Stan Lee is one of the true comics legends. Few comics writers have created so many popular and enduring franchises. His 1960s superhero creations for Marvel Comics were instrumental in the so-called "Silver Age of Comic Books", a period of artistic advancement and commercial success in mainstream comic books. He co-created 'The Fantastic Four' (1961, with Jack Kirby), 'Spider-Man' (1962, with Steve Ditko), 'Thor' (1962, with Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber), 'The Incredible Hulk' (1962, with Kirby), 'The X-Men' (1963, with Kirby), 'Iron Man' (1963, with Lieber, Kirby and Don Heck), 'The Avengers' (1963, with Kirby), 'Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos' (1963 with Kirby and Dick Ayers), 'Doctor Strange' (1963, with Ditko), 'Daredevil' (1964, with Kirby and Bill Everett), 'Hawkeye' (1964, with Heck) and 'The Silver Surfer' (1966, with Kirby and John Buscema). He pioneered the idea of having all these characters frequently cross-over with one another. This 'shared' universe made their respective mythologies stronger and promoted them to readers unfamiliar with them. The characters also managed to appeal to people who usually don't enjoy superhero comics, such as youngsters and even adults. Lee and his artists thought up stories where the psychological and social issues were just as important as the action. Characters often battle with self-doubts or their conscience. Real-life tragedies such as prejudice, drug abuse and death are addressed as well. By tackling these subjects in a tasteful and touching manner Lee and his artists managed to break the Comics Code, the medium's official censor commission. The board effectively disbanded itself soon afterwards, opening more creative possibilities for cartoonists. His talent as a writer and self-promotor transformed Marvel Comics into the biggest comic book company in the world, only rivalled by DC Comics. Together with Walt Disney, Al Capp, Hergé, Charles M. Schulz, Robert Crumb and Seth MacFarlane, Stan Lee is one of the few comics authors whose name and face is recognizable to a broad general public during their own lifetime. He is also one of the scarce comics writers to be more famous than the artists with whom he collaborated.
Born Stanley Lieber in New York in 1922, Stan Lee originally wanted to become a novelist. He instead entered the comic book scene at age seventeen, as assistant editor for the Timely Comics group. His first script was the 'Captain America' text story 'Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge' (1941), in which he gave the superhero his iconic shield-toss. That same year he created his first characters, the Destroyer (with either Jack Binder or Alex Schomburg; Historians still debate the issue), as well as Jack Frost (co-created with Frank Giacoia and Carmine Infantino) and Father Time, whom Lee thought up in collaboration with Jack Alderman. In 1942 Lee was promoted to editor. He also became one of the major scriptwriters of the company, after Jack Kirby and Joe Simon had left. During this period he mostly wrote stories for the above mentioned series, as well for 'Sub-Mariner', 'Young Allies', 'The Witness' and 'The Human Torch'.
In the 1950s, after Timely renamed itself "Atlas Comics", he penned scripts for superhero comics starring 'The Whizzer' and 'Black Marvel', but also horror, romance, comedy, SF, western and fantasy adventures. Together with Dan DeCarlo Lee took over the comic strip 'My Friend Irma' (1950-1955) from Jack Seidel, which was based on the succesful radio sitcom of the same name. However, this broader scope of genres and quicker production couldn't prevent Atlas from going bankrupt in 1957. At the time their comic books were predominantly assembly line work that didn't allow Lee to show off his own originality. By 1961, when the company renamed itself Marvel, he was on the brink of quitting comics for good. Lee's wife convinced him to try a final story more in line with his personal taste. This comic book, 'The Fantastic Four' (1961), drawn by Jack Kirby, unexpectedly became an over-nite sensation. It not only saved Marvel, but also transformed them into the major competitor of rival company DC. Lee naturally decided to stay and received more creative freedom. It allowed him and his fellow artists to create more storylines and series according to their own personal tastes.
'The Fantastic Four' was meant as Marvel's answer to DC's 'Justice League'. Mr. Fantastic, the team's leader, is able to stretch his body into all lengths. The Thing is a strong monster made from rock. Invisible Woman can generate power fields and make herself invisible, while the Human Torch can create fire. The series was notable for its innovations. This team doesn't work in secret: they are as famous as any humanitarian organisation. Some of the quartet are still teenagers. Others are siblings or married to one another, creating more the feeling of a "family". Over the years each one of them would receive their own eponymous spin-off series. Lee and Kirby even dared to make changes in the Fantastic Four's line-up for several issues. Various side characters introduced in the franchise, like the supervillains Dr. Doom (1962) and Galactus (1966), would also make their entrance in Marvel's other series. What attracted teenage readers the most was the fact that these were superheroes whom they could identify with. People of their age who spoke in everyday street talk and struggled with teenage angst.
