If you haven’t spent your life reading comic books, they can seem weird. Like any medium, like movies or books or podcasts, comics have their own informational syntax. The pairing of static images with cartoon indicators of motion, typographically distinct onomatopoeic sound effects, enbubbled words for dialog—you have to learn to digest all that.
After the basic architecture come more subtle cues. Time doesn’t always move at the same speed within a frame, or in the gutters between frames, as comics creator Scott McCloud has written. A single frame can last an hour or a nanosecond, and in that time the Flash can run across a county. A 3⁄16-inch gutter can separate frames by instants or millennia. Superheroes wear primary colors; villains wear secondaries or tertiaries. Splatters of black dots mean crackling energy. Words in round bubbles with pointers are speech; words in cloudlike bubbles connected by circles are thoughts. As in video, an image can convey a meaning opposite to the words spoken in it. As in text, words can evoke emotions and sensations that an image, by itself, wouldn’t. We comics readers internalize all that and a million other rules, truths, and tropes because some creator taught us how to read them, page by page, while we were engrossed in a narrative.
- Jim McLauchlin
12 Things You Learn Over Two Decades of Lunches With Stan Lee
- Graeme McMillan
The Best of Stan Lee’s Marvel Comic Books
- Adam Rogers
RIP Stan Lee, the Man Who Made Comics Cool
The person who first understood the real power of that medium, Stan Lee, died in November at the age of 95. He intuited early what it was for, what it was best at, how to shape that visceral power into a new kind of story. He also figured out how to industrialize the process. In late life, Lee was an avuncular spokesperson for superhero comics and a go-to cameo joke in blockbuster movies about characters he helped invent. But to the extent that joke landed, it was because Lee’s influence on the modern cultural landscape, as the longtime writer, editor, and publisher of Marvel Comics, was cosmic.
As one of his characters might say: “Stan Lee—dead! No! No, it can’t be!” The man who understood that with great power there must come great responsibility? The man who created or cocreated basically half of comic book superherodom? The Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Black Panther, Thor … I could go on! Lee, a florid—nay, dramatic!—master of bangs and em-dashes, an aggressive activator of alliteration, certainly would have.
Not a dream. Not a what-if. Stan Lee—no more.
It’s controversial whether Lee was the father of the modern superhero or more of a midwife. You could trace the concept of a human hero with godlike powers back to—well, gods, I suppose, or demigods. Detectives and adventurers have been challenging mad scientists, criminals, and monsters since the dime novels of the 19th century, with a lineage that goes back even further. Lee didn’t invent the comic book superhero; that’s usually credited to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a couple of Jewish kids from Cleveland who alchemized religious imagery, science fiction, and urban crime-busting into a hero who, rocketed to Earth as an infant, gained powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men to fight a never-ending battle for truth and justice.
That was Superman, of course, who came first in 1938. Then, the next year, came Batman. And then: the deluge. The books, cheap magazines that took advantage of bulk postage rates, crummy paper stock, and lousy four-color printing technologies, sold by the millions.
In fact, “Stan Lee” had his own secret identity—he started out as Stanley Lieber, a child of a Romanian immigrant father and New York–born mother, keenly aware of how scarce jobs, money, and fantasy were in the waning years of the Depression. Lee was just out of high school when a nepotistic connection scored him a gig as a gofer at Timely Comics in either 1939 or 1940 (his own accounts differed), in the art deco McGraw-Hill Building in Manhattan. Comics were “the absolute bottom of the cultural totem pole,” as Lee told IGN in 2000, and Timely wasn’t even publishing characters as popular as Superman and Batman. Lee’s job was to fill inkwells and fetch coffee for Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. It would be those two guys who gave Timely a real smash hit in the form of Captain America, who debuted in late 1940. As a career choice, comics was still a risky bet, but having grown up on a steady diet of Shakespeare, detective stories, and pulp, Lee had ambitions to write. His first story for Timely, a two-page text-only filler, was “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge,” which feels like a lot of words. (I’m indebted here to a vast canon of comics history, especially Sean Howe’s thorough Marvel Comics: The Untold Story .)
