By Andrew A. Smith
When writing about a legend like Stan Lee, one whose career is as long as the history of comics, you have to narrow the focus to just a few of The Man’s many accomplishments. For that I turned to Legion of Superfluous Heroes and asked for what they remember most fondly about Lee’s contributions to planet Earth. Their answers, as usual, were both surprising and satisfying.
“I thought he was a cute kid.”
Joe Simon, who gave Lee his first published assignment,
a text piece for Captain America Comics #3
(Joe Simon: My Life in Comics, pp. 108-109)
Everyone knows the general legend of Stan Lee. How Stanley Martin Lieber was hired as Joe Simon’s assistant at Timely Comics by Publisher Martin Goodman, who was related in some distant fashion. How he used the pen name “Stan Lee” for comics, saving his real name for the Great American Novel he planned to write someday. (And how he later legally changed his name to Stan Lee, once it became apparent that his comics work had contributed more to popular culture than any novel ever could.)
What might be less well known is Lee’s experience during the darkest days of the 1950s, after the Comics Code of 1954 had eviscerated the industry, and Goodman compounded the problem in 1957 by dissolving the Atlas distribution company and signing on with another one – which promptly went out of business. Goodman was forced to sign with the distributor owned by arch-rival National Comics (now DC), which only allowed the publisher-formerly-known-as-Atlas eight books a month. Goodman told Lee to fire everyone, since there wasn’t even freelance work available. This shook the affable Lee, who was sickened by what he had to do.
“Those were black days for me,” Lee said in his autobiography, Excelsior: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee. “Not only had I worked closely with all of our staff writers and artists, but I considered most of them personal friends. I knew their families. We often went out together socially. And suddenly I was the one who had to give them the bad news.”
Things would quickly improve.
“Under the name Stan Lee he would become the most famous writer and editor in the history of comic books.”
(Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics, p. 41)
After darkness, the dawn. The Silver Age of Comics, which Lee himself had a big hand in creating, arrived. Prompted by the big superhero revival at DC Comics, Lee collaborated with some of his favorite artists from the 1950s (Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) to co-create the pantheon of super-heroes that were – and are – the beating heart of the company he re-named Marvel Comics in the early 1960s.
That incredible explosion of energy is probably what Lee, Kirby, and Ditko are most famous for – or infamous for, given some of the ongoing controversies about who created what – but one thing it allowed Lee to do was re-hire some of those he’d had to fire in the 1950s. Lee’s compassion impressed a number of Legionnaires.
“He rescued Gene Colan, John Romita, and John Buscema from comic-book limbo and gave each the opportunity to shine as artist and storyteller,” wrote Doc Photo of Rochester, Mich. “Around that same period … he also opened the door for an unknown artist named Jim Steranko, allowing him to pencil, ink, color, and write an entire series.”
Lee’s editorial instincts brought to prominence many other important creators, like Sal Buscema, Roy Thomas, and Barry Windsor-Smith. In fact, Lee’s editorial skills were a hot topic among Legionnaires, separate from his writing.
“With due respect to Kirby, Ditko and others, Marvel’s rise would not have happened without Stan’s supervision and his editorial skills,” wrote George Poague of Murfreesboro, Tenn. “None of the artists could have managed an entire line of comics (or dealt with Martin Goodman without losing their minds). And no writer of the ‘60s was in tune with the changing times like Stan was.”
Not that Lee had any deficiencies as a writer. When he was scribing the entire Marvel line, he developed the “Marvel method” of writing, in which the artist handled much of the story from a plotting session, then the writer added the dialogue. Some feel that as a result Marvel’s artists didn’t get enough credit as writers or co-plotters, but regardless, nobody could miss Lee’s style – chummy, enthusiastic, humanistic, romantic, even occasionally maudlin.
Rich Steeves of Bridgeport, Conn., even says the ‘Marvel Method’ may have contributed to how good the stories were, by giving the artist more room to contribute. His success “had a lot to do was his ability to keep all the artists working at the top of their game.”
But most Legionnaires enjoyed Lee’s writing for its own sake.
