Stan Lee appeared with Frank Miller at the 30th anniversary of Dark Knight Returns in 2016.
Andrew A. Smith
Tribune Content Agency
Nov. 13, 2018 -- Words of praise for the legendary Stan Lee, who died Nov. 11 at the age of 95, are pouring out from all the world this week. In some ways, the face of Marvel Comics will get too much praise – but, in other ways, he will get too little.
It all began in 1939 for the man born Stanley Martin Lieber (who legally changed his name to Stan Lee in the ‘70s). That’s when one of Lee’s relatives by marriage, Martin Goodman, decided to publish comic books.
Goodman, a publisher of an ever-changing line of (not always respectable) pulps and magazines, hired Lee at age 17 to, essentially, be a gofer for Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the superstar team that created Captain America. Lee’s first printed story, as it happens, was a text piece in Captain America Comics #3 for Goodman’s Timely Comics.
But Simon and Kirby fell out with Goodman, and moved to greener pastures. By 1941, Lee was editor of the entire comic book line. There he stayed, as Timely morphed into Atlas in the ‘50s, writing and editing virtually every genre, including Westerns, horror, teen humor, romance, war, funny animals, monsters, suspense and, yes, superheroes.
And, by the ‘60s, superheroes were becoming the hot ticket again, after a long fallow period. In 1961 Goodman asked Lee to come up with a copycat of Justice League of America, which was doing boffo business over at the competition. But according to Lee’s autobiography Excelsior, the longtime writer/editor was on the verge of quitting. He was tired of hacking out simplistic stories.
His wife Joan had another idea.
“This could be a chance for you to do it the way you’ve always wanted to,” Joan said, according to Excelsior. “You could dream up plots that have more depth and substance to them, and create characters who have interesting personalities, who speak like real people.” And he was planning to quit anyway, so what did he have to lose?
The result was Fantastic Four, in tandem with Kirby, no longer teamed with Simon and looking for work. Lee would give him plenty, as Fantastic Four was enormously successful. Soon the duo combined to launch a head-spinning number of new superhero characters and features, including Ant-Man and Wasp, the Avengers, Black Panther, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Hulk, the Inhumans, Iron Man, Silver Surfer, Thor, X-Men and a revitalized Captain America.
Simultaneously, Lee teamed with Steve Ditko on Amazing Spider-Man and Dr. Strange in Strange Tales. An all-star list of artists came aboard to give Kirby a break, including John Buscema (Silver Surfer), Gene Colan (Sub-Mariner in Tales to Astonish), Bill Everett (Daredevil) and Don Heck (Avengers).
Lee single-handedly edited and art directed the ever-expanding line, which at some point was renamed Marvel Comics. He did most of the writing, too, such as it was – he did some full scripts, but mostly Lee employed the “Marvel Method,” which amounted to giving some of the more capable artists just a plot synopsis, and handing creative giants like Kirby and Ditko little more than a springboard of one or two sentences. Lee would then dialogue the pages after they were drawn, adding subplots, romantic entanglements, characterization and so forth via word balloons.
The benefits were twofold. The Marvel Method allowed Lee to spread himself thinner while keeping a single creative “voice” for the whole line. And his talented roster of artists had more freedom to tell more dynamic stories, with whatever pacing, layouts and visual punch they chose.
The downside, though, was that some artists grew dissatisfied. Kirby, in particular, felt he was doing too much work for too little credit and not enough money. He chafed as Lee was interviewed by one news outlet after another as the creative force behind Marvel, with little mention of Kirby’s prodigious output – and no corrections after the fact.
And he had a point. While Fantastic Four was a collaborative effort, one can see a rough draft in a feature called Challengers of the Unknown that Kirby had done for another publisher in the ‘50s. The Silver Surfer sprang entirely from Kirby’s pencil, much to Lee’s surprise, when the Sentinel of the Spaceways appeared fully formed in the art for Fantastic Four #48.
As for Ditko, he and Lee had such serious disagreements that eventually they rarely spoke before the artist turned in his Spider-Man pages. Dr. Strange, Lee admitted in a correspondence, was entirely Ditko’s idea.
So, yes – Lee does get too much credit for the “Marvel Age of Comics,” that explosive decade when tiny Atlas transformed into mighty Marvel. But one shouldn’t err too far in that direction. These comics were very much a collaboration.
There’s no question that Kirby’s DNA is all over Marvel Comics. Spider-Man and Dr. Strange owe much of their uniqueness to Ditko. But it’s not a zero-sum game, and Lee’s contributions as writer, editor, art director and scripter were equally indispensable. Like with John Lennon and Paul McCartney, two contemporaneous collaborators, the sum of Lee & Ditko, Lee & Kirby or Lee & Diverse Hands was greater than the sum of its parts.
Cover to FOOM #17, with some of the characters Stan Lee co-created superimposed over his face.
Mark Evanier, a one-time Kirby assistant and longtime TV writer, put the credit controversy in perspective in his book Kirby: King of Comics. Speaking of the seminal first title in 1961, he wrote: “Among those who worked around them at the time, there was a unanimous view: that Fantastic Four was created by Stan and Jack. No further division of credit seemed appropriate.”
