Alan Woollcombe pays tribute to Stan “The Man” Lee, who has died aged 95, co-creator of an astonishing number of comic book characters, comic books, whose influence on entertainment and pop culture will endure…
Stan Lee was arguably the most important man the American comics industry ever produced. Through talent, chutzpah and sheer hard work, he built a publishing powerhouse out of a clapped-out shell of a company and co-created Spider-Man, the Hulk and the X-Men, along with a cavalcade of other costumed stars of page and screen.
Along the way, he created a pop-culture phenomenon (Marvel Comics) and recreated a comics genre (superheroes) that rules at the box office to this day.
In 1960 the American comics industry was a shadow of its former self, after a decade of haemorrhaging readers to television. Lee, writer-editor at failing Marvel Comics, a marginal outpost of Martin Goodman’s magazine publishing empire, was instructed by Goodman to come up with a rival to arch-competitors National Comics’ latest success story, The Justice League of America, a team-up title showcasing all their leading superheroes. There were just two catches: Marvel had no established characters to draw on, and it looked as if it soon wasn’t going to have Lee either.
After twenty years of loyal service at Marvel (and its previous incarnations as Timely Publications and Atlas Comics), Lee was on the verge of quitting the business, fed up with hacking out puerile plots in service of the latest comic trend. He still had ambitions to write ‘proper’ novels (and, in fact, had adopted the nom de plume Stan Lee for his comics work so that his birth surname of Lieber wouldn’t be tarnished by association). However, he was convinced by his wife Joan to take one make-or-break gamble at crafting a superhero comic the way he thought it should be done. On the plus side, he had some of the best artists in the industry at his disposal, notably the formidable creative genius Jack “King” Kirby and talented youngster Steve Ditko.
Lee’s new series, The Fantastic Four, featured a quartet of science fictional adventurers with a range of superpowers implausibly acquired through radiation (don’t ask). However, the x-factor was his innovative portrayal of these heroes as flawed human beings rather than perfect archetypes: right from the off, they bickered and fought amongst themselves, they had foibles, they were fallible. They had character by the bucket load.
In addition, Lee stripped away the tried-and-tired conventions of the secret identity (their identities were public knowledge), the hero’s girlfriend kept perpetually in the dark and the kid sidekick (both were now fully-fledged members of the team). And, topping it all, were Kirby’s stunning character designs and visuals, although Kirby’s contribution to the plots remains a matter of bitter dispute.
Fantastic Four #1 hit the newsstands in 1961, to an overwhelmingly positive reaction from fans. Over the ensuing four years the Lee-Kirby partnership repeatedly tapped into the zeitgeist with a string of chart-topping titles, including The Incredible Hulk (a radiation-spawned variant on the Jekyll-and-Hyde theme), The Mighty Thor (a slice of Norse mythology) and The X-Men (an allegory for America’s racial turmoil, and ironically the only Lee-Kirby commercial flop).
But the brightest star in the Marvel universe was one with little input from Kirby: The Amazing Spider-Man, the brainchild of Lee and artist Steve Ditko.
Spider-Man was Peter Parker, a high school science swot with an extra helping of adolescent angst, who gained an enhanced ‘spider-sense,’ super-strength and wall-crawling abilities from an irradiated spider bite. Goodman resisted publishing him, for several reasons: his name (“People hate spiders”), his age (“A teenager can’t be the hero, teenagers can just be sidekicks”), and his financial problems and family worries (“Stan, don’t you know what a hero is? That’s no way to do a heroic book!”).
Certain that sales figures alone would convince his risk-averse boss, Lee cover-featured the webslinger in a comicbook that was due to be cancelled anyway. Sure enough, Amazing Fantasy #15, dated August 1962, was Marvel’s best-selling title in months, and Goodman gave the go-ahead for a regular series. ‘Spidey’ quickly became the company’s flagship character and a cultural icon. From then on, Goodman rarely overrode Lee’s judgment.
