Stan Lee: A Life Well-Lived -- Excelsior!

“Lee became Marvel madman, mouthpiece, and all-around maestro – the face of comic books for six decades. The man who wanted to pen the Great American Novel did so much more. Without question, Lee became one of the most important creative icons in contemporary American history.”

Bob Batchelor, author, Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel

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The Black Knight Debuts in 1955

“Strike, black blade! The Black Knight challenges Modred the Evil!”

The Black Knight, created by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely for Marvel Comics (then known as Atlas Comics)

The Black Knight, created by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely for Marvel Comics (then known as Atlas Comics)

Mixing the legendary tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table with elements from superhero lore, Stan Lee and his favorite artist Joe Maneely cocreated The Black Knight for Atlas Comics, debuting in May 1955.

Lee and Maneely took a risk in bringing out the new hero, despite the enduring popularity of King Arthur for centuries. Superhero comic books were basically out of favor in the 1950s, thanks to the ravings of lunatic psychiatrist Frederic Wertham and countless adults who believed his diatribes against the industry, particularly that reading comic books paved the path to juvenile delinquency.

Wertham’s backlash had sent the publishing industry reeling, forcing many companies into bankruptcy. If you didn’t work at a publisher named DC or have characters like Superman and Batman, then turning to other genres proved the only way to stay afloat.

The artistic duo’s creation featured a powerful, armored hero who hid behind a secret identity (the meek Sir Percy of Scandia) so that he could thwart wrongdoers. The Black Knight worked with famed magician Merlin to protect and defend King Arthur's Camelot from the schemes of Modred the Evil.

In the post-Wertham environment, publisher Martin Goodman and editor Lee fiddled with the comic book lineup, attempting to find the right mix that readers would buy. At that time, however, superheroes were out at Atlas. Even the mighty Sub-Mariner would be cancelled in October 1955 with Sub-Mariner #45.

Despite how much the artistic duo of Lee and Maneely loved the Black Knight character, the series only lasted five issues, folding with the April 1956 cover dated copy. Instead, the company moved to cowboy comics, suspense series, and Hollywood tie-ins in an attempt to wrangle the fickle marketplace. Atlas' place on the newspaper stands would feature titles like World Of Fantasy, World of Mystery, and old favorites like Millie The Model.

Stan Lee’s First Publication – Captain America Comics #3 (1941)

Stan Lee writes Captain America story, first publication for Marvel

Stan Lee writes Captain America story, first publication for Marvel

 

Joe Simon needed copy and he needed it fast!

The Timely Comics editorial director and his coworker and friend Jack Kirby were hard at work on the hit they had recently launched – the red, white, and blue hero Captain America. Readers loved the character and Simon and Kirby scrambled to meet the demand.

The Captain America duo brought in some freelancers to keep up. Then they threw some odd copy-filler stories to their young apprentice/office boy Stanley Lieber as a kind of test run to see if the kid had any talent. He had been asking to write and the short story would be his on-the-job audition.

The throwaway story that Simon and Kirby had the teenager write for Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941) was titled: “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge.” The story also launched Lieber’s new identity as “Stan Lee,” the pseudonym he adopted in hopes of saving his real name for the future novel he might write.

Given the publication schedule, the latest the teen could have written the story is around February 1941, but he probably wrote it earlier. The date is important, because it speaks to Lieber’s career development. If he joined the company in late 1939, just after Kirby and Simon and when they were hard at work in developing Captain America, then there probably wasn’t much writing for him to do. However, if the more likely time frame of late 1940 is accepted, then Lieber was put to work as a writer fairly quickly, probably because of the chaos Simon and Kirby faced in prepping issues of Captain America and their other early creations, as well as editing and overseeing the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner efforts.

Lee later acknowledged in his autobiography that the two-page story was just a fill-in so that the comic book could “qualify for the post office’s cheap magazine rate.” He also admitted, “Nobody ever took the time to read them, but I didn’t care. I had become a published author. I was a pro!” Simon appreciated the teen’s enthusiasm and his diligence in attacking the assignment.

An action shot of Captain America knocking a man silly accompanied Lieber’s first publication for Simon and Kirby. The story – essentially two pages of solid text – arrived sandwiched between a Captain America tale about a demonic killer on the loose in Hollywood and another featuring a giant Nazi strongman and another murderer who kills people when dressed up in a butterfly costume. “It gave me a feeling of grandeur,” Lee recalled at the 1975 San Diego Comic-Con.

While many readers may have overlooked the text at the time, its cadence and style is a rough version of the mix of bravado, high-spirited language, and witty wordplay that marked the young man’s writing later in his career.

Lou Haines, the story’s villain, is sufficiently evil, although we never do find out what he did to earn the “traitor” moniker. In typical Lee fashion, the villain snarls at Colonel Stevens, the base commander: “But let me warn you now, you ain’t seen the last of me! I’ll get even somehow. Mark my words, you’ll pay for this!”

In hand-to-hand combat with the evildoer, Captain America lands a crippling blow, just as the reader thinks the hero may be doomed. “No human being could have stood that blow,” the teen wrote. “Haines instantly relaxed his grip and sank to the floor – unconscious!” (Captain America Comics #3, p. 37) The next day when the colonel asked Steve Rogers if he heard anything the night before, Rogers claims that he slept through the hullabaloo. Stevens, Rogers, and sidekick Bucky shared in a hearty laugh.

The “Traitor” story certainly doesn’t exude Lee’s later confidence and knowing wink at the reader, but it clearly demonstrates his blossoming understanding of audience, style, and pace.

Both “Stan Lee” and a career were launched!

 

Cover of Captain America #3, Stan Lee's first writing credit for Marvel in 1941

Cover of Captain America #3, Stan Lee's first writing credit for Marvel in 1941

Celebrate Stan Lee's 94th Birthday!

December 28 marks Stan Lee's 94th birthday!

Stan Lee at the Cincinnati Comic Expo, September 24, 2016

Stan Lee at the Cincinnati Comic Expo, September 24, 2016

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On his birthday, I'll forward all comments to Stan in celebration of his career as one of America's most important creative icons!