoming a Beach Boy. Kirby’s frustration with Lee, his resentment of the degree to which Lee and Marvel publicity seemed to downplay Kirby’s own boundless imagination and contributions to the plots and storylines that created Marvel Comics (above and beyond the sheer brilliance of Kirby’s nonpareil artwork), led Kirby to create a DC character called Funky Flashman, a soulless, insincere snake-oil huckster inspired by Lee.
I’m sure that Stan Lee was bewildered by all of this, probably hurt, certainly puzzled. Hadn’t he always given the artists credit, when there was no pre-existing industry standard for that? He was the writer, of course, and Lee saw himself as the primary creator of all these characters. He wasn’t quite wrong, but he was most definitely not quite correct, either. There’s no Spider-Man as we know him without Ditko. There’s no Marvel Universe without Kirby. It’s not just because of their art, but in the way each helped to develop and define these characters before any of them appeared on a spinner rack. They were co-creators, and they deserve credit as co-creators.
We discuss all of this today, not to cast shade upon Stan Lee and our collective memory of him, but to acknowledge his…I guess his humanity. Stan Lee was a legend; he didn’t have feet of clay, but he was subject to the same inconsistencies and issues of pride and ego as any of us. But his were writ large, the great responsibility that comes with great power. He was indeed human.
And comics would not have been the same without him.
You disagree? You’re wrong. Like Casey Stengel managing the New York Yankees, Lee utilized the array of talent at his disposal to make things happen. Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and all of the other All-Stars of the Marvel bullpen united to build something larger than themselves, to create, to craft a universe so vast and engaging that it will continue to thrive, to thrill, and to touch the imaginations of millions and millions of people for generations yet to come. Stan was The Man. He couldn’t have done it alone, and he didn’t. But it wouldn’t have occurred at all if he weren’t there.
When the news of Stan Lee’s death broke yesterday, my daughter Meghan texted me: That one kind of hurts. Marvel Comics weren’t her thing as a kid; Meghan’s favorite comics were Archie and his assorted pals ‘n’ gals, her favorite superheroes The Powerpuff Girls. The first Guardians Of The Galaxy movie hooked her, and she became an avid fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Stan Lee’s cameos in each of those Marvel movies solidified his ongoing connection with anyone who ever loved the fantastic, the amazing, the astonishing, the incredible, the uncanny. Stan Lee’s legend is invincible, but it stings to realize that those cameos will end. I’m sure he filmed some cameos we still have yet to see in Marvel films to come, and audiences will feel the tears form when we see him again on that big screen.
I identify as a DC Comics guy. But I loved Marvel Comics too, and I still do. Reading Stan Lee’s Soapbox and those Marvel Bullpen Bulletins when I was a kid helped form the wonder-filled image in my head, the picture of what a magic world comic books could be, what a magic world they had to be. That part? That part was all Stan Lee.
Stan Lee passed away this week at the age of 95. I never met Stan Lee. But I knew him. So did you. You always will. Now, Stan Lee is reunited with his beloved wife Joan. And Stan and Jack are together again, amends are made, and the lessons they’ve learned will lead to the greatest comics Heaven has ever seen. We can only imagine. Face front, True Believers. Excelsior, Mr. Lee.
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