The comic book industry has lost another legend. On November 12th, Stan Lee, former writer, editor, and publisher of Marvel, passed away at the age of 95, after an astonishing 79 years of being professionally involved in comics.
Lee was unquestionably the most famous single individual ever associated with the medium, and tributes have poured in from around the world. But the in-industry tributes are notably more measured, more complex, and more restrained than the broader entertainment ones. This speaks not just to the difficulty comics pros and fans are having with reconciling the loss of someone whose influence and brand have permeated the field so completely, but to the fact that over the decades, Lee has become an increasingly controversial figure, one whose contributions are impossible to measure as much for their murky origins as for their extensiveness.
First, the facts: Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922 to Romanian Jewish immigrant parents, and grew up working class in New York City. In 1939, at the age of 17, he was hired as an assistant at Timely Comics, the company that would become Marvel, doing things like filling inkwells and fetching lunch. He wrote his first stories in 1941, using the pen name “Stan Lee” to hide his real name, since comics were considered unsavory at the time. That déclassé reputation and the attendant lack of competition served him in good stead when he was named interim publisher just before his 19th birthday, although the fact that he kept the company afloat during the tumultuous decade just goes to show what a boy wonder he was. He would remain editor-in-chief until 1972, when he took over as publisher.
After a (non-combative) stint in the military during World War II, Lee returned to Marvel, writing across genres from romance to science fiction. According to popular lore, he was considering leaving comics by the end of the 1950s, but DC had just kicked off the Silver Age with their reinvention of the Flash, and publisher Martin Goodman asked Lee to create a superhero team in response. Lee’s wife Joan suggested he go nuts with it, since, after all, he was going to quit.
And thus Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four, a team of flawed, human heroes who bickered constantly. They went on to create the X-Men, the Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man; with Steve Ditko, Lee co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange; with Bill Everett, he co-created Daredevil.
At the risk of reiterating an oft-told story, the characters Lee created were shockingly different from the gleaming, square-jawed perfection of their DC counterparts, even if it is hard to look at Reed Richards from the lens of 2018 and see much difference from Barry Allen. The assortment of characters listed above were neurotic. They worried about money. They fought with their loved ones. They pined for impossible romances. Some of them, most notably the Thing, the Hulk, Spider-Man, and of course the X-Men, were shunned by society or trapped in monstrous bodies or both.
They were astonishing. They were spectacular. They were uncanny.
They changed comics.
How, you may ask, did Stan Lee manage to write every Marvel comic for years on end? Well, True Believer, therein lies both the brilliance and the problem. Lee and his artistic collaborators, like Kirby and Ditko, used an approach that’s been dubbed “the Marvel Method.” Lee and the artist in question would discuss the plot of the issue, or Lee would provide a synopsis. The artist would draw the whole dang thing, Lee would request any necessary changes, and finally, when the art was finished, Lee would fill in the dialogue. (Here are a few really fun depictions of how this worked from old school Marvel comics themselves, although please take them with the requisite grain of salt.)
The problem was, as Marvel got bigger and Lee’s responsibilities grew, he had less and less time to collaborate. Increasingly, artists were writing the comics too, especially trusted ones like Kirby and Ditko, and Lee was just coming along and tweaking the dialogue. (Sometimes this put the art in opposition to the words, as the fascinating blog Kirby Without Words painstakingly explores.)
In other words, Lee wasn’t really writing the comics anymore, but he was still taking full credit for them—especially because the public at large didn’t (and still doesn’t) really understand how comics are made. Even when an artist is provided with a full script, as was happening at DC then and with most comics now, people unfamiliar with the process tend to assume that the writer is doing all of the creative labor, and the artist is just putting someone else’s genius on paper.
And whatever else Lee was, he was 5’11” of pure charisma, as anyone who’s seen one of his cameos in a Marvel movie knows. He was the voice and the face of Marvel Comics—of the industry, really, because there was never anyone at DC to rival him. He did the interviews. He responded directly to the fans in the letter columns. He splashed his name all over every book.
Therein lies both his tragic flaw and his greatest contribution. Because by branding Marvel Comics with, well, himself, Lee wasn’t just self-aggrandizing. He was giving it a human face. Yes, the face was his own—but that branding did for Marvel as a corporate entity what Peter Parker’s neuroses and the Hulk’s self-loathing did for Marvel as creative entity. It made it real. In an era when DC was aiming for six-year-olds who couldn’t have cared less who Mort Weisinger or Julius Schwartz were, and Disney fans were still referring to Carl Barks as “the good duck artist” because he was forbidden from signing his work, Marvel proudly proclaimed that its comics were made by real people, with quirks and flaws and goofy nicknames. (Smilin’ Stan! King Kirby! Jazzy Johnny [Romita Sr.]!) Check out those Marvel Method comics linked up above. Don’t they endear you to the creative staff, as ridiculous as they are?
Lee helped the readers see the Marvel team as real people…and made it clear that he saw the readers that way too. While DC’s letters at the time are mostly pedantic kids trying to catch DC out on continuity errors (plus ça change…), Lee struck a conversational (if hyperactive) note, and cultivated a playful us-versus-them attitude by referring to Marvel fans as “True Believers” and to DC, tongue firmly in cheek, as both “the Distinguished Competition” and “Brand Ecch.” Under Lee’s reign, comics weren’t just a piece of disposable entertainment you bought for a dime and rolled up in your back pocket. They were an identity. You weren’t just a kid who sometimes read comics (i.e. basically every kid at the time). You were a Marvel fan. You were a True Believer.
Combine that approach with Lee’s (and Kirby’s, and Ditko’s, and so on) cast of outcasts, misfits, and neurotics, and is it any wonder that comics increasingly became a place for readers who felt like they didn’t belong anywhere else? If you felt geeky or monstrous or just plain ordinary, Marvel gave you a place full of people like you, on and off the page. A place to fit in. And yes, this clubhouse for outcasts eventually fostered a community of intensely toxic gatekeeping that we’re still dealing with today (hello, Comicsgate!), but it’s also the reason that comics became an industry supported by passion above all. That’s a complicated thing, but it’s not solely a bad thing. (It’s also worth noting here, would-be gatekeepers, that Lee co-created the first black superheroes in comics with Black Panther and the Falcon, as well as the X-Men with their message of tolerance and acceptance of the Other, and frequently railed against bigotry and hatred in his letter columns. Ahem.)
And here we return to The Problem, because in branding all of Marvel with his own name, Lee elided and overshadowed the massive contributions made by his cohorts. As much as he praised his collaborators—he frequently referred to Kirby as “the greatest artist of all time” and was the one who dubbed him “the King”—he also made sure that his own name always came first on the masthead. In his telling, he’d be struck with another lightning bolt idea and assign it to Kirby to draw…but to wax rhapsodic, as he frequently did, about how the Fantastic Four came to him belies the obvious fact that they look a heck of a lot like the Challengers of the Unknown, who Kirby created for DC four years prior. In fact, Kirby later claimed to have come up with the original ideas for both the Fantastic Four and the Hulk.
Credit wasn’t just a sticky issue for Kirby—Ditko left Marvel four years after co-creating Spider-Man, by which point he and Lee were no longer speaking to one another, and other contemporary artists such as Wally Wood have taken potshots at Lee for stealing credit—but it looms largest in Kirby’s legacy. This is partially because of his own massive output—he drew over a hundred pages a month for Marvel at its Silver Age peak, a volume that gives me carpal tunnel just to think about—and partially because for the past posthumous quarter century, Kirby’s own star has been on the rise. Many consider him to be, as Lee breezily called him, the greatest comic book artist of all time, an auteur who nearly single-handedly shaped the medium as we know it without ever doing anything so gauche as to say that’s what he did. It helps that the irascible combat veteran, born in poverty and plugging away without recognition for decades, makes a damn fine underdog. Comic book publishers are also notorious for fleecing creators out of the royalties they’re owed for breathing life into billion dollar properties like Superman and the X-Men—and Stan “the Man” Lee, editor and publisher to Kirby’s mere freelance staffer, was literally The Man. Kirby was the exploited genius; Lee was Marvel the Corporate Entity, turning Kirby’s bombastic metaphors for the human condition into breakfast cereal and raking in the cash.