Lee by now was frantically busy, writing several stories a week and editing sixteen bimonthly titles. To squeeze it all in, he developed a shorthand way of writing comics, later identified as the Marvel Method. In place of full scripts that dictated every panel to the artist, he would present a synopsis of the plot, sometimes down the phone, for the artist to interpret in his or her own fashion. The writer would then add dialogue to the drawn result.
In addition, even the lightning-fast Kirby couldn’t draw more than three regular strips a month (Ditko only drew two). Lee needed extra hands on the drawing boards as the workload exploded, so he recruited many artists who had fled the industry during the cutbacks of the ‘50s, including John Buscema, John Romita, Gene Colan, and Don Heck, as well as younger talents such as Jim Steranko, Neal Adams, Barry Windsor-Smith and writer Roy Thomas.
Lee also excelled at publicity, ceaselessly promoting both the brand (“The House of Ideas”) and himself. Ditching the industry-wide anonymous editorial approach, he stuck his tag line at the front of every comic (“Stan Lee Presents…”), doled out alliterative nicknames to every creator (‘Jolly’ Jack, ‘Rascally’ Roy and, bien sur, ‘Smilin’’ Stan – also known as ‘Stan the Man’) and ballyhooed the latest delights in his campily tongue-in-cheek monthly column (“Stan’s Soapbox”). He introduced letters pages (previously a rarity), corny catchphrases (“Make Mine Marvel!”, “Nuff said!” and the personally-copyrighted “Excelsior!”) and fan clubs (the M.M.M.S. – the Merry Marvel Marching Society – and F.O.O.M. – Friends Of Ol’ Marvel), and awarded ‘No-Prizes’ to ‘True Believers’ who spotted errors.
To so many of us he was a father figure, a mentor, a best friend. Stan let us into the pages of his comics and into his world. He told us all about himself, warts and all. He made us laugh when things were bleakest, he let us in and made us feel like we were a part his family so that when he creatively took a chance and leaped off the precipice of that building, we were always right there with him. He wasn’t just a guy in a suit, he was Stan ‘The Man’ Lee! Goodbye my friend and of course…EXCELSIOR!
– Joe Quesada, Chief Creative Officer, Marvel Entertainment
Long before Stan the Man, however, came Stanley Martin Lieber, the son of impoverished Jewish Romanian immigrants in New York’s Bronx district, with a passion for pulp novels and movie fantasies (Errol Flynn was a particular favourite).
Leaving school at 17, he took on part-time, dead end jobs (literally – one of them was penning obituaries), before his uncle found him a permanent niche in late 1940 at Timely, initially as assistant to editor Joe Simon and art director Kirby.
When Simon and Kirby fell out with Goodman in 1941, Lee was promoted to acting editor of the entire line, while supplementing his salary by pounding out two or three scripts a week on the side. Even World War Two didn’t put a dent in his output: between 1942 and 1945 Sgt. Lee wrote and drew training manuals and posters for the US Army Signal Corps, while writing comic scripts off duty.
Back on Civvy Street, he resumed the editorial reins, and over the next 15 years was to oversee Timely’s expansion and contraction, at one point being the sole member of staff.
By the end of the 1960s, Marvel was booming, but the old order was about to change again: Goodman sold out to a conglomerate in 1968, Kirby left the company in 1970, and Lee was appointed publisher in March 1972, shedding his writing and editorial commitments (except for the daily Spider-Man newspaper cartoon and the odd book). He had become a celebrity, much in demand on college campuses and radio and TV stations, and was to spend the rest of the decade as Marvel’s roving ambassador.
In 1980 he moved to Los Angeles to set up Marvel’s animation studio and act as the company’s Hollywood liaison. It was a quiet decade out of the spotlight, advising on a string of low-budget productions, which even he later admitted were mostly stinkers. (Pre-1990, the only Marvel screen spin-off of any worth was CBS’s live-action Incredible Hulk television series, launched in 1978.)
