True Believers Shout Excelsior: A Tribute to Stan Lee
True believers had their faith tested yesterday after it was announced that Stanley Martin Lieber, better known as Stan Lee, had passed from this mortal coil to the next. A giant has fallen, a shadow has reached its apex, and one more legend now sits in the hall of greats. Stan Lee, Grandfather of comic books, has died. For 70 years, Lee’s hand has guided the tone and reach of the comic-book industry. He was the original voice behind Marvel’s best-loved characters including The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Black Panther, and The Incredible Hulk. His loss is felt around the world, but his legacy is cemented in celluloid and the hearts of his millions of fans.
The Golden Age:
Lee was born in Manhattan on December 28, 1922, to Jack, a cutter in the NY garment district, and Celia Lieber. Coming up he was incredibly bright, having skipped a number of grades. He even won the New York Harold’s Essay Writing Contest three weeks in a row. Though comics were the entertainment of the day, Lee preferred classic literature and the movies. Anything in the genre of action or fantasy helped Lee escape the Great Depression.
In countless interviews, Lee insisted that he never intended to spend his life writing comics, but that he always admired heroes. As a child, he dreamed of being an actor as he watched Errol Flynn fence his way across the silver screen. Coming up in the depression, his job possibilities had to be more grounded. He had a little brother, Larry Lieber, nine years his junior, and two loving parents to help support. Lee began working when he was twelve and never found his way to retirement. After a few years of menial labor in the garment district, Lee’s distant relative Martin Goodman was looking for some help at Timely Comics.
The entire department consisted of only two people. The first was Joe Simon. The second was Jack Kirby. They were crafting the second superhero that would take America by storm. Following the success of Superman, they created Captain America. Two Jewish boys sent a true blue American after the greatest monster of all time, Hitler.
Before they could reach the halls Valhalla and become heroes themselves, they were struggling artists. Lee would fill inkwells and deliver sandwiches while Simon wrote and Kirby scribbled. When Editor-in-Chief Simon needed a two-page filler so his comics could be sent second-class priority mail, he tasked Lee with the job. No harm in giving the 17-year-old his shot. Certainly, none of their subscribers would read that far into the book.
Lee wrote a prose story entitled “Captain America: The Traitor’s Revenge” in issue number three of Captain America. It was one of the first bylines in comics. Thinking he’d save his government name for his great American novel, Lee cut his first name “Stanley” in half and sent the draft to print. During those years, Kirby, Lee, and Simon were crafting stories using the great American themes and characters. Cowboy stories and sci-fi were big hits, but the monster comics sold best. After a year of Captain America, both Simon and Kirby left the company. So Goodman gave the eighteen-year-old Stan Lee control of the entire kit and kaboodle.
In 1943, when America joined WWII, the world had been at war for nearly a decade, Lee’s characters were at war, and soon Lee felt he had to follow. He was given the bizarre army assignment of a playwright. His fellow soldiers armed with pens were Frank Capra, Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, and Carl Laemmle Jr.
When the war was won, Lee went back to work as a comic writer and editor and soon found himself in love. In 1947, he married Joan B. Lee, a hat model, and war bride from England. The story goes that Stan Lee was looking for a model for a new character he was working on when Head Model Joan Lee walked into the room. According to Joan, Stan did a double take. This was the woman he’d been drawing for so many years. His ideal woman. On that first day, he proclaimed, “I think I’m going to fall in love with you.” Joan thought, “I better not let this one get away.” They had one daughter and were married until Joan’s passing in 2017.
Stan Lee was the head of a comic book company, a veteran, and a newlywed when Timely Comics evolved into Marvel. At its inception, every day Marvel would release a full comic book. Lee would act out the scenes for the artists. As the head writer at Marvel, he began creating the Marvel Method. Their approach to comics was to make the drawing the central storytelling apparatus. Lee would dictate the images and then later fill the empty spaces with dialogue and action sounds. Using the silent films of his youth to imitate the exaggerated effect he wanted his to have, Lee would leap from page-covered desks to saggy couches giving Oscar-worthy performances. It seemed nothing could topple this success until…
A cloud darkened comics’ doorstep. In 1954, a Senate Subcommittee was formed to investigate a perceived rise of juvenile delinquency in the United States. A psychiatrist named Dr. Fredrick Wertham reported to the committee that every juvenile delinquent he’d ever met read comics and therefore comics must be the cause of their terrible behavior. Sexual misconduct, violent behavior, and the development of asthma were all linked to reading comic books.
