Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee: The Legend Who Created Legends

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In this opinion piece, Knowledge@Wharton technology and media editor Kendall Whitehouse looks back at the career of comic book writer, editor and publisher Stan Lee, who passed away this week at age 95.

Stan Lee was the most famous individual in the history of comic books — a testament to his talent as a writer and editor, his longevity and his skills at self-promotion. His writing and editorial approach to the superhero genre created a universe of enduring fictional characters, elevated comic books from children’s entertainment to adult fare, and helped to establish Marvel Comics as a publishing powerhouse.

In conjunction with artists and visual storytellers like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck and others, Lee was instrumental in the creation of many of the comic book characters that populate the Marvel universe: the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-Man and hundreds of other superheroes, villains and supporting characters.

Lee’s career spanned nearly the entire history of comic books, starting in 1940 at the dawn of what would become known as the Golden Age of comics, serving as a driving force in the rebirth of the superhero genre in the Silver Age of the 1960s, and remaining as a figurehead in the industry as chairman emeritus of Marvel Comics until his passing. Widowed by his wife of nearly 70 years, Joan Lee, in July 2017, Lee is survived by his daughter, J.C. (Joan Celia) Lee, and his brother, Larry Lieber.

Born Stanley Martin Leiber on December 28, 1922, Lee began his career in comic books at age 17 when he was hired by his relative by marriage Martin Goodman, publisher of Timely Comics (the company that would later become Marvel Comics), to be an office assistant for editor Joe Simon.

When given his first chance to author a story — a short text piece that appeared in Captain America #3 in 1941 — he signed his name as “Stan Lee.”  As Lee later explained it, he wanted to reserve his real name for when he would write serious literature. But his future lay not in becoming a novelist, but as a writer, editor and publisher of comic books.

“… The members of the Fantastic Four had quirky personality traits. They bickered with each other.”

Through his writing, Lee introduced a new level of complexity and sophistication to comic book characters. Although dark, angst-ridden heroes are now the norm, that wasn’t the case at the dawn of the Silver Age of comics in the early 1960s. The urbane stories Lee penned helped to expand the audience for comic books beyond its traditional audience of pre-teen children to include older teenagers and college students.

Complex Characters

While the Fantastic Four was likely modeled after rival DC Comics’ Justice League of America, unlike DC’s noble and stolid characters, the members of the Fantastic Four had quirky personality traits. They bickered with each other. Youthful Johnny Storm is a teenage hothead (who is transformed in the Human Torch). Surly Ben Grimm — the Thing — hates what he has become and spends much of his energy attempting to get rid of his super-human strength (and freakish appearance). Other Marvel comics in the early 1960s continued this trend of psychologically complex characters. While Spider-Man is a successful crime fighter, his teenage alter ego, Peter Parker, is taunted by his schoolmates, frets over the health of his widowed aunt May, and often doubts his own abilities and motivations.

While the superheroes in DC Comics inhabit fictionalized locations – Superman in Metropolis, Batman in Gotham City, and so on — Lee placed his characters firmly within the real world. The Baxter Building, the headquarters Fantastic Four, is in midtown Manhattan. Daredevil arose out of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. Spider-Man’s Peter Parker lives with his aunt May in the Forest Hills community of Queens, New York.

In an amusing metafictional moment in The Fantastic Four #11, the titular team arrives at the local newsstand to pick up a copy of their comic book to find a long line of eager fans queued up to get the latest issue. Unwilling to wait in line, the gruff Ben Grimm says, “What’s the big deal? We know how the stories end!”

This grounding in reality also meant the stories in each comic book existed in the same universe. Characters from one title would often cross-over to meet the characters in another. Under Lee’s direction, the comic books laid the foundation for the “Marvel Universe,” in which each comic book is but one view into a larger world. Comprehending the full narrative required reading multiple comic book titles – a strategy of increasing relevance in the present world of transmedia marketing as the Marvel characters expand beyond comic books to include movies, television shows and more.

Lee is credited with developing what became known as the “Marvel method” of comic book production. In contrast to the conventional approach in which the writer develops a detailed script for the artist to render, Lee would often provide his visual collaborators with little more than an outline containing a few story elements. The illustrator would then plot the details of the story through the artwork — often including notes in the margin to explain the action to the writer. Lee would add the final dialog to the completed sketches before they were inked and printed.

“Lee leaves a rich legacy of stories and a durable imprint on the industry he helped to build. “

Designed primarily to accommodate the crushing amount of work that needed to be accomplished, in giving more creative control to the artist, the Marvel method also helped to advance visually exciting works. Illustrators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created dazzling works of illustrated art under Lee’s editorship. This unusual division of labor between writer and artist would later call into question who was the “creator” of the some of the characters once they became multimillion-dollar properties featured in motion pictures and licensed merchandise.

Lee was a skilled promoter — of his company, his work and himself. As Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon document in Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, Lee wasn’t averse to mythologizing his own life story to make it more dramatic.

The issue of how much credit is due Lee for the success of many of Marvel’s characters is hotly debated among fans and detractors. In one awkward moment in an interview with Jonathan Ross, Lee avoids giving artist Steve Ditko full credit as co-creator of Spider-Man stating, “I think the person who has the idea is the one who creates it” rather than the artist who gives visual expression to the idea.

Lee eventually parted ways with his early artistic collaborators such as Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, often clashing over artistic differences or the credit for their joint creations.

Some of Lee’s later initiatives were not as successful as his work at Marvel Comics. Stan Lee Media, formed in 1998 (as Stan Lee Entertainment), with partner Peter F. Paul, went public in 1999 but closed operations a year later and declared bankruptcy in 2001 amid scandals of stock manipulation on Paul’s part. In 2001 Lee bounced back, co-founding POW! Entertainment with partners Gill Champion and Arthur Lieberman, which went public in 2004 with Lee as chairman and chief creative officer. In 2017 POW! Entertainment was acquired by China’s Camsing International Holding.

In his later years, Lee was associated with a wide range of publications and products, over which his creative involvement is uncertain. As “Stan the brand,” his name would attract attention and his enthusiastic boosterism was an asset to his business partners.

In the final year of his life, allegations arose of financial mismanagement and exploitation by close associates. Lee initially rejected the claims he was a victim of elder abuse.  “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he told the New York Times. “Nobody has more freedom.”

Lee continued to make appearances at comic book conventions and fan festivals until earlier this year. His brief cameo appearances were a popular feature in the movies based on Marvel Comics’ characters.

Lee leaves a rich legacy of stories and a durable imprint on the industry he helped to build. He was instrumental in elevating comic books from being perceived as frivolous entertainment for children to a major art form. The characters he created continue to resonate throughout today’s comic books, motion pictures, television series and popular culture.

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