Simon and Kirby were two-timing Timely, freelancing from a nearby hotel room on their lunch breaks. The boss found out; they got fired. According to Simon, Kirby always thought it was Lee who ratted on them. Simon wasn’t so sure, and Lee denied it. At 18, Lee took over the editorial operations of Timely, becoming writer, editor, and art director, a superhuman presence who kept writing while serving in World War II. Timely expanded to funny-animal comics, romance books aimed at teenage girls, Westerns … and managed to stay alive.
After the war, the superhero craze died off. In comics and pulp more broadly, crime, sex, and horror became the real moneymakers. Eventually that led to an old-fashioned moral panic, replete with newsmagazine articles (What about the children?), book burnings, and worries that comics were too violent and too gay. In 1954 the US Senate held hearings; a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham wrote a book about the dangers of comics called Seduction of the Innocent . And the industry did what media industries used to do when the government came sniffing around: It caved. Fifteen publishers went out of business, and those that remained agreed to abide by a new watchdog, the Comics Code Authority.
The rules were stupid. Good must triumph over evil. Marriage is sacred. Don’t sympathize with criminals. They were the kind of rules that make stories boring. And comics, as a consequence, contracted. The sex and Grand Guignol horror disappeared; sales dropped. It was a bad time for comics.
By 1960 or so, Lee—now in his late thirties—knew he was capable of more. So were his freelancers. Lee had rehired Kirby to work on simpleminded monster stories for what was now called Atlas Comics, but Kirby yearned to create epic space-god cosmologies. Another writer-artist, Steve Ditko, was interested in nerds gaining power to mete out righteous justice. (He’d later go full Ayn Rand.) But those guys weren’t doing any of that yet. It wasn’t just the Code—Lee hated his boss’s fear of innovation as well as the ups and downs of a business in which he was already a 20-year veteran. His wife, Joan, convinced him to stick it out—if he was going to do one last comic book, she said, why not make it one he was proud of?
Around then, his boss—Martin Goodman, the same publisher who’d hired Lee in the first place—reportedly found out from his opposite number at the crosstown rival (which would become DC Comics) that they had a hit in Justice League of America , a team book featuring atomic-age revamps of some of their World War II–era characters. Goodman told Lee to copy it. But, you know, different.
What happened next is a matter of controversy—the kind that makes Lee’s legacy much more complicated. As Lee records it, he spent days tinkering, making notes, and then emerged with the expression of his central insight. If the rules said that the bad guys couldn’t be sympathetic, dangerous, violent, or a credible threat … the good guys would have to bear that narrative weight.
Where DC’s popular heroes had been gods and oligarchs, confident white men, Lee’s creative team was fascinated by the implications of what happened when outcasts got abilities they didn’t ask for. Lee added a new superpower: angst.
He had figured out that heroes like Superman were fundamentally boring. If nothing can hurt the guy, what’s the challenge? The most interesting conflicts would be internal. Lee conceived of a family, whose powers seemed to be based somewhat prosaically around earth, air, fire, and water—gained through their own hubris, against the backdrop of the Cold War space race. One of them, the Thing, would be the kind of monster Kirby had gotten good at writing, a creature dismayed at his own transformation. Lee wrote up a précis of the characters and the first issue and gave it to Kirby to lay out and art: the Fantastic Four.
Kirby told the story differently. He died 25 years ago, but in 1989 he described the origin of the FF to The Comics Journal , saying it had been his idea. One day he found Lee in despair, he said, as Goodman was getting ready to shutter the place. “He didn’t know what to do, he’s sitting in a chair crying—he was just still out of his adolescence. I told him to stop crying. I says, ‘Go in to Martin and tell him to stop moving the furniture out, and I’ll see that the books make money.’”
In Kirby’s favor: He’d written, in the late 1950s, a comic called Challengers of the Unknown featuring a team of four science-adventurers. It was familiar territory. Other evidence belies this extremist depiction. As The Comics Journal pointed out in its Lee obituary, contemporary evidence—notes, memos, the memories of other artists—says otherwise. And Lee wasn’t just out of adolescence, as Kirby would have it; he was nearly 40.
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What no one argues is that The Fantastic Four was a massive hit, the kind the company hadn’t seen since Captain America. Atlas changed its name to Marvel.