“For Stan at his most entertaining, read Iron Man or Daredevil, especially the issues drawn by Gene Colan,” Poague said. “I.M. was a bit more dramatic, but DD was sheer, buoyant fun. … Under Lee and Colan, DD was an offbeat mixture of soap opera, situation comedy and super-hero adventure.”
“He was also always good at natural free-flowing dialogue that made others (particularly DC writers) sound stilted,” agreed Dandy Forsdyke of London. “His speeches and captions literally ‘sing’ from the pages. No one tops him, even today.”
While Lee’s enthusiastic style was so infectious, it might not have mattered if the stories weren’t any good … but they were.
Among the most popular on my website – and fans in general – is the done-in-one from Fantastic Four #51 (Jun 66) titled “This Man, This Monster.” This story featured a scientist jealous of Reed Richards’ success, who masquerades as The Thing to kill Richards. In the course of the story, he learns what Mr. Fantastic – and the Fantastic Four – are all about, and features one of the most touching twist endings in the history of comics.
Next was “The Master Planner Saga,” from Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 (Dec 65-Feb 66). As CBG columnist Peter David famously said, that was the story where Peter Parker became a man, and was the last Spider-Man story that ever needed to be written.
Third-most-popular was “The Galactus Trilogy” from Fantastic Four #48-50 (Mar-May 66). “I read that thing until it disintegrated,” said Steeves, author of the novel Misty Johnson, Supernatural Dick: Capitol Hell. “That story had a huge impact on my young mind. I loved the character moments, like Johnny’s quest for the Nullifier and Reed’s courage as he stood up to Galactus. And I really enjoyed seeing the Surfer and his discovery of humanity, as well as Uatu’s soft spot for us Earthlings. I have read a lot of Galactus stories since then, but this one was by far the best and marked a real high-water mark for the 100-plus-issue run that Lee and Kirby had on FF.”
Other favorites included the pro-tolerance tale “Brother, Take My Hand!” from Daredevil #47 (Dec 68), the Thing-Hulk battle royale in Fantastic Four #25-26 (April-May 64), and the revelation of the Green Goblin’s identity in Amazing Spider-Man #39-40 (Aug-Sep 66). But most entertaining were the Legionnaires who were so inspired by certain Lee passages that they remember them to this day:
“One [story] that jumps to my mind is the Red Skull/Cosmic Cube storyline that ran in Tales of Suspense #79-81 [Jul-Sep 66],” wrote Doc Photo. “Stan’s dialogue really helps drive this one along. At one point, as he taunts Cap, the Skull delivers this speech: ‘So long as men take liberty for granted – so long as they laugh at brotherhood – sneer at honesty – and turn away from faith – so long will the forces of The Red Skull creep ever closer to the final victory!’ Heavy duty stuff for a Silver Age story.”
Robin Olsen of Crystal Lake, Ill., also chimed in. “One that hit the spot for me, from Journey into Mystery #111, after Odin helps Thor save the life of a dying Jane Foster following a ferocious battle with Mr. Hyde and Cobra: ‘Gently, the mighty immortal lifts the sleeping girl! Then, he slowly turns his back upon his defeated foes, and upon the house of darkness, as he walks into the shining light of morning!’ A good line is always worth repeating!”
And for all that, there was yet another aspect of Lee’s work at Marvel that remains a marvel: He made comics cool.
“Lee’s conversational narrative captions dropped all pretense of a dispassionate authorial voice in favor of a chummy camaraderie that made it feel as if he were there with you. … The comic itself became your buddy.”
(Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, p. 95)
Lee had his tongue in his cheek often during the “Marvel Age of Comics,” but he nevertheless made readers of Marvel Comics feel like they’d joined a secret club. “Marvelites” felt like the in crowd, thanks to Lee, despite there being nothing “in” about reading comics then.
