Stan Lee’s birthday on December 28 gave fans a reason to contemplate his place among the world’s most significant creative icons. It is easy to argue that the ideas Lee and his co-creators brought to life in Marvel superhero comic books are at the heart of contemporary storytelling.
Lee created a narrative foundation that has fueled pop culture for nearly six decades. While countless shelves have been filled with books about comic book history and those responsible for originating this uniquely American form of mass communication, there are still many reasons to examine Lee’s specific role.
Lee created a narrative foundation that has fueled pop culture for nearly six decades.
History and context are important in helping people comprehend their worlds. New comic book readers and ardent filmgoers who turn out in droves to see Marvel Universe films should grasp how these influences impact their worldviews.
Here are five reasons to love Stan Lee:
In the 1960s and 1970s, no matter the tiny hamlet, thriving city, or rural enclave, if a kid got their hands on a Marvel comic book, they knew that they had a friend in New York City named Stan Lee. Each month, like magic, Lee and the Mighty Marvel Bullpen put these colorful gifts into our hands (in my youth in the 1970s, showcasing the ever-present “Stan Lee Presents” banner), which enabled us to travel the galaxies along with Thor, Iron Man, the Avengers, and X-Men.
Crisscrossing the nation speaking at college campuses, sitting for interviews, and speaking to readers in the “Stan’s Soapbox” pages in the back of comic books, Lee paved the way for intense fandom. His work gave readers a way to engage with Marvel and rejoice in the joyful act of being a fan. Geek/nerd culture began with “Smilin’ Stan” and his Merry Marauding Bullpen nodding and winking at fans each issue. Lee’s commitment to building a fan base took fandom beyond capitalistic sales figures and consumerism to creating communities.
While many comic book experts and insiders worried about monthly sales figures and demographics, Lee understood that Marvel’s horde of superheroes could form the basis of a multimedia empire. Ironically, he talked about turning Marvel into the next Disney decades before Walt’s company gobbled up the superhero shop. Back then, Lee’s idea drew derision and people openly scoffed at such a notion.
Lee saw the pieces of a multimedia empire and relentlessly pursued this vision, almost singlehandedly pushing Marvel as a film and television company. Lee championed superhero films and television shows in the mid-1960s and through the 1970s when Hollywood producers couldn’t fathom someone like Spider-man, Thor, or Iron Man appealing to a mass audience. It took Star Wars and Christopher Reeves’s Superman to show Tinseltown what movies could be.
One of the most important aspects of creating comic books is that the process requires all-encompassing teamwork, from plot creation through distribution. While a great deal of work takes place alone, like an inker working page-by-page, much of the effort is coordinated and intricate.
At Marvel, really from the time Lee took over as editor as a teenager in 1941 until the boom in the early 1960s, he managed the artistic and production aspects of the company, simultaneously serving as art director, chief editor, and head writer. Much of the scholarly and critical commentary has centered on the controversy regarding Lee’s role as creator or co-creator of the iconic superheroes, but without similar focus or discussion about how he managed these other aspects. Artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were phenomenal talents, but in contrast to Lee, they focused on one part of the production process. Lee directed, managed, or supervised it all.
In the early 1960s, most people looked down on the comic book industry and the creative teams that produced comics. Suffering from bouts of frustration and despair, Lee couldn’t stomach working in comics any longer. He warred with the idea of chucking his more than 20-year career versus bringing home the steady paycheck that Marvel’s mediocrity delivered. “We’re writing nonsense…writing trash,” he told his wife Joan. I want to quit, he confided: “After all these years, I’m not getting anywhere. It’s a stupid business for a grownup to be in.”
Yet, when Marvel publisher Martin Goodman suggested he mimic DC and create a superhero team, Lee took a risk on a new kind of team, heroes who had their superpowers foisted on them and didn’t hide from their real human emotions. The Fantastic Four gave Lee the chance to explore a new type of hero and fans responded. Lee didn’t quit. The Marvel Universe was born.
1. Transforming Storytelling
Lee’s legacy is undeniable: he transformed storytelling by introducing generations of readers to flawed heroes who also dealt with life’s everyday challenges, in addition to the treats that could destroy humankind.
Generations of artists, writers, actors, and other creative types have been inspired, moved, or encouraged by the Marvel Universe he gave voice to and birthed. Lee did not invent the imperfect hero, one could argue that such heroes had been around since Homer’s time and even before, but Lee did deliver it – Johnny Appleseed style, a dime or so a pop – to a generation of readers hungry for something new.
The Fantastic Four transformed the kinds of stories comic books could tell. Spider-Man, however, brought the idea home to a global audience. Lee told an interviewer that he had two incredibly instinctive objectives: introduce a superhero “terribly realistic” and one “with whom the reader could relate.” While the nerd-to-hero storyline seems like it must have sprung from the earth fully formed, Lee gave readers a new way of looking at what it meant to be a hero and spun the notion of who might be heroic in a way that spoke to the rapidly expanding number of comic book buyers. Spider-Man’s popularity revealed the attraction to the idea of a tainted hero, but at the same time, the character hit the newsstands at the perfect time, ranging from the growing Baby Boomer generation to the optimism of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, this confluence of events resulting in a new age for comic books.