Taking a note from the film community’s self-imposed Hayes Code, comic book companies developed the Comic’s Code Authority. A board, using arbitrary rules such as, “Policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority,” would now grade how safe a story was for mass consumption. If their seal was missing from the cover of a book, the book couldn’t be sold. Thus, the golden age of comics was ended.
As sales of comics plummeted, Lee was forced to let a lot of the artists and writers he’d partnered with over the years go. This slump lasted for nearly a decade. Eventually, it was just Lee, and he again considered leaving the profession. Children’s books about dogs and fabulous models weren’t the fantastic stories of monsters and brave heroes that initially intrigued Lee. Tired of hearing Lee complain about the state of comics, his wife challenged him to write the kind of comic book he wanted to read.
Lee liked the classics. He wanted the humans behind the masks to be front and center. Instead of always battling dastardly villains, sometimes the heroes would battle one another or themselves. No longer would heroes fight in fictional cities. Stan brought them to the world he was familiar with, New York City. Writer Geoff Thorne spoke about those changes saying, “At the age of seven, on my first trip to New York City, I was inconsolable after discovery there was no real Baxter Building and no Daily Bugle. Stan moved the realms of fantasy from locations far, far away to places just around the next corner. It made me think that nearly anything was actually possible and, it turns out, nearly anything is.”
In an attempt to compete with DC’s newly formed Justice League, Lee created a brand new team: The Fantastic Four. It was 1961. The Silver Age of Comics burst to glorious life. In a five-year period, from 1961 to 1966 Lee and the Marvel team created The Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Doctor Victor Von Doom, The Mighty Thor, The Hulk, and Iron Man. Youth culture was on the rise. As college campuses filled up with baby boomers turned hippies, they longed for the type of comics their government and parents stole from them. Lee and Marvel were there to provide.
Hector Navarro, a comic enthusiast and a Host at DC Daily said of Lee, “He was social media before social media existed.” What Lee did better than anyone was bring fans to the table. Before the first San Diego Comic-Con, Lee would host a radio show with his team of artists. He gave each artist a nickname: “Darlin’” Dick Ayers, “Jazzy” John Romita, “Joltin’” John Sinnott, “Shy” Steve Ditko, “General” Gene Coleman, and “Jolly” Jack Kirby (later Jack “The King” Kirby) were a part of the Merry Marvel Marching Society radio show. With the MMMS Lee, “…wanted readers to feel they were a part of a group, an inner circle, and we’re all having a lot of fun that the rest of the world didn’t know about.”
Fans ate it up. Lee would tour college campuses. His favorite part was the Q and A because that’s where he got to learn about what the readers wanted. He learned, for example, that many of Marvel’s dedicated buyers loved Silver Surfer. A hippy icon, Lee was happy to dish out more Surfer. This was also where Lee was running into civil rights activists. From this era, Black Panther, The Falcon, and The X-Men were born. Their storylines challenged readers to reexamine their relationship with those who looked, sounded, and acted differently than them. For Fan Girling Host Markeia McCarty, Black Panther was a game changer. “Black Panther hit me hard,” she said. “Lee specifically created Black characters when there were none. Wakanda was a way to view Black history had it never been colonized. That gave me a lot of power as a kid.”
Having seen the derision of WWII first hand, Lee was a staunch opponent of racism and hate of any kind. Using Stan’s Soapbox, a column where Lee could talk directly to readers in the back of each comic, Lee would often decry hysterical fans. Then, as now, some readers wanted their comic books to be solely about escapism. Mentions of politics, race and gender issues, or even facing banal daily problems angered some of Lee’s most loyal readers. He took them to task in one of Stan’s Soapbox stating, “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them —”
Another shore was calling to Stan Lee after all his years in New York. A visit to Los Angeles quickly had him envisioning a life in paradise. But he wasn’t ready to retire. So, Lee convinced Marvel to begin Marvel Productions. He set up a base in Los Angeles and started to take his inventions from the page to the screen.
