Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922, Stan Lee made his way into comics by accident. His family bought Timely Comics, a comic book imprint of a publishing company, giving him work in 1939 as an assistant. Lee would fill ink pots, proofread, and collect lunch for the staff. He eventually made his first foray into writing when he filled in as a writer on an issue of Captain America.
After Timely evolved into Marvel, Lee would become one of the creative forces behind Marvel’s ‘silver age’ in the 1960s.
Unlike many of the powerful superheroes that were popular at the time, Marvel under Stan Lee sought to make its characters relatable. In 1961, Lee wrote The Fantastic Four, a superhero team with strange powers, were a family that constantly bickered and argued. The X-Men were superheroes who were hated and feared by a society they were sworn to protect. Spider-Man was a nerdy teenager who was bullied at school and motivated by guilt after his own selfish failure to intervene led to a burglar murdering his uncle.
While not particularly realistic, these tales took superhero comics into a new direction. Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin grew up reading Lee’s work. As Martin told Vanity Fair, “Stan Lee was probably the most important in the history of comic books at least since [Jerome] Siegel and [Joe] Shuster who created Superman. They started the whole thing but he re-started it and made it so much better.”
Beyond his creative work as a writer and editor, Lee served as Marvel’s publisher and was briefly its president. He also spearheaded its expansion into Hollywood in the late 90s.
For his part, it should be said that Stan Lee was not the genius that created all of Marvel’s characters. Or, to be more accurate, he didn’t do it alone.
In a time period when he was working on many projects, Lee relied heavily on his artists to do much of the creative work. His usual process was to provide them with an outline of what he wanted to achieve in a particular scene and to leave the rest to the penciller. This new method left a lot of the storytelling work to the artists with whom Lee collaborated, but came to define the Marvel style. It also later proved controversial.
As the artists were not credited with these storytelling efforts, their credits did not reflect their contributions. Moreover, these artists collaborated with Lee to come up with Marvel’s iconic characters— with the company taking ownership. These ‘work-for-hire’ arrangements were the subject of lawsuits, with one judge concluding that they were immoral (however legal). The comic industry has since moved to recognise creators’ efforts more in this regard, but this was previously a contentious issue, one that saw Stan Lee fall out with some of his co-creators, most famously including Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (Lee reconciled somewhat with Kirby before his death in 1994).
Lee is nonetheless associated heavily with Marvel, having served with the company from its beginning, and staying with it during trying times.
As hard as it may seem to believe nowadays, there was a period of time during the mid to late-90s when Marvel’s survival was not guaranteed.
By the mid-90s, the comic book bubble had burst. Spurred on by a wave of speculation (brought on in part by the glut of variant covers) the popularity of comics had crashed. Trying to garner attention and push through this, Marvel turned to a number of stunts while filing for bankruptcy behind the scenes. During this period, Stan Lee was the figurehead of Marvel, putting a smiling face to the struggling company. Lee continued writing his Stan’s Soapbox column long after he was Marvel’s Editor in Chief, which appeared with his signature in many of Marvel’s comics, along with his catchphrase Excelsior (the state motto of New York). Marvel’s creative forces would rally and the company’s fortunes would turn around as its film division took off. Lee’s cameos in these have become a staple of the genre.
With great power comes great responsibility
There is a wider point to take from Stan Lee’s life and works worth reflecting upon after his death. After Marvel unsuccessfully relaunched several titles and characters, and as comics sales failed to keep up with the revenue of films that essentially told their stories, Marvel’s figureheads suggested that the prior push for greater diversity of characters was to blame. This, and other issues within fandom, led to a ‘movement’ of disgruntled fans who called for comics to move away from political themes. Much like ‘Gamergate’ before it, ‘Comicsgate’ harassed creators online while trying to carry out its campaign to rid comics of what it deems to be the unwarranted presence of social issues.
We don’t particularly need to wonder where Stan Lee would have stood on whether or not political themes belonged in comics, as he is on the record on the subject.
As Lee once wrote in a ‘Soapbox’ editorial, he passionately believed that comics were not created in a vacuum. Creators, he said, had responsibility to pursue political themes accordingly.
Lee’s stance was nuanced, however. He was not, for example, in favour of changing the ethnicity or sexuality of established individual characters. When asked as to whether or not Peter Parker could be changed, Lee passionately reiterated that the character was straight and white, not because these were desirable traits but because that was the character. Lee, through his own creations, however, pursued diversity, creating characters that were themselves deeply political. The X-Men, a group of mutant superheroes who were hated and feared for being born different were famously analogues for African Americans during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. The X-Men have also become associated with LGBTI people, both in a wider thematic sense and with the introduction of LGBTI characters.
“A story without a message… is like a man without a soul.”
Stan got it.
— David Milner (@DaveMilbo) November 12, 2018
Stan Lee may not have been the sole creator of comics’ mythology, nor was he alone as the architect of the Marvel universe. He was, however, the man who facilitated the growth of comics in general and Marvel in particular, sticking with the industry through troubled times and seeing its stories make their way to the silver screen.
More importantly, Stan Lee reminded us that imagination and creativity cannot be separated from moral imperatives, that creative people do not work in a vacuum, and that we all have a deeper underlying responsibility to one another.
The world is sadder for his absence.
R.I.P. Stan pic.twitter.com/J2hocEVnVr
— Karlee Kanz (@KarleeKanz) November 12, 2018
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor