I've had several friends contact me recently about the recent death of yet another comic book legend, the one and only Stan Lee. Most assumed I'd already heard, while a few simply asked if I had. But all of them know that I'm a fan of comic books (and comic strips as well), not to mention pop culture in general, and so they knew that his death must have affected me in some way.
How could it not?
The fact that most of these friends were not comic book readers now, nor in many cases, ever, says quite a lot about how important Stan was in the creation or co-creation of countless well-known characters that have indelibly etched themselves in our world's pop culture.
Heh. Reading that last paragraph, I'll admit it sounds rather overstated. But it's not.
Stan with his wife Joan, who predeceased him.
Stan with unidentified fan. Heh.
Stan in front of many books which he wrote, as well as many he did not.
Stan and Roy Thomas.
Since I'm not about to launch another lengthy multi-parter like my recent Insect Man series, I will not even attempt an actual biography of the man who gave us –- either singly or with one or more collaborators –- such heroes, villains, teams, and supporting characters as Spider-Man, Thor, the Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four (Well, three of them, anyway!*), Nick Fury, the Black Panther, the Avengers, the Inhumans, Dr. Strange, Dr. Doom, Dr. Octopus (Uhhh, what the %$#!& is the fixation with doctors here?!?), the Green Goblin, Magneto, Loki, Baron Zemo, Groot (yes, that Groot), Kraven the Hunter, Kang, the Mandarin, the Puppet Master, the Lizard, the Sentinels, Stilt Man, the Owl, Gwen Stacy, Rick Jones, Wyatt Wingfoot, Aunt May Parker, Mary Jane Watson, Ant Man, Odin, the Mole Man, Mr. Hyde, the Grey Gargoyle, the Watcher, and scores of others, including a monster called – I swear – Fin Fang Foom! And I just gave you a partial list of Marvel characters from the 1960s!
(Over the next few weeks, I do plan to write a few more blog posts about Stan... But none of them will be labeled as Part Two or Three or whatever. Just more stand-alone articles.)
By the way, two quick notes here about that list above:
1. When I say Lee created or co-created Thor, Loki, Odin, and other characters (unnamed here) who obviously came from Norse mythology, I only mean that he had a hand in the crafting of Marvel's versions of these characters.
2. You may have noticed the admission of one major Marvel hero, one major Marvel villain, and even one major Marvel hero/villain, namely Captain America, Cap's bitter enemy the Red Skull, and Prince Namor (better known as the Sub-Mariner) respectively. Well, before Lee even came on board at what was then (“then” being the late 1930s and early 1940s) called Timely Comics, Subby was created by artist/writer Bill Everett, and both Captain America and the Red Skull were created by the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. In fact, the teen-aged Stan Lee's very first story was published in Captain America Comics #3!
Anyway, as told here, I hadn't been reading very long before I discovered Marvel Comics. In other words, I hadn't been reading very long before I discovered Stan Lee and his writing. It may not be apparent in the stuff I write, but his writing was an inescapable influence on my own, and, dare I say it, some of the actual attitudes that I live by to this day.
My first Marvel comic.
I'll bet Bill Maher would have gotten a chuckle out of my saying that Lee's writing influenced me as a person. Maher recently wrote a brief but highly controversial article about Stan Lee, which many have interpreted as a personal attack on Stan. I've read it – and no, I'm not going to link to it – and I see it more as an “attack” on those who, like myself, lament and make a fuss about the passing of someone who created stories purportedly meant for kids. Maher's piece seemed to make fun of all the men (and women) who still enjoy so-called “kid stuff” in any way shape, or form.
(I wonder if Bill Maher, as an adult, has ever visited Disneyland or Disney World? I do know that he frequented Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion, which was pretty much the same thing.)
If you've bothered to follow any of the obituaries flooding the airwaves and the internet, you're reading articles which give the man either too much credit for his accomplishments, or not enough. It depends on the sources various writers turned to in order to write their articles, and in some cases, whether or not said writer had a particular “angle” he or she wanted to espouse.
You're probably going to read (or maybe you've already read) that Stan was a prolific genius who created practically everybody who appeared in the Marvel Comics of the 1960s. On the other hand, you may hear that he was just a glory-grabbing company man who signed his name to everything and took credit for the hard work mostly done by artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Dick Ayers, Don Heck, and so many others.
Neither extreme is true, of course. Such black and white portrayals rarely are. And a lot of comic history is uncertain, relying on the memories of participants in said history whose memories may be faulty. (Stan himself always said he had a bad memory.) Also, most of the men and women who created comics in the Golden Age and even early Silver Age are now gone.
Two or three years ago, I had a conversation with my friend and former writing partner, Skip Simpson, in which Skip informed me (and I'm paraphrasing, of course) that “Stan Lee is so over-rated. All he did was write dialog for the stories and characters Marvel's artists created. Then he took most of the credit.”
Well, forgive me a moment of arrogance, but my reply was basically along the lines of “You've read one book about the entire history of Marvel Comics, and you want to tell me some 'new' details about Marvel and Stan Lee? Really? Seriously?” (And yes, I even discerned which book Skip had read, but I'm not going to link to that, either!)
Long before he became the guy who appeared in all the Marvel films, and even before Stan became the figurehead and public “face” of Marvel Comics, I knew Stan the writer/editor. (Okay, when I say “I knew Stan” I'm not being literal. Never met the man. But by reading so many of his stories – hundreds, at least – I felt like I kinda/sorta knew him, at least a little bit.)
During my so-called formative years, I experienced and/or read about the little innovations Stan Lee brought to the comic medium as a writer and editor. Just two examples, then I'll shut up for today:
1. Back in the mid-1960s, Stan had to personally communicate with Marvel's printer so they would stop coloring Gabe Jones (an African-American who appeared in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos) like just another Caucasian. He also used Gabe (and other characters from minority groups) as the focus for various stories that spoke against racial prejudice, religious intolerance, and other forms of ethnic-based hatred. More on that some other time.
2. Stan fought the Comics Code Authority in the early 1970s because they refused to permit any mention of recreational drug use, even to say that drugs were bad. Stan asked, "Then how do we reach these kids?" and when the CCA stood their ground, so did he. He published a trio of Spider-Man stories without that precious Comics Code seal of approval.
Over the years, eclipsed by the image of the ever-smiling company mascot (if I may use the term “mascot” so cavalierly) who didn't take himself too seriously, some of Stan Lee's more courageous stands have been downplayed, if not outright forgotten.
Not by me.
Thanks for your time.
*Stan Lee and Jack Kirby co-created Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl (later the Invisible Woman), and the Thing. However, the Human Torch was created by Carl Burgos... although “human” was a misnomer for an android superbeing! The Torch's 1960s Johnny Storm persona was developed by Lee and Kirby.