Lee, Stan (1922—)

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Lee, Stan (1922—)

As a writer, editor, and promoter Stan Lee revitalized comic books, created pop culture icons, and, in the process, became "comicdom's" first celebrity. Yet, before he made his mark on the industry and the culture, Lee spent 20 years toiling in obscurity.

Young Stanley Lieber, who had won the New York Herald Tribune essay contest for three consecutive years, had visions of being a great writer. After graduating from high school, the 17-year-old Lieber took what he thought would be a temporary job with Timely Comics (a company owned by his cousin-in-law, Martin Goodman). At first, the job consisted mostly of proofreading, sharpening pencils, and making coffee, but by the middle of the following year young Lieber did his first writing for comic books—a two page text piece in Captain America number 3. He signed the work "Stan Lee." It was the first use of the pen name that he would eventually make his legal name. A few months later, Lee wrote his first comic book script for a short, back-up story in Captain America number 5.

Although Lee was realizing his dream of becoming a professional writer, he soon expected to outgrow the crude medium of comic books. Circumstances conspired against him. Timely Comics editors Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left the company to work at DC Comics, leaving the talented young Lee to take their place. Although the name of the company changed repeatedly (Goodman used at least 50 corporate names for his publishing venture), Lee remained editor and chief writer for the next 30 years. For the first 20 years, he churned out mediocre comics in whatever genres were popular at the moment—he kept thinking that he would eventually quit comics and move on to "legitimate" writing.

Rather than outgrowing the comics, Lee forced comic books to grow up to suit him. By 1960, he was tired of following trends and cranking out hack work. In general, the comic book industry was in a slump, and Goodman's company, going by Atlas Comics at the time, appeared on the verge of folding. When instructed by Goodman to follow another trend and mimic DC's successful superhero team book, Justice League of America, Lee told his wife Joan that he was really going to quit this time. In an interview in Comic Book Marketplace, Stan Lee paraphrased his wife's response: "If you want to quit anyway why don't you do the book he wants, but do it the way you'd like to do it, and the worst that could happen is he'll fire you … and you want to quit anyway." He followed her advice, and the result, which appeared in 1961, was The Fantastic Four.

The basic premise of the superhero team was borrowed, but the execution was brilliant. In collaboration with Jack Kirby, Lee made The Fantastic Four grander, wackier, and at the same time, more human than anything the competition was producing. Most of the grandeur came from the imagination and pencil of Jack Kirby, but the humanity and the sense of fun came from the dialogue and captions written by Stan Lee. Lee and Kirby followed this initial success with the creation of The Hulk and Thor in 1962 and the X-Men in 1963. Working with artist Steve Ditko in 1962, Lee produced his most famous creation, Spider-Man. Publisher Martin Goodman thought that no one would want to read about a high school science nerd who gained the powers of something as creepy as a spider. He only allowed Lee to run the story in Amazing Fantasy number 15 because the title was being canceled. That was indeed the final issue of Amazing Fantasy, but the sales figures on that issue were so strong that Spider-Man appeared in his own title the following year.

Before 1961, comic book superheroes had one-dimensional, virtually interchangeable personalities and lived formulaic lives. When Lee's heroes are not defending the earth from weird menaces, however, they lead lives much like other New Yorkers (Lee's stories were set in the real world, not fictional cities such as Metropolis). They have trouble hailing cabs, get razzed by teenage toughs, chat with the mailman, and even lose money on the stock market—and young Peter Parker has to juggle typical teen problems with fighting super villains as Spider-Man when he realizes that "with great power comes great responsibility."

When The Fantastic Four number 1 was published Atlas Comics had actually gone out of business, and there was no company name on the cover. Goodman soon began using Marvel Comics as the name of his company, and due to the attention the books were receiving the name became permanent. Stan Lee was quick to trumpet the coming of the "Marvel Age of Comics," and it was more than just hype. Marvel's innovative characterization and storytelling began to attract older, more sophisticated readers. For a change, Lee was setting the trends, and the Marvel approach was soon copied by competitors. Lee became a charismatic pitchman for Marvel, making radio and television appearances, being profiled in mainstream magazines, and going on the college lecture circuit. In 1972 he left the comic book end of the business to oversee production of cartoons and films based on Marvel characters.

Stan Lee is a controversial figure in the comic book world. While he is often touted as a creative genius and the innovator that saved the flagging comic book industry, he is just as often dismissed as a self-serving huckster. His critics portray him as the front man who took most of the credit and did little of the actual work. It is true that the artists who worked with Lee, particularly Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, often did the lion's share of the storytelling. Because he was scripting and editing most of the titles in the early days of Marvel, Lee developed what became known as the Marvel Method of producing comic books. He had a story conference with the artist of a title and outlined the plot for the particular issue of a multi-issue story. The artist would draw a story based on that plot, and Lee would then write the dialogue and captions. Although Lee's exact contribution to any particular comic book will probably never be known, it is clear that Marvel Comics would not have been as successful—and comic books in general would not have been as much fun—without Lee's creativity, boundless enthusiasm, and love of the medium he meant to outgrow.

—Randy Duncan

Further Reading:

Brodsky, Bob. "Maestro of the Marvel Mythos!" Comic Book Marketplace. July 1998, 28-54.

Harvey, Robert C. The Art of the Comic Book. Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1996.

Jones, Gerard, and Will Jacobs. The Great Comic Book Heroes. Rocklin, California, Prima Publishing, 1997.