Emotions and doubts in Amazing Spider-Man #97: 'Green Goblin Reborn!' (art: Gil Kane)
'Spider-Man', created in 1962 in partnership with Steve Ditko, is Marvel's most famous character. He is also the third most recognizable superhero in the world after 'Superman' by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and Bob Kane's 'Batman', both owned by DC. Contrary to his rivals, Spider-Man is not an adult, but a teenager. He still has to combine his humanitarian missions with a normal teenage life. The character was notable at the time because he operated without a mentor or a sidekick. As a result he had to make all his moral choices and decisions alone, which puts a heavy burden upon his life, particularly since he can't tell anybody about his secret double existence as a superhero. Or as his famous motto explained it: "With great power comes great responsibility." Spider-Man thanks his name to the fact that he's able to shoot spider-webs and uses them to swing from one building to another. He is also able to see, hear and feel things others can't observe, which spawned another famous catchphrase: "My spidey-sense is tingling." The franchise is known for its colourful supervillains, of whom Dr. Octopus (1963), Sandman (1963) The Green Goblin (1964) and Venom (1988) are the best known. Highly influential in his own right, Spider-Man's design inspired various other superheroes since, most notably Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld's 'Deadpool' (1991). 'Spider-Man' reached a wider audience through the animated TV series 'The Amazing Spider-Man' (1967-1970), which was produced by a still unknown Ralph Bakshi. While not generally remembered as a good adaptation, it's theme song, "Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can", composed by Paul Francis Webster and Bob Harris, is still well-known today. It has even been covered by Woody Shaw, The Ramones, Aerosmith and spoofed by Matt Groening's Homer Simpson in 'The Simpsons Movie'. The most critically acclaimed 'Spider-Man' adaptations so far have been the movies Sam Raimi directed in the 2000s, with Tobey Maguire as the titular character.
'The Incredible Hulk' is Lee's second most recognizable character, co-created with Kirby in 1962. Somewhat based on Robert Louis Stevenson's novel 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde', it tells the tale of Bruce Banner, a neurotic scientist who becomes victim of gamma radiation. He survives, but whenever he gets anxious or angry he transforms into a big, green, monosyllabic muscular monster who smashes everything up. As iconic as the character is nowadays, the original series only ran six issues. A year and a half after his debut Lee and Kirby picked up where they left and continued its production. The Hulk struck a nerve with many people who could relate to his anger problems and inability to properly express himself. His pop culture fame increased when the TV series 'The Incredible Hulk' (1978-1982) with Lou Ferrigno went in the air. The TV series introduced Banner's familiar warning: "Don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I get angry", which was later added to the comics as well. The show was also adapted into a newspaper comic, scripted by Stan Lee and drawn by Lee's younger brother Larry Lieber. Rather than use Marvel's comic characters it opted for a more realistic look, modelled after the actual TV actors. After a few episodes Lee let his brother write the stories too. In 1979 Lieber passed both writing and drawing to Rich Buckler, until he too was succeeded that same year by Alan Kupperberg, who would continue the series until its final run.
In 1963 Lee and Kirby created two other similarly famous superhero teams, namely 'The X-Men' and 'The Avengers'. The X-Men are a group of mutants who fight for peace and equality between humans and mutants. Lee made them mutants to avoid having to think up an actual origin story. The original quintet consists of the laser-eyed Cyclops, the animalistic but genius Beast, the winged Angel, the telepathic and -kinetic Phoenix (Marvel Girl) and the ice-creating Iceman. Together they fight the mutant Magneto, who is far more distrustful of humans and wants to exterminate them all. Rather than make him an one-dimensional villain Magneto's distrust is given some basis, since the humans don't like mutants at all. Various 'X-Men' stories work around the theme of prejudice and notably star characters from all different races, cultures, religions and sexes. 'The Avengers' are a more traditional superhero crossover team, starring characters Marvel readers were already familiar with, rather than new ones. Over the decades both 'X-Men' as well as 'The Avengers' gave Marvel the opportunity to use all their characters from all their series. This provided possibilities to introduce or popularize characters, as well as let their individual personalities work off one another.