Two of Lee’s best characters, Bruce Banner and Peter Parker, were the first to get the Hollywood treatment. Banner’s Hulk was created out of Lee’s love for silent era films and the years he spent making monster comics with Timely Comics. Part Frankestine’s Monster with a twist of Jekyll and Hyde, Banner represented the monster within and man’s urge to do good. Starring Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby The Incredible Hulk ran for five seasons on CBS. The show defined the way we view heroes on screen. It opened with a two-hour pilot that served as an origin story. Toys sold like hot cakes. There was even a spin-off comic strip that ran in the papers.
It took Spider-Man four tries to get it right. Spider-Man was created when Lee needed to challenge himself. “Knowing how I hate teenage sidekicks,” Lee began, “I thought why not have a hero who was a teenager?” Lee oversaw the first live-action show Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends but knew rather quickly it wouldn’t work. The lack of Parker and his human foibles did the show in early. Two animated shows came after that with not much success. Then in 1992, Spider-Man: The Animated Series hit the airwaves and along with the X-Men: The Animated Series became the number one and two top Saturday Morning cartoons.
Spider-Man is Navarro’s favorite superhero. Growing up without religion, Navarro said that it was Spider-Man that gave him a moral code. “With great power comes great responsibility,” was a powerful mantra that wasn’t difficult to believe in. As a child of immigrants, Navarro felt that reading Spider-Man made him American. It imbued in him a sense of responsibility that he carried into adulthood. Film and Television Critic Laura Sirikul shares a similar love of Spider-Man, “He was a kid from New York. I was a kid from New York.”
Joan Lee said of all Stan’s characters he was most like Peter Parker. Parker’s always been poor, helped support his family and friends, and struggles to do the right thing every day. Lee said Spider-Man was his favorite character to create. “All I had to do was think about things that happened to me,” Lee said of writing the teenager.
Currently, we’re living in the best age to be a Spider-Man fan. Spider-Man Homecoming rocked the box office last year. The comics are as good as they’ve ever been. In a few weeks, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse will swing into theaters. And one of the greatest video games of this year was The Amazing Spider-Man. The legacy is strong.
From here the rest is modern history. Working alongside Marvel Studios, Lee saw The X-Men, Spider-Man, and eventually, Iron Man become larger than life new-age fairytales. Stan Lee’s dream, perhaps the one thing he didn’t accomplish, was to write the great American novel. He did us one better. He gave us a neo-pantheon of gods and men that we might aspire to be. Through sheer determination, and in partnership with some of the greatest artists in the past century, Lee created an entire universe that children and adults alike could escape to when things got bad. From the page to the silver screen, to the rectangular boxes that are never far out of reach, Stan Lee made comics accessible to everyone.
Many fans, conflate Lee’s writing with the final result of the comic. This belief tore apart many great relationships Lee had with artists. As he rose to power, Lee seemed to be the only name the public knew. Depending on who you ask this is either Lee’s fault for not giving the artists enough recognition or the artist’s fault for not speaking up. Whatever the story it ended Lee’s relationship with a lot of artists, most notably Kirby. Later, Lee tried to make amends. He made sure Ditko was seen as the co-creator of Spider-Man.
Lee often spoke of how sorry he was that Kirby felt hurt by his actions. But Kirby wasn’t around to hear them. In a 2017 documentary entitled With Great Power , Lee said, “You know it’s a funny thing. Some people think I wrote and drew. They think that the scripts were just mine. But, they would be nothing without the artists I worked with. I just put the words in. I may have come up with the original idea; but after that, it was a partnership.”
There are three more opportunities to see Lee. He’ll be in Avengers 4 and Captain Marvel and most likely in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Then, the industry will have to find new ways to honor the grandfather of the newest American art form. Lee’s legend is stamped on the pages of comics and in the frames of films. His face and words stirred so fervently into the comics goulash that it won’t ever be separated.
Sirikul, when recounting the life of Lee said, “He’ll always be around. I’m glad we had him as long as we had him; that I lived in the era of Stan Lee.” There’s a sentiment of disbelief in the air. Gods don’t die. McCarty hopes that Lee’s Marvel Cinematic Self will be a Watcher who gets to go home.
Stan Lee is survived by his daughter Joan Celia Lee. A month and two weeks shy of his 96th birthday we salute a veteran, a father, a loving husband, and the creator of our favorite fantasy world. Onwards and upwards, Stan Lee. Excelsior!
Header Image Source: Getty
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