That was true across the publishing line. For example, while it's true that Silver Surfer and Dr. Strange were presented to Lee as fait accompli, that wasn’t the end of the creation – it was the beginning. Lee took the ball and ran. It was his dialogue, his characterization, his subplots that turned these drawings into the heroes we know. Lee and Ditko provided the plot and action, but Lee – often while quoting Shakespeare or the Bible – breathed in the soul.
And what a soul it was. The journalism of the time liked to tag what Lee was doing as creating “heroes with problems.” That’s true enough, but what he was really doing was creating heroes that, just like us, had feet of clay. Whereas the era’s Justice League featured cookie-cutter, square-jawed, flawless heroes, Lee’s characters were more accessible and relatable.
And that expanded what a “superhero book” could be, turning a genre into a medium. Lee could tell any kind of story in superhero drag – and did. Spider-Man was soap opera (with the occasional supervillain). Thor was high fantasy (with secret identity problems). Fantastic Four was about family dynamics, and family dysfunction (plus Galactus).
And it was Lee who decided to place these characters in the real world, or at least real-world adjacent. So, while DC’s characters populated generic places like Gotham and Metropolis, Marvel’s merry misfits mostly hung their capes in a recognizable New York City.
Which meant they could bump into each other. And that was perhaps the most important contribution Lee made: a coherent universe, where team-ups were the norm instead of the exception, where the various characters were constantly rubbing elbows – or coming to blows. To realize what a big deal that is, think no further than “Marvel Cinematic Universe.”
In addition to his Marvel workload, Lee was also a one-man ambassador for the comics industry in the late 1960s, giving lectures on college campuses to reform the negative image most adults had of comic books. Almost no other figure in the comic book landscape could have done it – none had Lee’s self-deprecatory wit, his flamboyant hyperbole, his infectious enthusiasm. It’s hardly surprising that this eminently quotable pitchman was, well, quoted a lot.
Which brings us to the area where Lee probably doesn’t get enough credit. And that’s how he engaged with fans.
Lee managed the letters pages, and passed on news about creators in a monthly Bullpen Bulletins page – as if all the creators worked in one room, instead of being contractors who mostly worked from home. He wrote a monthly editorial called “Stan’s Soapbox.” He invented various ranks like Real Frantic One and Titanic True Believer that fans could assign themselves in reward for accomplishments, like hooking a friend on Marvel Comics or buying more than three titles a month. He mailed out “No-Prizes” – an empty envelope – to readers who caught an error, and then provided a plausible mitigation. He helped launch two fan clubs, the Merry Marvel Marching Society and F.O.OM. (Friends of Ol’ Marvel).
All of this tomfoolery was done in Lee’s signature style of tongue-in-cheek bombast. Every interaction was closed with his catchphrase, “Excelsior!” (For the uninitiated, it’s Latin for “Ever Upward” – and New York’s state motto.)
The idea – possibly lifted from the successful EC Comics of the early 1950s – was to create a community of fans, a “secret club” that welcomed all readers. That aspect is the most critical. It wasn’t just the voice that Lee brought to all of these interactions, although that was a big part. It was Lee’s progressive spirit, his inclusiveness, that made every kid picked last for volleyball feel wanted.
And above all, Stan Lee hated bullies.
It showed in his stories, where the heroes were often victims of cruelty who rose above their circumstances. Peter Parker, for example, was rejected by his peers and tormented by Flash Thompson – but Spider-Man took no guff. Bruce Banner was constantly browbeaten by blustery Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross – but nobody put the Hulk in a corner.
And then there was The X-Men, the ultimate example of being born different. They were a metaphor for every kid who felt alienated – which, sooner or later, is every kid.
But those who responded strongest were the kids who had big glasses, or had disabilities, or were too short, or had the “wrong” skin color, or worshiped a different god, or were bad at sports, or spoke English as a second language, or were attracted to the same sex, or … well, you get the idea. The outcast. The lonely. The bullied.
Stan Lee – and the heroes he wrote – were champions for those kids.
“Let's lay it right on the line,” Lee wrote in a famous Stan’s Soapbox in 1968. “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater — one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black men, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’s down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen — people he’s never known — with equal intensity — with equal venom.
“Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another. But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race — to despise an entire nation — to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God – a God who calls us ALL — His children.
“Pax et Justitia, Stan.”
Eventually, though, the Marvel Age had to end. Ditko left Marvel in 1966, Kirby in 1970. Lee continued as editor (and writer of Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four) until 1972, when he was promoted to publisher.
Eventually he went to Hollywood and worked on bringing the Marvel characters to screens big and small – with some success, it seems. He also tried his hand at launching various media companies, although most failed. Then there were some controversy toward the end, where there were fears he was the victim of elder abuse.
None of which matters.
Stan Lee will always be remembered as the beloved face and voice of the Marvel Age of Comics. He will justly be revered as a modern mythmaker, in tandem with some incredible talents. People will always talk about his dedication to tolerance and inclusivity, which continues at Marvel, and the industry as a whole, to this day.
And he will always be loved by generations of fans to whom he gave comfort and hope.
Excelsior, Stan. Thanks for everything.
Find Captain Comics by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Captain Comics Round Table) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).