Stan Lee, Thanks For Giving My Problems Superpowers
I knew the characters before I knew about the man.
Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk and Thor. It wasn’t until I rented the film Mallrats in 1996 that I realised it was the same person, Stan Lee.
The former editor and head writer of Marvel Comics has a small cameo in the film giving advice to a fan (Jason Lee). In the scene, Lee does what he always did best, he took everyday problems and applied them to super-powered beings.
Lee passed away on Monday 12 November in Los Angeles at the age of 95. Lee’s creations are one of the cornerstones of pop culture in the 20th century and they have endured because of their humanity.
To understand Lee’s impact you have to look at the difference between the two major comic book companies: Marvel Comics and DC Comics. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and The Flash all live under the banner of DC Comics and their central conceit is that they’re God-like characters (give or take a little with Bruce Wayne) coming to terms with life on Earth and the consequences of their actions.
On the Marvel Comics side, you have relatively normal people trying to deal with becoming superheroes. Spider-Man’s self-doubt and high school woes are always worse than any encounter with The Green Goblin.
The Fantastic Four’s in-fighting always threatened to tear them apart before they could stop Doctor Doom. The Hulk personifies the worst side of ourselves becoming the dominant personality. Iron Man’s technology prevents crude piece of shrapnel from piercing his heart.
In an interview with the Washington Post in 1992, Lee said:
I tried to make them real flesh-and-blood characters with personality, which should not be considered radical. That's what any story should have, but comics didn't up to that point, they were all cardboard figures. Make them real, give them personality. Give them problems.
Lee’s editorial work drove the legitimacy of comic books at a turbulent time when they were considered a trashy medium. One of Lee’s co-creations, The X-Men, were created in the 1960s amid racial tension during the American Civil Rights Movement.
The subtext would not be acknowledged straight away but it would become a comic book that showed comics could have a political subtext with bite.
In an interview with the Washington Post in 2012, Lee said:
All of our characters were freaks in their own way. The greatest example was with X-Men -- they were hated because they were different. The idea I had, the underlying theme, was that just because somebody is different doesn’t make them better. . . . That seems to be the worst thing in human nature.
Lee also made himself visible as an editor and a self-promoter. Long before writers, editors and artists were expected to keep up public appearances for the sake of promoting their work; Lee had the work ethic of a door-to-door salesman to ensure Marvel Comics was tied to the energetic persona of its chief editor.
Lee started talking directly to readers in a column in the back of Marvel comic books called ‘Stan’s Soapbox’, where he would discuss social issues and the intricacies of comic book characters’ lives, always with the unforgettable sign off, ‘Excelsior!’
Lee went beyond his job description to show how comic books were made and it brought attention to the process so fans could follow their favourite writers and artists. Comics no longer magically appeared on shelves, readers began to understand the process and the people behind their favourite characters, and it inspired a whole generation of storytellers.
With the passing of Lee it’s worth noting that his contribution to pop culture is littered with heartbreak over his relationship with the artists and writers who helped co-create Marvel’s roster of heroes.
As an editor, Lee changed the way Marvel Comics worked by collaborating with artists to come up with ideas and a sketch out plotlines. The artists would then go away and draw each comic and Lee, as a writer, would fill in the dialogue.
Marvel’s way of working gave artists more power to create and their method boosted the careers of great comic book artists like Steve Ditko, co-creator of Spider-Man, and Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America, Fantastic Four, Black Panther and more.
Lee and Marvel were often called out for not properly acknowledging the work of artists like Ditko and Kirby in helping to create Marvel’s empire. Lee fell out with his former colleagues and there was ongoing legal action for a long time, mainly because writers and artists had no legal right to their creations under their contracts.
Many artists struggled to earn money from royalties when they stopped working while Marvel Entertainment as a company -- purchased by Disney for $4 billion in 2009 -- continued to prosper with merchandise, cartoons, television shows and blockbuster films all in debt to the work of so many artists.
Lee’s greatest gift as a comic book creator is when the characters he co-created have been there when people needed them the most. We grab a Spider-Man comic book or see an Avengers film with the expectation of wanting a little escapism but walk away feeling a little closer to each character because they are instilled with real world problems despite fighting battles across the universe.
Lee gave Marvel Comics a soul that spread throughout pop culture.
Main image: Marvel/Universal.