“No one has had more of an impact on my career and everything we do at Marvel Studios than Stan Lee. Stan leaves an extraordinary legacy that will outlive us all. Our thoughts are with his daughter, his family, and his millions of fans. #ThankYouStan #Excelsior!”
- Marvel Studios Chief Kevin Feige
However, in 1998, with a newly inked, non-exclusive contract with the publisher in his pocket, a reinvigorated Lee seized the chance to relaunch his creative career. His first venture, Stan Lee Media, an Internet-based operation, fizzled out in 2001 in bankruptcy and a fraud conviction for his co-founder, Peter Paul. Next came a limited series for DC Comics (formerly National) under the umbrella title Just Imagine Stan Lee…, in which he reinvented their big-name stars like Superman and Batman. A collaboration with Pamela Anderson in 2003 produced the goofy, Anderson-spoofing Stripperella animation series.
2005 saw another television production company, POW! (Purveyors Of Wonder) Entertainment, whose first film, Stan Lee’s Lightspeed, was broadcast in 2006. That same year, in an inspired, Why-didn’t-they-think-of-this-before? move, he devised and presented a reality television show for America’s Sci-Fi Network called Who Wants to Be a Superhero? The prize? To star in a comic scripted by Lee.
Another unthinkable event occurred in 2005, when Lee sued Marvel for more than $10 million of the profits from their recent Hollywood epics (in which, Hitchcock-like, he always played cameo roles). He won – and then, dubbing the courtroom battle ‘amicable,’ wrote a line of comics for them entitled Stan Lee Meets…, to celebrate his 65 years in the business in 2006.
The last years of his life were a mix of continued creativity – for example, his continued experimentation with digital comics, including Backchannel, a strip for WebToons created with Tom Akel and Andie Tong – and sadness. The death of his wife, Joan, left a void that resulted in a struggle between would-be friends, lawyers, and advisers.
At San Diego Comic-Con this year, he announced “Nitron” as a new comic-book character franchise aimed at feature films, TV and digital platforms, partnering with Keya Morgan and Michael Benaroya of Benaroya Publishing.
Lee never lost his skill at wordplay or sense of self. Typical of his unique brand of faux-humility was his response to a would-be contestant on Who Wants to Be a Superhero? The fan gushed to the great man, “You are my god, I love you.” Lee retorted, “I admire your taste.”
Lee’s autobiography, entitled Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, was published in 2002.
Stan Lee, comics writer, editor and publisher: born Stanley Martin Lieber, New York City 22nd December 1922; married Joan Clayton Boocock 5th December 1947 (two daughters; Joan Celia “J.C.”, Jan deceased); died 12th November 2018
There will never be another Stan Lee. For decades he provided both young and old with adventure, escape, comfort, confidence, inspiration, strength, friendship and joy. He exuded love and kindness and will leave an indelible mark on so, so, so many lives. Excelsior!
– Actor Chris Evans
Tributes to Stan Lee
News Outlets – NEWS ITEMS AND FEATURES
“If you write well for children, they will learn those words”
Michael Carroll looks at his first British Marvel comic – Mighty World of Marvel No. 5, published in 1972
•El Pais (in Spanish)
Stan Lee co-created characters such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and the Fantastic Four and shaped the childhood of millions
The chairman and face of Marvel Comics’ first cameo was in a Hulk TV movie in 1989. Since 2000, the Stan Lee cameo has become a feature of each film. (Variety also has a similar feature)
• Inc: How I Did It: Stan Lee of Marvel Comics
The co-creator of Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men talks about how he has stayed creative for more than 60 years.
Includes a statement by his daughter, J.C. Lee
Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman says goodbye to Marvel legend Stan Lee, who passed away today at the age of 95 years old
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Some of the many Twitter tributes to Stan Lee. This Moment tries to focus on some of the amazing art that’s been published in tribute – but there are some news items and articles scattered in the, too