Stan Lee, who became a towering figure in pop culture over an extraordinary eight decades in comics, died this week at the age of 95. Though his long life and career saw many phases, it was his work with Marvel comics that made him a legend.
But Stan’s stint with Marvel didn’t begin in the pop art era of the early ’60s for which he’s most famous. Family connections got him a job as an assistant at what was then Timely Comics under Captain America creator Joe Simon in 1939. The 17-year-old filled inkwells and picked up lunches until earning his first byline in Captain America #3, for a piece called “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge.” In that era, “literature” magazines generally got cheaper postal rates than did comics, so publishers made sure there were at least a couple of pages of straight text in every issue—typically forgettable bits of character backstory. This early work by Stan doesn’t stand out, except that it includes the first-ever instance of Captain America throwing his (mighty) shield—and, of course, for the career it presaged.
Stan began writing comics features and back-ups shortly thereafter. Turmoil at the company saw him landing a temporary editor job that never really went away, even during the three years of military service during World War II. Timely Comics became Atlas before evolving into Marvel in 1961. That same year saw Stan and artist Jack Kirby create the pop culture revolution that we still haven’t seen the end of.
Though inexplicably never having achieved quite the superstar status as some of their other creations, the debut of Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four made Marvel, and broadened the potential of the superhero genre immeasurably. The lead characters had no interest in secret identities, but lead their lives as celebrity adventurers while frequently feeling like freaks. They dealt with petty grudges and had problems paying the bills, none of which stopped them from facing down increasingly bizarre science fiction threats, from shape-shifting aliens to a planet-eating god and his surfboard-riding herald. That contrast—between the gritty and the cosmic—makes the long Lee/Kirby run on FF a high-water mark in superhero comics. The alchemy of that unlikely collaboration has never been matched—Kirby’s stunning art and wild ideas paired with Lee’s storytelling sense, and a flawless ability to deflate self-seriousness with a well-timed, if groan-worthy, joke.
Debate has raged for decades now about how much to credit Lee over his collaborators: giants like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and John Romita, all artists with unparalleled creative minds. But I’ve never seen it as a competition, even if these men sometimes did. Marvel’s method at the time—in which Stan might provide a plot outline that Kirby would develop and expand upon before Stan added dialogue and a final polish—meant a top artist might have a profound impact on the story and overall direction of a book. Stan’s fingerprints, nonetheless, were on every issue of every title released during that era.
And the tone—that blend of cool and self-consciously corny that had a grown man ending every piece of writing with “Excelsior!”—was pure Stan. His character was something akin to your coolest uncle. He was dorky and he knew it, and it came across as something like irony, before irony was a given. Stan also engaged with fans and readers as no comic creator had ever even considered—each book started with a splash page listing the names of all of the creators, ended with a letters page, and eventually included a “Bullpen Bulletin” in which readers would get updates on the lives of Marvel staff. There was soon an official fan club offering all sorts of tie-ins, even the tackiest of which worked just fine with the so-uncool-it’s-cool style that defined Stan’s public persona. Perhaps because of the soap opera elements that make the comics so compelling, it’s tempting to set creators against each other or reduce Stan’s role to that of pitchman, but that’s not fair to any of them. There was genius to spare in Marvel’s bullpen.
Lee’s is a remarkably diverse legacy. It’s impossible not to mention Spider-Man, in whom Stan and Steve Ditko (with help from Kirby and, later, John Romita) created a teen hero at a time when the youth culture in America was in the ascendant, but the dominant mode among that other company’s heroes was “Super-Dad.” With The Avengers, Lee and Kirby (and later Don Heck) built a team book that lost some of the cosmic grandeur and weirdness of the FF but amped the soap opera elements to 11. X-Men, even with an all-white cast, made a compelling case for diversity. The Hulk managed to be a hero despite his incredibly poor impulse control.
The list goes on and on, and includes another Lee and Kirby creation: Black Panther, the first major black superhero in mainstream comics. Lead by Stan, the mostly-Jewish lead creators at Marvel didn’t hesitate to sneak messages of religious and racial tolerance into their books, and the character of the heroic African monarch from a scientifically advanced society remains resonant, perhaps more than ever. Just last year, the movie was doing huge business while a 1968 “Stan’s Soapbox” column on hate and prejudice went viral after RZA cited it at a tribute event.
The energy in those ’60s Marvel books is undeniable. It was boundless. Addictive. And you still get the same charge reading those issues today. They’re all exploding with art and ideas, with knowing asides and fourth-wall breaking moments that invite you in, even decades later. The hip tone wouldn’t work without the sense that everyone is having a tremendous amount of fun—even if we can guess that they weren’t always.
Though Stan’s relationship with the company in later years was complicated and sometimes contentious, his remains the human face of Marvel in the hearts and minds of fans—even those who’ve never picked up a comic. His later projects never quite matched the critical and artistic success of his ’60s collaborations, but he retained an enviable amount of energy well into his 90s—doing new work in comics, visiting conventions, creating a charitable foundation, putting out a comic autobiography and, of course, making appearances in pretty much every single Marvel-related movie and TV show. (Of which there are, of course, very, very, very many.) He ranks as Hollywood’s top-grossing executive producer simply for having his name on so many of the biggest movies of all time. Almost 80 years after he first walked in the door of what became Marvel Comics, Stan saw his co-creations conquer the entertainment world. Only in the last year or two, and following the death of Joan, his wife of seven decades, did he really slow down.
Impossibly, these are just bits of Stan’s resume, and pieces of his bio: all very impressive, but only part of the story. Anyone who’s ever even loved superheroes grew up with Stan Lee: his creations are essential to our pop culture landscape, sure, but that face and voice have been in cartoons, movies, and TV shows for as long as any of us can remember. He’s been a smiling ambassador for the good and tolerant bits of comics culture, reminding us that it’s OK at any age to love mutants, Hulks, and Things; teens who dress like spiders and Russian spies (who also dress like spiders). Disabled people, including a wheelchair-bound professor and a blind lawyer, weren’t excluded. His heroes were often reformed villains, eschewing the idea that evil is indelible or that good isn’t subject to temptation.
Beside the weird alliteration, bad puns, and cheesy dad jokes, Stan and company gave us big ideas, and endless inspiration. In 2018, as in 1962, is there any more relevant lesson than Uncle Ben’s exhortation to leaven great power with a great sense of responsibility? With a pen, Stan Lee changed lives and created universes. He’ll be missed, but the work is immortal.
Stan Lee, 1922-2018
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