I was saddened, but not surprised, to learn that Stan Lee had passed away. He was 95 years old, and had been in poor health for some time now.
Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, was an incredibly important figure in American comic books. Lee was the editor and main writer at Marvel Comics during the 1960s, when what is now known as the Marvel Universe came into being. Lee co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Steve Ditko. He co-created the Fantastic Four, Incredible Hulk, Black Panther, Inhumans, and X-Men with Jack Kirby. Other characters he had a hand in conceiving were Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil and Ant-Man. It was apparently Lee who had the idea of creating superheroes who had flaws and who experienced everyday problems, just like normal people.
Lee also was an amazing publicist with an outsized public persona. He enthustastically promoted the Marvel brand and characters with the zeal of a master showman.
In subsequent decades there has been a great deal of debate, often contentious, concerning the division of labor, of exactly who did what, in the conception of these various characters and series. It is often difficult to parse these things in collaborative efforts. One might as well try to precisely determine who did what in the Beatles. I’ve heard Lee and Kirby likened to Paul MacCartney and John Lennon, and I think it is a valid comparison. Both were talented musicians, but each in a very different way, and when they worked together something occurred, some creative magic that you cannot explain or break down in any sort of analytical manner. So it was with Lee and Kirby, and with Lee and Ditko.
It is also worth mentioning that in the early 1960s no one – not Lee, not Ditko, not Kirby – no one had even the slightest idea that half a century later these characters would still be in print, much less become cultural icons worth millions of dollars. No one was taking detailed notes regarding the creative process, because they were all too busy attempting to keep the nascent Marvel Comics afloat.
It is obvious, however, to even the most casual reader that Stan Lee had a central role in the creation, and success, of the Marvel comic books of the Silver Age. Read any story by Ditko & Lee, or Kirby & Lee, and then read any story done by Ditko or Kirby working solo. They are very different, especially in the dialogue and narration.
One can argue that Lee could have made more effort to credit the precise contributions of Ditko, Kirby, and his other creative partners. That is probably true. But it is important to keep in mind that Lee made sure to credit to his collaborators, in a time when many comic books were published without any creator credits. He demonstrated more consideration than most other editors, and his efforts in this area did later lead to more precise attribution in subsequent decades.
Stan Lee also addressed a number of political and social issues in the stories he co-wrote and edited. I’ve heard Lee described as a “middle of the road” liberal by the standards of the 1960s, and nowadays he would probably be considered a moderate. It has been said that Lee was too liberal for Ditko, and too conservative for Kirby.
Nevertheless, the fact that Lee was willing to discuss controversial topics, however tentatively, within what in those days was regarded as a children’s medium, is significant in and of itself. Again, this laid the groundwork for subsequent creators who would more directly, and forcefully, tackle political issues within the comic book medium.
In 2018, with Comicsgate trolls expressing hatred for politics in comic books and disparaging social justice warriors, it’s important to recognize that Stan Lee was extremely interested in social justice. He co-created a number of black characters, and scripted numerous stories decrying humanity’s violent & intolerant nature. This was most pronounced in the Silver Surfer series he worked on with penciler John Buscema in the late 1960s. Although at times verging into the anvilicious, Lee’s pleas for peace & brotherhood were clearly genuine and heartfelt.
The above page from Silver Surfer #4, featuring beautiful artwork by John & Sal Buscema, provides an example of Lee’s progressive social commentary from that series.
Lee also promoted this message in Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins editorial pages. In one late 1960s edition of Stan’s Soapbox, he wrote:
“Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, 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 – to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”
I have written about Captain America #130 before, but I am going to touch upon that issue again here. Published in 1970, it was written by Stan Lee and drawn by Gene Colan & Dick Ayers. At one point Cap is asked by a group that claims to stand for “law & order” to make a speech on national television denouncing student protestors for their treasonous and un-American activities. Cap supposedly agrees, but once he is on the air he makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, exactly how he feels…
“I’ve been asked to speak to you today – to warn America about those who try to change our institutions – but, in a pig’s eye I’ll warn you! This nation was founded by dissidents – by people who wanted something better! There’s nothing sacred about the status quo – and there never will be!”
This scene was written by Lee almost half a century ago, but it still remains incredibly relevant.
Whatever his flaws & shortcomings, Stan Lee played a crucial role in the shaping of the American comic book industry, in the growth of Marvel Comics into a major publisher, in the careers of the creators who he mentored and who followed him, and in the development of comic book fandom. He will definitely be missed. ‘Nuff said!