Who is Stan Lee and why is he so important?
To those who didn’t grow up as Mighty Marvel True Believers, a.k.a. Marvel comics fans, the name Stan Lee might not mean much. But to people who grew up reading comics, Stan Lee was sort of a fun uncle who told great stories and had a positive message.
For the history books, though, Stan Lee had a hand in creating some of the most popular superheroes in the world, Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four. Hey, Stan even co-created Black Panther!
Marvel Comics were not doing well in the early ’60s. About five years before, Congress had shackled comics with a bunch of dumb rules because a “doctor” had decided that Batman was teaching kids to be homosexuals. DC ruled the newsstands with crazy cosmic adventures about imps whacking Superman with giant pipes. So Stan Lee, a guy who worked for the almost bankrupt Marvel Comics, who was in his 40s and had worked in comics for 25 years at this point, decided to throw a Hail Mary: He created superheroes who were relatable. The Fantastic Four had to pay their rent; Spider-Man had to put up with a terrible boss; Daredevil had girlfriend troubles; and they all had to sacrifice their relationships with friends and family, constantly running away when there was trouble. Oddly, this was a revolutionary idea. Superman, a DC Comics guy, never worried about rent while being whacked by giant pipes.
But there is a lot more to Stan Lee than that.
I’m going to take a weird turn here and talk about Playboy, which I don’t know too much about. But I do know that Hugh Hefner was savvy enough not to sell Playboy as a way to see naked ladies — that part sold itself — but as a lifestyle brand. Who is that guy in the silk pajamas smoking a pipe and listening to a hi-fidelity quadraphonic stereophonic hi-fi system? Why that, my friends, is a playboy! Watch out ladies, because there is no defense against this sophisticated gentlemen. Playboy was sort of, like, if Axe body spray made clothes and had social clubs.
Stan Lee was always a savvy businessman above all else. He sold the idea that Marvel Comics was also a lifestyle, a safe place where kids could come to be entertained and be part of a group of like-minded sophisticates. Who is that young man in the Hulk t-shirt reading a Daredevil comic and listening to the Merry Marvel Marching Society theme song? Why that, my friends, is a Marvel Comics fan.
I don’t know when the stereotype that nerds read comic books came into being, but the antidote to that stereotype was Stan Lee, who offered up friends in the form of himself and the whole Marvel Comics gang. Stan created a fable that all of the Marvel creators worked in a bullpen together, creating the comics that people loved, and having hi jinx and crazy adventures. In the early Marvel Comics, Stan and Jack Kirby, his co-creator, frequently show up in stories. Plus, Stan would have a little essay in every comic every month, called “Stan’s Soapbox,” which would have some gossip about upcoming issues, advice for how to live your life, or maybe just some random thoughts, like how a story without any kind of message is like a person without a soul.
But in the midst of all that, Stan was also cranking out a lot of great comic books and, suddenly, it wasn’t just kids reading them. For people born after the comics boom, it’s difficult to imagine how important comics were in kids’ lives before TV really became a thing. Now, a popular comic will sell, let’s say, 100,000 copies. In the ’40s, it was millions of copies. For the most part, only kids read them. In the ’60s, suddenly adults were reading them.
The counterculture embraced comics!
Drug-addled hippies saw signs of drug use in the psychedelic world of Dr. Strange or The Silver Surfer. And Stan just went with it, touring college campuses and giving lectures about how comics matter. Stan was the face of Marvel comics. Of course, it was at least partially hype and it made him some enemies.
If there is a scandal present in someone’s life, discussions will often start with the scandal. Stan’s scandal goes something like this: Who is Stan Lee? The guy who prevented artist creators like Jack Kirby and über-mensch Steve Ditko from getting the credit they deserved as creators! I don’t know how fair this is, but it is certainly at least a little fair. Over the years, Stan has certainly played up his own work in Marvel’s creations. Stan co-created Spider-man, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil and The X-Men, but without the artists on those titles, the creation would not have gotten very far. Would Spider-Man be as interesting if he didn’t have his costume?
First of all, who knew comic books were going to be a thing 60 years later? Comics were sold to kids as, essentially, the heir to the pulp fiction of the 1920s and ’30s. They were cheap, stapled floppies, not meant to last more than a couple of readings. No one thought that Spider-Man was going to be a multi-billion dollar property in 2018. I think Stan just simplified things, seemingly harmlessly setting himself at the middle of things to sell more product. But don’t get me wrong, Stan certainly gave the impression that, say, artist Jack Kirby was working under Stan’s orders. But over time, as comics remained popular, Stan didn’t really go out of his way to correct his blustering oversimplification.
Eventually, the artists truly resented this. But not at first. I don’t know much about Jack Kirby, but I think when he was drawing Fantastic Four #1, it was just another gig for him. Sure, Jack was riding high on a wave of creativity that I would argue has never been surpassed. But Jack wasn’t a word guy; Stan was. It wasn’t until adults started writing about them, and Stan was telling the same fables, that Jack got fed up, eventually moving over to DC to start The New Gods.
So, sure, Stan Lee didn’t start off stealing credit from his artists, but eventually, he was just the ambassador of Marvel Comics (he still is!). He sold his vision of things in a narrative that was like a tall tale. (Stan Lee lassos the moon!)
God, I love you, Stan Lee. Stan left Marvel proper in the ’70s to go and run their movie and TV leg. Frankly, I don’t think Stan has much to do with anything Marvel actually does now, but I think almost everyone involved with Marvel would say that they owe a lot to Stan Lee. That’s why he gets to have a cameo in almost every Marvel comic movie and is listed as the executive producer. Sure, he didn’t have anything to do with, say, creating the Guardians of the Galaxy, which was created after Stan had left Marvel. But in another way, he did have something to do with Marvel comics. Hell, all that stuff with Marvel building their brand? Their shared universe? That is so Stan Lee.
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