Throughout the 1960s Marvel introduced many other enduring superheroes. Of all these, 'Thor' (1962) is the least original in the sense that Lee, Kirby and Larry Lieber based him completely on the eponymous Norse mythological god and just updated him to modern times. More innovative was 'Iron Man' (1963), created by Lee, Lieber, Kirby and Don Heck. It starred a man, Tony Stark, who was forced to wear an armor suit full with technological gadgets. Lee deliberately made him an unlikeable weapons industrialist to provide him and his artists a challenge in getting his readers to sympathize with his fate. Stark is arrogant, corrupt and morally irresponsible, but also shown as a vulnerable man who struggles with alcoholism and a chest wound he received during a kidnapping. As he grows into his superhero modus he starts to rethink his life and tries to become a better person. The series often referred to real-life criminal organisations and political issues, such as the Vietnam War and later the Gulf War. 'Doctor Strange' (1963), which Lee created in collaboration with Ditko, featured a brilliant but vain surgeon who dabbled in black magic. Its mystic themes and frequent psychedelic imagery particularly appealed to hippie readers. 'Daredevil' (1964), a creation of Kirby and Bill Everett, stars a man who is blinded by radioactivity but develops a radar sense. He is one of the few Marvel characters whose popularity later increased under the pen of a different writer, Frank Miller, who fleshed him out in the 1980s and 1990s. Another character whose popularity only arrived later was 'Hawkeye' (1964), created by Don Heck and Lee. The master archer originally appeared as a remorseful antagonist in the science fiction series 'Tales of Suspense' (1964) and was later recruited as a helpful member of the Avengers.
Of all characters Lee was involved with, 'The Silver Surfer' (1966, with Jack Kirby) was his personal favorite. The extraterrestrial astronomer hails from the planet Zenn-La, which he protected from being destroyed by emperor Galactus by offering the tyrant his services. He became his official heraut, set out to find new planets to conquer. The Silver Surfer thanks his name due to the fact that he is covered in indestructible silver and uses a surf plank to travel through space. Blessed with gigantic cosmic powers, but cursed by living an almost emotionless existence, the space traveller lands on Earth. There he threatens our planet, but the Fantastic Four manage to defeat him. Silver Surfer changes teams and condemns Galactus, who banishes him to live on Earth for eternity. 'Silver Surfer' ran for only 18 issues in its original run, but the protagonist proved memorable enough to frequently appear in the 'The Fantastic Four' series. One of the character's strengths is the fact that he tries to understand mankind, even though their actions and deeds often make him wonder how "civilized" they actually are. This philosophical dimension made him popular with college-educated youngsters. In 1987, after a few one-shot specials, the 'Silver Surfer' series was finally revived, with scripts by Steve Englehart and later Jim Starlin, Ron Marz, George Pérez, J.M. DeMatteis, Ron Garney, Jon J. Muth, J. Michael Straczynski and Matt Fraction. Among the artists who've drawn on the series are John Buscema, Tom Grindberg, Ron Garney, Moebius, Jon J. Muth, Esad Ribic and Mike Allred. The character 'Dr. Manhattan' in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' 'Watchmen' (1986-1987) is an obvious satire of 'The Silver Surfer', down to his design.
While most of Lee's creations were superheroes, he, Kirby and Dick Ayers also created a series more grounded in reality. 'Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos' (1963-1981) featured sergeant Nick Fury, officer of a special military unit duing World War II. The series was notable for its multicultural cast, including the Jewish Private Isadore Cohen, Italian-American Dino Manelli, British Percival Pinkerton and Africa-American Gabriel Jones. 'Sgt. Fury' also feature a German, Eric Koenig, who joined the squad after deserting the Nazi Army. The series eventually proved too time-consuming to continue and ended in 1981. Two specials featured Fury and his men reuniting during the Korean and even the highly unpopular Vietnam War.
The strength of Lee's scripts was that he endowed his characters with super-human abilities, yet with human failings and emotions the reader could identify with. The Fantastic Four, for instance, often argue with one another. Peter Parker ('Spider-Man') is a geeky teenager who is often bullied and full of recognizable teenage self-doubt, even questioning why he - of all people - should be saving mankind? Characters like the Thing ('The Fantastic Four') and the Hulk are ultra-strong, yet have a monstrous appearance that feels more like a curse than a blessing to them. Iron Man is forced to wear armor due to a shrapnel stuck through his heart. Another break with tradition was the absence of sidekicks and one-dimensional villains. Dr. Doom ('The Fantastic Four') and The Green Goblin ('Spider-Man') weren't simply evil for the sake of being evil, but had personal problems which explained their motivations and made readers sometimes pity them. Lee enriched dialogue by having characters speak in slang and use language that fit their respective personalities.
