I know it’s popular these days among a certain coterie of Comic Book Buffs to bash Stan Lee’s contributions to the medium in favor of artist/collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko . You’ll never find me in that crowd. Not ever. I learned to read (with the help of my dad) at the tender age of three through comics… simple stuff at first, funny books like YOGI BEAR and BEETLE BAILEY. As I progressed into the realm of superheroes, my vocabulary improved thanks to writers like Gardner Fox, John Broome, and especially Stan Lee, who took me to Asgard and Outer Space with Shakespearean-styled dialog and college-level words that made me keep a dictionary always at the ready. Screw you, Dr. Frederic Wertham!!
Stanley Martin Lieber was born December 28, 1922, the eldest son of immigrant parents (his younger sibling Larry Lieber also became a comics writer and artist of note). Young Stan was an avid reader who dreamed of one day writing The Great American Novel. He entered the comic book biz at the tender age of 17, going to work at his cousin-in-law Martin Goodman’s Timely Publications, the precursor to Marvel. According to Stan’s 1974 book ORIGINS OF MARVEL COMICS (which I still own, and in pretty good condition!), “I started as a staff writer, proofreader, and general all-around gofer”. Stan wrote those two-page “fillers” that every comic had to carry back then to satisfy postal regulations, and helped co-create The Destroyer and Jack Frost, neither of whom catapulted their way to the top of the superhero heap. When Captain America creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left Timely in a salary dispute, Goodman asked Stan to fill in as editor and art director for the company. The “fill in” job lasted 31 years!
Timely became Atlas in 1951, then Marvel a decade later. By this time, Stan had written for every comic genre: superhero, crime, western, romance, humor, horror, whatever the market dictated. Kirby had come back to the fold, and superheroes were selling well, especially a book by rival DC Comics called THE JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, featuring a team of costumed crusaders. Lee and Kirby brainstormed their way to creating a team of their own for Marvel. The “Marvel Method” was for Lee and his artists to conceptualize the story, have the artist draw the layout, then Stan (or another writer) would fill in the dialog… the opposite of most other comic publishers, who used the traditional method of having the story written first, then handing it off to the artist.
But there was nothing traditional about Lee and Kirby’s first creation – THE FANTASTIC FOUR! Sure, they were superheroes, but without secret identities. They were brilliant scientist Reed Richards, his girlfriend Susan Storm, her teenage brother Johnny Storm, and gruff hot-shot pilot Ben Grimm, who flew into space and, bombarded by cosmic rays, gained superpowers. Reed became the Plastic Man-like Mr. Fantastic, Sue The Invisible Girl, and Johnny flamed on as The Human Torch (based on Carl Burgos’s 1940’s hero). As for Ben, he turned into a rock-skinned monster (not unlike the sci-fi monsters Kirby had been drawing for Atlas) dubbed The Thing, and his bad attitude (wouldn’t you have one, if you looked like a Kirby monster!) made him a fan favorite. The FF was a sensation, with science fiction adventures that took them beyond the galaxy mixed with Lee’s soap opera dramatics, and became popular on college campuses. FF #48-50, called “The Galactus Trilogy” and introducing the world to The Silver Surfer, has been cited as one of the greatest achievements in comics history.
But if The Fantastic Four were a hit, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was a total phenomenon! Artist Steve Ditko co-created this character (some say he was sole creator, but I’m not here to debate), a puny high school nerd named Peter Parker who’s bitten by a radioactive spider and given the arachnid’s abilities. Spider-Man was a huge success, especially among the college crowd, and Peter’s teen-aged (later college-aged) angst, coupled with the dazzling action and a Rogues’ Gallery of supervillains (Doctor Octopus, The Green Goblin, Mysterio, The Vulture) made Spidey comics’ most popular character. Issues #96-98 had a subplot dealing with Peter’s friend Harry Osborn’s (unbeknownst to all the son of The Green Goblin) drug abuse, a topic verboten by the then-powerful Comics Code Authority. Lee published the trilogy anyway, without the Code’s stamp of approval.
More costumed cavorters continued: The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Dr. Strange, The X-Men, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Daredevil. Marvel Comics were the In Thing, and Stan was a shameless self-promoter in the cause of Marvel. He gave credit to his artists, who were usually nameless and faceless in other periodicals, giving them sobriquets like “Jolly” Jack Kirby, “Sturdy” Steve Ditko, “Dashing” Don Heck, “Jazzy” John Romita, and “Happy” Herb Trimpe. He wrote a column in every book (“Stan’ Soapbox”) espousing the glory of Marvel, started a fan club called The Merry Marvel Marching Society, and ballyhooed his company to whoever would listen. He lectured on college campuses, appeared on TV and radio talk shows, did magazine interviews, and brought the Gospel of Marvel outside the insular comic world into the mainstream. Did he take too much of the credit? Maybe, but ask yourself this, True Believer – without Stan’s constant hustling way back when, would the superhero movie phenomenon of today exist? Would crowds be gathering at the local multiplex lined up for the latest Spidey, Avengers, or Guardians of the Galaxy flicks? I doubt it.
Fans always look forward to Stan’s cameos in the latest Marvel film epic. I believe there are a few still in the pipeline (though I could be wrong), but after that, it’s over. Stan is gone to join his beloved wife Joanie in comic book heaven. He never did write that Great American Novel, but what he did, the characters he helped breathe life into, will live with us forever. No, I have nothing bad to say about Stan Lee. He was a big part of my childhood, and I have nothing but reverence for “Stan The Man”. Words matter, at least to a writer like myself, and I thank you Stan for all the words I learned from you. There’s just one word I will leave you with now…