Stan Lee is dead.
For any other creator, “comics legend” would seem grandiose. For Stan, it feels too small. Calling Stan Lee a comics legend feels like calling the Beatles “a popular music band”. Technically true, but truly a catastrophe of understatement.
Without question, the most famous creator to ever work in the medium, Stan Lee (née Lieber) had the quintessential American origin story. Born to impoverished Romanian Jewish refugees in a tough Manhattan neighbourhood, Lee had aspirations to be a novelist from an early age. As a teenager, he got a job as an office gopher at Timely comics where he’d meet his future collaborator, the legendary Jack Kirby. Stan found some outlet for his literary ambitions writing along with his more mundane duties, writing a Captain America prose story which saw the first use of Cap’s shield as a throwing weapon. After Pearl Harbour, Stan was drafted and set to work making propaganda. Many who only know Stan Lee as the “creator” of various comic book characters automatically assume that he was an artist, but the truth is his only professional artistic work was done during the war years, when he drew a poster of a smiling American G.I. with the logo “VD? NOT ME!”
Stan was almost court-martialed when he was discovered breaking into the post room to mail some scripts back to Timely. However, he was released when it was revealed that he was the writer for Captain America, such was the good captain’s importance to Army morale.
After the war, Stan continued to write for Timely, later Atlas, later still Marvel Comics. The forties and fifties were frustrating times for Stan as he was required to write simple, juvenile fare with one-dimensional characters and simplistic morality. By the early sixties, he was ready to leave the industry and his wife Joan convinced him to write the kind of story he would actually want to read as his swan song. The result was the Fantastic Four, and the Silver Age of comics was born.
In his excellent assessment of the life and legacy of Stan Lee, written a few years ago, Chris Simms described Stan Lee as being simultaneously the most over-rated and under-rated creators of all time. For many years Stan was regarded by the public at large as an auteur, a one man genius who singlehandedly created Spider-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men, Fantastic Four, Thor and on and on and on with little or no credit being given to his collaborators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. This was flatly not the case but was understandable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, that Stan pioneered the “Marvel Method” of comic book production whereby the artist had considerably more discretion on the story than if they were simply following a script. Secondly, Stan Lee was the kind of instantly telegenic showman that any producer would kill to book whereas Kirby and Ditko were quiet reclusive men who shunned the spotlight. Guess who got the most attention?
Now, did Stan ever try to correct the record and give Ditko and Kirby the credit they were due? Sure. Did he do enough? Well…
This has led to something of a backlash in comic book circles, with die-hard Kirby and Ditko fans claiming that Stan was nothing but a talentless hack exploiting the skills of artists whose brushes he was not fit to wash. This, frankly, is bananas. Stan Lee may not have “created” Spider-Man et al in the way he was often credited with, but in a very real sense he “created” Marvel. Stan Lee created modern comic fandom as we know it. He created a distinct personality for Marvel comics (his own), and pulled back the curtain on the comics process for fans. He engaged with his readership, cracked jokes with them, he respected them and made them feel a part of something wonderful.
Then there was his writing style. Corny? Sure. Overblown at times? Most def. Severely satured in splendiferous superfluous sesquipedalian loquaciousness? Yah. But absolutely bursting with humour and energy and the simple, innocent joy of language. In the great Kirby/Lee/Ditko debate I take no sides and respect all three men. That Lee needed Kirby and Ditko is beyond dispute,. But if you honestly believe that Kirby and Ditko didn’t need Lee, there’s a very simple test.
Read anything that Kirby and Ditko did with Lee, and then read something that they did without him.
Without Lee, Spider-Man would most likely be an angry Randian ranting about how poor people just need a punch in the face to get motivated. And Kirby? Well, he would no question still be one of the all time comic greats thanks to his work for DC, but I’d be lying if I said any of that topped his runs on Fantastic Four or Thor.
Stan never achieved his dream of writing the Great American Novel. Instead, he re-defined the great American Art Form.
His legacy and impact on global culture is nothing short of staggering.
I was going to finish this obituary with an “Excelsior!” but that felt too obvious. So instead…hey, was that Stan Lee?
Yes. That was Stan Lee.