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

American Icon

At the conclusion of Captain America: Civil War (2016), a FedEx delivery driver appears at the Stark Enterprises headquarters of the Avengers. Knocking on the glass, he asks, “Are you Tony Stank?”

James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Tony Stark’s best friend, points to his buddy, and exclaims: “Yes, this is Tony Stank…You’re in the right place. Thank you for that!”

Stan Le e holding  Origins of Marvel Comics

Stan Lee holding Origins of Marvel Comics

The FedEx employee is played by Stan Lee, his 29th cameo in superhero films. The scene ends the movie on a humorous note and, more importantly, demonstrates Lee’s place in the Marvel Universe. The package contains a letter from Captain America to Iron Man, turning over leadership of the Avengers to him, but also letting Stark know that he will still show up if the Earth faces peril. Lee’s cameo may seem a throwaway, but the moment is central to the plot, and points to how the Marvel Universe unfolds in the future. As Rhodes explains, Lee’s character is definitely “in the right place” – at the center of the action.

The cheerful conversation between Stark and Rhodes counterbalances the previous scene in which Rhodey – veteran military hero and War Machine combatant – struggles to walk again after breaking his back in the earlier superhero melee. Despite the dramatic edge, the tone and voice sounds as if Lee wrote the exchange in the early 1960s. Rhodes and Stark trade smirks and jokes, with Rhodes laughing, “Please, table for one for Mr. Stank, preferably by the bathroom.” The dialogue is a Lee line, set during a Lee cameo, in Lee’s Marvel Universe – his personality imprinted on a grand scale. Lee certainly fulfilled Martin Goodman’s early directive – create a bunch of superheroes. No one realized that the order would transform storytelling and American popular culture.

When Stanley Lieber became Stan Lee, he was hiding his real identity behind a pseudonym that he thought protected him from the disdainful scorn of those who looked down on the meaningless work he did in a trivial industry. Lee explained, “Early in my career, before The Fantastic Four, I struggled. I felt I was never going to get anywhere. Even afterward, I was embarrassed to say I wrote comic books for a living. I had a lot of shame about that.”[1] He carried that concept – the notion that what he did each day didn’t really matter – for decades.

Then, rising from his own anguish (and with goading from wife Joanie), Lee took ownership of who he was and what he might create if he changed his outlook and wrote what he wanted. Then, he turned the ideas over to some of the greatest artists to ever work in comics to create them visually. The Fantastic Four came to life…he birthed The Hulk…and soon Thor dropped down from the heavens. Countless additional characters endowed with otherworldly powers and unfathomable evil joined the early superheroes. Most significantly, Lee created the least likely hero around: a geeky teenager with a boatload of personal problems and whose life changes when a supercharged spider bites him. The Amazing Spider-Man was born.

The Marvel Universe did not begin with Spider-Man, but he was the one fans gravitated to the most – as did Lee. For Lee,

Spider-Man is more than a comic-strip hero. He’s a state of mind. He symbolizes the secret dreams, fears, and frustrations that haunt us all. We all have our hidden daydreams, daydreams in which we’re stronger, swifter, and braver than we really are – than we can ever hope to be. But, to Spider-Man, such dreams are reality.”[2]

Spider-Man sparked a revolution in comic books and storytelling by giving readers a fresh way of viewing superheroes. Finally, they seemed real, with feet of clay, just like people everywhere. Marvel’s characters possessed emotional weaknesses. They had to deal with their human emotions, not simply like Superman’s vulnerability, which came from magic rocks from a destroyed planet that bad guys stumbled over. In the final frame of his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, Lee wrote the famous line that Spider-Man becomes: “Aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come – great responsibility!” The way Spider-Man has since been popularized and immortalized across American culture, this line alone might have forever cemented Lee as an iconic writer.

Stan Le e standing with Spider-Man (1994)

Stan Lee standing with Spider-Man (1994)

In short order, Lee created an interlocked network of superheroes and supporting characters that reflected the way people with extraordinary powers might actually live in the real world. Long before people could look back and realize Lee’s influence on the broader culture, they had to read the comic books. The genius he brought to the business, which launched the Marvel Age, centered on the way the characters spoke, their feelings, and the convincing issues they faced. The equation seemed almost too simple: if superheroes can be like you, then you can be like a superhero. Readers responded to Lee’s ideas and his authorial imprint developed into a central facet of popular culture.