Kirby wasn’t shy about calling Lee out, either. After he left Marvel in the ’70s, he wrote and drew the Fourth World saga for DC: four interlinked series that many consider his magnum opus. In Mister Miracle, he introduced a wheeler-dealer and impresario named Funky Flashman, a false-mustache-and-toupee-clad leech described as “the driven little man who dreams of having it all!!!—the opportunistic spoiler without character or values who preys on all things like a cannibal!!!—including you!!!” (His treatment of Lee’s protégé Roy Thomas, depicted as the sniveling servant “Houseroy,” is even more vicious.)
Some Kirby partisans take Funky Flashman pretty much as literally as possible. It’s hard to avoid the temptation. After all, Kirby died in 1994 and Ditko spent the last three decades as a furiously objectivist recluse before dying earlier this year, while Lee popped up in movies and on red carpets and across dozens of branded projects. Someone needs to speak up for the guys who aren’t entering rooms to the tune of their own theme music. (Side note: for more on this history, please read this excellent Lee obituary by Spencer Ackerman.)
And yeah, it can be maddening to see Lee still receiving the lion’s share of the credit for Marvel’s…everything. I’ve seen him hailed for everything from creating Captain America (he was still filling Kirby’s inkwells when Steve Rogers debuted) to the 2012 marriage of Northstar and his husband Kyle (characters he did not create, decades after leaving Marvel). He’d gleefully take credit for ridiculous things, too, like creating the first gay character in comics…because a character he revamped in 1960, the Rawhide Kid, was depicted as gay in a 2003 miniseries.
And yet it was hard to get too angry about it. My reaction to Lee and his spotlight hogging was always less fist-shaking and more your grandpa lying to you about leading the invasion of Normandy. Like, “Aw, Grandpa, that’s not true at all! Here, have another Werther’s.” Heck, I had to go back and revise almost every paragraph of this article when I realized I’d referred to Kirby and Ditko by their surnames throughout, but to Lee as “Stan.” I’m just fond of the guy. I think most of us always will be.
The truth is, it’s impossible to say who “really” created those all those wonderful comics half a century ago, because comics are a truly collaborative art. There’s no separating the story from the pictures, because the pictures are the story and the story is the pictures. Add in the time that’s passed and the fact that everyone involved told a slightly different story in every interview they gave, and you’re looking at leads that went cold decades ago. Besides, if the marriage wasn’t seamless, the comics wouldn’t have been so damn good.
It’s just as impossible to say to what degree Lee took credit or had it given to him, or how much he was motivated by ego, or a shrewd understanding of what was needed for Marvel to thrive, or spite, or simple involuntary charm. Only Lee knew for sure…and honestly, maybe not even him. What matters now, I think, is not assigning credit or blame, but appreciating what all of these creators gave us—and applying the lessons learned to ensuring that creators today get their due, especially in the face of the vastly larger IP factories they work for.
I’ve heard people say that Stan Lee’s death marks the end of an era, but I don’t think that’s an accurate statement. An era is a stage of being, a period in time, a slice of the pie, and Lee wasn’t only a stage. He was there at the beginning; he was here until this month. I don’t know that comics knows how to be comics without him.
What we have as we move into this brave new post–Stan Lee world are the characters he gave us, but perhaps more importantly, the community he built. We have the belief that comics can be smart and incisive; that they can be a place to belong; that heroism lies within the overlooked and the ostracized. He gave us all that great power, and he left us with a great responsibility—and if there’s a chance to wield it more wisely than he did, well, isn’t that the way it’s supposed to be?
Excelsior, Stan. May your memory be a blessing, always.