“Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko made great comics, but Stan Lee made comics great.”
We lost a titan today. Although this generation knows him largely from a number of cameo roles in Marvel movies, Stanley “Stan the Man” Lee (n. Lieber) changed the face of pop culture as we know it — including and especially science fiction, Forry’s favorite. Without Lee, those Marvel movies — you know, the ones dominating the box office and making soccer moms familiar with Tony Stark — wouldn’t exist. Say what you will about Stan Lee’s recent status as the corporate face of a nerd generation, what he did was get in on the ground level of a cultural movement and make it exciting. He reinvented heroes as ones who, like classic monsters, often suffered for their extraordinary qualities. And if you think monsters and superheroes have nothing in common, well, the Incredible Hulk would like to have a word with you…
An extended memorial to Stan Lee will appear in the next print issue of Famous Monsters. For now, please enjoy this insightful commentary by Robert E. Howard scholar and friend of FM, Charles Hoffman.
The younger generations today know Stan Lee mainly by reputation and cameo appearances in the movies based on his creations. To them, he was a jovial public relations figure, sort of like Colonel Sanders. A shrewd and tireless self-promoter, Lee made damn sure everyone knew he was the Godfather of Marvel Comics.
But it is not some patriarchal Comic Book Grampa that I am remembering today. As a first generation fan of the Marvel Comics Group, I was there. I consider myself fortunate to have read the “Marvel mags” back when they were being produced by the original creators — drawn by visionary artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, and written by Stan Lee.
In addition to co-creating the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, X-Men, and the other original Marvel characters during the early sixties, Stan Lee also wrote most of their adventures. Using the “Marvel Method”, Lee would confer with Kirby, Ditko, and other artists to discuss the plot. The artist would illustrate the story as he saw fit. Afterwards, Lee would add captions and dialogue based on the finished artwork and deriving inspiration from it.
Whether or not he deserves his accolades as the creator of the Marvel Universe, Stan Lee’s role as the builder of the Marvel Comics brand itself is beyond dispute. From the earliest days, he believed in the new superhero line’s potential for greatness. Stan labeled FANTASTIC FOUR “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” starting with the cover of the fourth issue. The eleventh issue featured a special story that opened with a crowd forming outside a newsstand: “Say, fella, what’s everyone standin’ on line for?” “Get with it, Peanut! This is the day the new Fantastic Four comes out!” All this over what was then actually an obscure new comic book title that even most comics readers had not yet heard of. It was a classic example of “fake it until you make it,” but make it the FF did. The Galactus trilogy in FANTASTIC FOUR #48–50 remains the comic book epic by which all others are judged.
Lee also introduced what would become his greatest creation: not any specific character or title, but the Marvel Comics Group itself. FANTASTIC FOUR’s publisher was first identified by a microscopic “MC” on the cover. This changed abruptly when the covers of FANTASTIC FOUR #14, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #2, and other May 1963 issues finally displayed the “Marvel Comics Group” logo. It was affixed to the soon-to-be-familiar upper left hand corner panels, designed by Steve Ditko, featuring portraits of the characters.
None of this would have mattered had Marvel not been offering a superior product, one more vibrant, more exciting, more imaginative and interesting than anything the competition had to offer. FANTASTIC FOUR and SPIDER-MAN were the twin pillars of what Stan called “The House of Ideas”. As editor of the Marvel line, Lee made sure that heroes, villains, and supporting characters all had distinctive personalities. As a writer, he understood clearly that if you create great characters, those characters will give you their stories — another factor that contributed to his prolific output.
In writing heroic sagas about complex, emotionally conflicted characters, Stan Lee combined elements of the oldest type of story with those of the newest. With a pronounced flair for the dramatic, he coined story titles with a Shakespearean or Biblical resonance: “If This Be My Destiny!” “Giants Walk the Earth!” “When Fall the Mighty!” “Behold! A Distant Star!” “Lo, There Shall Be an Ending!”
Stan Lee never condescended to readers; he challenged them. Marvel comics were enjoyed by kids, teens, college students, and readers well into adulthood. No comic books before or since the Marvel Age had quite the same eight-to-eighty appeal. With Stan Lee at the helm, the Marvel Comics Group breathed new life into a moribund art form.
A biographer once observed that Lee’s “Stan the Man” schtick to some extent obscured his real accomplishments. It should be duly noted, however, that Marvel owes much of its success to Stan the Man’s skill in public relations. As a marketing genius, Stan Lee had few equals. The way Lee built the Marvel Comics brand from the ground up — imbuing the company’s product with its distinctive characteristics, guiding the development of its fictional universe, raising the profile of the Marvel brand name from literally nothing, cultivating an enthusiastic fan base — is something that should be studied in business school.
There are those who would dismiss such significant achievements as these as merely those of a clever huckster, just as there are those who would deny Lee’s creative genius as a writer. Yet to read stories such as Daredevil “In Mortal Combat with Sub-Mariner!,” “The Origin of the Silver Surfer!” or “Spider-Man No More!” is to experience comic book writing at its finest. Stan Lee set the standard and pointed the way for others who followed.
In 1961, comic books were disparaged as lowbrow entertainment of the tawdriest sort, suitable only for children or the semi-literate. Given the rising cost of paper, it is doubtful that they would have survived past the seventies had they remained as they were then. The comic book may well have gone the way of the pulp magazine.
But Stan Lee had undertaken a mission, one that he made clear in his Bullpen Bulletins: “As you know, Marvel has spent years trying to upgrade the art of comic magazines — for art it truly is, every bit as much as cinema, the legitimate stage, or any other form of creative expression.” It was a mission no one else had thought to undertake, and it was a mission that he accomplished.
Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko made great comics, but Stan Lee made comics great.