Co-creating the characters and writing the stories with Marvel’s gifted artists, inkers, letterers, and colorists, however, did not end the process or Lee’s influence. He served other critical functions at Marvel that expanded his role far beyond the creative staff he worked with, including editing the comics, approving the artwork, and keeping the full-time staff and freelancers on task to meet the deadlines the publishing industry demanded. Then, realizing that his duties did not end there, he stumbled into serving as a mouthpiece for Marvel, first in the press, and then barnstorming the nation’s (and later the world’s) college campuses and public stages. The superhero stories went global and Lee told them again and again to whoever would listen.

On many occasions, Lee wondered when the superhero craze would wear off and he’d be onto another genre, fully expecting the boom-and-bust cycle to continue. From this perspective, the creative aspects of the job were tightly wound to the financial. “If Spider-Man hadn’t sold, we’d have forgotten about it,” Lee said. “To us they were just scripts. We were making them up, and we’d hope they’d sell, and some sold better than others, so those we kept.”[3]

There is no shortage of controversy or crisis in the entertainment industry. Often it seems as if these forces – not talent or success – fuel popular culture. Lee has faced various levels of condemnation for decades. To his critics, many of Lee’s actions have seemed inauthentic, centered on his own fame at the expense of others who should have been included in the spotlight’s glow. Even now, some antagonists have found his recent work focused mainly on making him money, not creating anything of lasting value. And, as well, the sides are tightly drawn in the pro-Kirby and pro-Ditko camps regarding who actually created the Marvel Universe.

Despite the challenges Marvel faced as an organization, the answer often came back to Spider-Man. The character’s enduring popularity saved the day. Lee’s willingness to keep the superhero top-of-mind ensured that Marvel also stayed securely on the nation’s popular culture radar. In turn, the effort solidified Lee’s own place in the cultural pantheon.

While people often credit Lee for his role in gradually turning comic books into a more respected medium and establishing Marvel’s place among the world’s great brands, he is rarely given enough credit simply as a writer. Just like novelist and filmmakers had always done, it is as if Lee put his hands up into the air and pulled down fistfuls of the national zeitgeist. As a writer, Lee did what all iconic creative people do – he improved on or perfected his craft, thus creating an entirely new style that would have broad impact across the rest of the industry, and then around the globe.

At the time Spider-Man appeared, Lee had already been working in the industry for more than 20 years. By this point, his writing process grew out his fascination with dialogue. He explained, “Whenever I write a story of any sort, I usually recite all the dialogue aloud as I’m writing it…I act it out, with all the emotion and corny emphasis that I can must.” What this kind of writing and narration forces is what all great writers understand: “It’s got to sound natural.”[4] These innovations – focusing on realistic dialogue, speaking directly to the reader, and allowing the reader into the character’s thinking via thought bubbles – created the Marvel style that would soon dominate the comic book industry and then gradually extend to film, television, literature, and other forms of storytelling.

Generations of artists, writers, actors, and other creative types have been inspired, moved, or encouraged by the universe Lee voiced and birthed. While he did not invent the imperfect hero (one could argue that such heroes had been around since Homer’s time and even before), Lee delivered the message to a generation of readers hungry for something new. 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 second golden age for comic books. Fans gobbled up his superheroes with their dimes, nickels, and quarters.

Regardless of the opinions of nay-sayers, there is something heroic in Lee himself. Like others at the apex of American popular culture, Lee transformed his industry, which then had much broader implications. 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.





This essay is drawn from my 2017 book, Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel, published by Rowman & Littlefield

Images courtesy of Stan Lee Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming

[1] Lee, interview by Hochman.

[2] Memo, Marvel Comics Group – Manuscript Information, 1974, Box 6, Folder 8, Stan Lee Papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

[3] Stan Lee, interview by Jeff McLaughlin, “An Afternoon with Stan Lee,” 2005, in Stan Lee Conversations, ed. Jeff McLaughlin (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 211.

[4] Lee and Mair, 135.