“Reading Stan’s Soapbox from the mid-‘70s, just as it was slowly being phased out, gave me the sense that Stan wanted us to have a love of comics without the shame or ridicule that sometimes came along with it,” wrote Philip Portelli of College Point, N.Y. “That we were not alone; there was a Marvel Universe that we were a major part of. And that he wanted to make sure that we had the time of our lives. The feeling I got was that when Stan was in charge, he cared about his audience, appreciated his audience and never underestimated hi audience. To me, Stan Lee made you feel cool reading comics, regardless of what others thought.”
Marvel “wouldn’t have been near as much fun without Stan,” wrote Kelvin Childs of Maryland. “A lot of people have called Stan a ‘huckster,’ using it in its more pejorative sense, I think. But I think Stan was, and continues to be, an extraordinary huckster in the classic sense of a carnival barker trying to drum up business. Reading Stan’s Soapbox, or his cover copy, or some of the breathless captions and intros he used to drop into the stories … those incredible meta-before-meta-was-cool comments about Jack’s ‘far-out’ page, or brazen challenges to anyone who had the temerity to say this wasn’t the ‘Marvel Age of’ whatever-it-was at the time. Stan was a huckster, a barker, a showman and spokesman extraordinaire. His product was Marvel Comics and he was in the unique position of saying whatever the hell he had to say to get you to pick that book up off the rack, and turn around and actually deliver on whatever insane promise he’d made on the cover. The man is, quite simply a wonder.”
And yet, despite a decades-long career in comics, Lee still had a second act yet to come. He was to become the least likely movie “star” of all.
“When Lee finally got his chance to relocate permanently to Los Angeles in 1980, he was all too happy to go. He loved L.A. – the climate, the lifestyle, the culture. He was a celebrity, and these were his people.”
Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon
(Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, p. 178)
While Baby Boomers know Stan Lee as a comic-book superstar, later generations met “Stan the Man” in entirely different media. From cartoon voice-overs to movie cameos to TV appearances, Lee’s mug has become as famous to today’s pop-culture mavens as it was to comics readers of the Silver Age.
“My first exposure to ‘The Man’ was as the narrator of the Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends/Hulk cartoon block,” Steeves wrote. “And, for the record, I kinda loved Who Wants to Be a Superhero? [a reality show Lee hosted]. It was fun, and his presence helped elevate it above complete corniness.”
A number of Legionnaires cited Lee’s cameo on The Big Bang Theory as a favorite. “One thing I caught was that the judge that threw Sheldon in jail for contempt (causing him to miss the Stan Lee signing) was ‘J. Kirby,’” wrote John Dunbar of Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
Of all his media appearances, one cameo was singled out by Legionnaires as his best.
“Stan’s best movie cameo (more than a cameo, really) was in Mallrats (1995), Kevin Smith’s ode to slackerdom,” wrote Olsen. “If only he’d gotten some scenes with Jay and Silent Bob. We was robbed I tell ya – robbed!”
Other remarks included:
Jason Marconnet of Tallahassee, Fla.: “I enjoyed the ‘redneck’ Stan in Thor.”
Don Collett of Chickasha, OK: “I’m not a real fan of the Fantastic Four movie, but I loved Stan as Willie Lumpkin.”
Olsen: “Stan was the only thing I liked about the first Hulk movie.”
Poague: “I liked Stan’s cameo in one of the Spider-Man movies, where he gets to say “‘Nuff said.”
Today, Lee remains an outsized presence in the pop-culture field, with a presence on Twitter (@TheRealStanLee), as head of POW! Entertainment, as the face of L.A.’s Comikaze Expo, all those cameos and, yes, as a comic-book writer (Stan Lee’s Mighty 7, among others). But despite all the fun and games, he can still inspire. He recently had pacemaker surgery, and released a statement which included these words:
“Now hear this! Your leader hath not deserted thee! In an effort to be more like my fellow Avenger, Tony Stark, I have had an electronic pacemaker placed near my heart to insure that I’ll be able to lead thee for another 90 years.”
That prompted Legionnaire Jeff Polier of Portland, Ore., to write “That’s a brave, strong man, and I still hope I can meet him someday. Excelsior!”
To which I can only add: “‘Nuff said!”
Comics” Smith has been writing professionally about comics since 1992, and for Comics Buyer’s Guide since 2000.