"Stan the Man" also introduced the concept of a "shared universe". Characters from different Marvel franchises all co-exist in the same world, making frequent cameos and crossovers possible. While other superhero comics tried similar ideas Lee and his colleagues took it to another level, where the team-ups felt part of a larger story instead of being mere guest spots. Marvel's series also drew attention by addressing real-life issues, such as racism, social activism, drug abuse and actual death. The Black Panther (co-created with Jack Kirby, 1966), The Falcon, (co-created with Gene Colan, 1969) and Luke Cage (created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr., 1972) were the first African-American super-heroes.
One particular 'Spider-Man' story in issue 96-98 (1971) dealt with Peter Parker's best friend coping with his drug addiction. The Comics Code heavily objected against the depiction of this taboo subject in a children's medium. However, after publication the story drew so much praise that the Comics Code lost a lot of their authority. Within a few years they practically ceased out of existence, allowing more creative freedom for U.S. comics publishers. One of the groundbreaking stories that otherwise wouldn't have been published was the 'Spider-Man' episode 'The Night Gwen Stacy Died' (1973), written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Gil Kane, John Romita Sr. and Tony Mortellaro, which shocked audiences by having a major character in the franchise permanently die off.
By moving away from the safe, child friendly worlds of most super hero comics and writing more complex and contemporary tales, Marvel reached a more mature demographic. Colleges, magazines and talk show hosts invited Lee for readings and interviews. Film directors Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais told him in person how much they adored his work. Resnais even wrote a screenplay with Lee called 'The Inmates/ The Monster Maker', but this idea never materialized. Yet Lee did play the narrator in Resnais' film 'L'An 01' (1973): an adaptation of the eponymous comic book by Gébé.
In 1966 Steve Ditko left Marvel. Jack Kirby did the same in 1970. John Romita Sr. then emerged as Lee's main co-artist. In 1972, Lee became publisher and editorial director of Marvel. Two years later he and John Buscema wrote a book titled 'Origins of Marvel Comics'. 1998 saw the foundation of the marketing studio Stan Lee Media, but in 2001 the company filed for bankruptcy due to illegal stock manipulation. Lee himself had nothing to do with this crime and was thus never prosecuted. In the timespan of half a century "Stan the Man" created countless new comics series or one-shot albums. Even in old age he remained open for innovation and experimentation. In 1977 a comic book about the rock band Kiss was published. The book 'Just Imagine Stan Lee' (2001) reinvented several superheroes from rival company DC as a one-shot joke. He even delved into manga, with the publication of Hiroyuki Takei's 'Karakuridóji Ultimo' (2008-2015) and Tamon Ohta's 'Heroman' (2009-2012). In 2010 the Stan Lee Foundation was established to promote literacy, education and art projects.
Various TV and Hollywood adaptations have kept the public interest in Marvel Comics alive. Lee made it a contractual obligation to have a cameo in all of Marvel's film adaptations since 'Spider-Man' (2002). This, along with frequent appearances in talk shows, documentaries, sitcoms, video games and at comic-cons, made him arguably one of the most recognizable comics authors in the world. He had a cameo in two of Matt Groening's 'The Simpsons" episodes, namely 'I Am Furious (Yellow)', (2002) and 'Married to the Blob' (2014). The comics veteran received the National Medal of Arts in 2008 and three years later his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2007, as an ultimate tribute, Marvel built an action figure modelled after him.
Typical tongue-in-cheek Marvel credit byline from Captain America #101
While the spiritual father of Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four has achieved a legendary status among comics fans, Stan Lee was not free from controversy. The amount of credit he deserves for his innovations and creations has sometimes been contested. When preparing stories Lee usually only wrote a brief synopsis. His artists would then think and draw out the stories themselves. Afterwards Lee just filled in the speech balloons and captions. Thanks to his knack for self-promotion and the fact that he outlived many of his contemporaries he nevertheless became far more famous and respected than his former colleagues. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in particular held a lifelong grudge against him. While the debate still rages on to this day, it must be said that Stan Lee gave his artists more credit than previously had been the rule in the business. At the start of each story he cited the writer, illustrator and even the penciller, inker, colorist and letterer. Not only did this tighten the bond between creator and audience: it also made these previously anonymous people more familiar names to the outside world. The comics icon also deserves respect for saving the entire superhero comics industry from fading away in popularity. Without his risk-taking, impressive productivity and streamlining of different talents many of the most hailed artists in the field probably wouldn't exist in the same way.
Stan Lee caricature by Drew Friedman