What followed was a decade of profound creativity. Ping-ponging ideas back and forth with Kirby, Lee fleshed out the Marvel pantheon. Their Jekyll and Hyde riff—another nerd, caught in an atomic-bomb-like explosion that transformed him into the Hulk—was less popular. But Lee’s next idea took off. A geeky, bullied teen granted awesome powers by the bite of a radioactive spider, Peter Parker would also be burdened with a massive personal failure early in his costumed career. As Spider-Man, he’d learn that he could never use his powers to enrich himself or avenge personal loss, but only to help others. Kirby’s macho style wasn’t right; Lee went to Ditko for fluid, dark weirdness.
The ideas came almost frantically, to keep up with demand. The X-Men: teenagers hated and feared by society, even their own parents, thanks to pubescent biological changes outside their control. Iron Man: a millionaire playboy who can never remove the armor around his heart. Doctor Strange: a Tibet-trained psychedelic mystic (who was mostly Ditko’s idea). Captain America, resuscitated after having been in suspended animation since World War II. Antimatter universes, intergalactic world destroyers! I mean! Set in a realistic New York City and illustrated with Pop Art verve, the stories turned comic books into zeitgeist. This was pulp as high art.
Even when the stories themselves didn’t soar, the storytelling did. From the fantasy-pulp midden, Lee had excavated a gem of a truth: These tales about men and women in garish tights hitting each other were also about more. Superheroes had incredible abilities, yes, but they were also often the victims of prejudice themselves, or trapped in moral webs stronger than anything Spider-Man ever thwipped. So the comics appealed to people who felt the same, even before Lee and the other Marvel creators published the first African American heroes, the first popular Asian American heroes, and strong, leading-character women in numbers large enough to populate a dozen summer crossovers.
Swirling soap-opera character motivations together with the costume fights and social relevance became a Marvel hallmark. Lee’s writers made the cultural chaos of the 1960s into a backdrop for their stories. In 1971, Lee even defied the Comics Code itself, giving one of Spidey’s supporting cast a tragic drug-use B-plot. “A story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul,” Lee wrote in a 1970 edition of “Stan’s Soapbox,” the column he awarded himself that ran in every Marvel book.
And in another, from two years prior: “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun … it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion.” Lee usually ended his column with the exhortation “Excelsior!” (Ever upward!) This one he signed off with “Pax et Justitia.” Peace and justice.
It wasn’t just that Lee and his colleagues figured out what made stories great—they also found a new way to generate those stories at scale. At its 1960s peak, Marvel was producing up to 18 monthly books, and Lee had a hand in all of them. That made it easier to create shared universes, with popular characters guest-starring in less-popular books to goose their sales. But it also transformed the business. In a process that would come to be called the Marvel Method, Lee would send a story for an issue to an artist, who would lay out the actual story on the page, leaving room for dialog. Lee would then fill in the bubbles, often with melodramatic, pseudo-Shakespearean tripe. Sometimes his summary would be complete, with key beats. Sometimes just a beginning and end, and someone like Kirby or Ditko would often change stuff. Collaboration made it better.
New Marvel writers had to ape Lee’s approach and tone; by some accounts, he judged artists mostly on their ability to imitate Kirby. Half a century before the golden age of peak television, Lee had stumbled onto the showrunner model. He had turned pop culture into art, and the manufacture of it into a commodity.
Lee’s direct involvement with so many books defined the “shared universe” concept. Comics had been crossing their characters over at least since the first Human Torch fought Namor the Sub-Mariner back at prewar Timely. But as Marvel Comics grew in popularity and sophistication through the 1960s, Lee developed that concept—into continuity and continuation. What happened in one book would affect what happened next not only in that book but in all the books. Even more remarkable, these stories were ongoing. They could have, as Lee construed it, the illusion of change—a villain unmasked, a mad scientist’s hidden island lair destroyed, shape-shifting aliens sent scurrying back to their home galaxy—but the heroes’ fundamental personal problems would only get worse. The unceasing parade of cliff-hangers and kraka-thooms was limited only by imagination and sales numbers. Lee had unlocked a key to serial drama, the foundation of today’s forever franchises. Without Lee, there’s no Star Wars , no Harry Potter.
"A story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul."
Meanwhile, Lee’s fundamental showmanship led him to do a lot more than write and edit. His monthly column touted the wacky fun of the “bullpen,” an exaggerated Marvel office where all your favorite writers hung out, bantering about groovy superheroes. He called fans “True Believers,” members of the “Merry Marvel Marching Society.” All the artists and writers got nicknames. (Kirby was the King.) Lee would make live appearances, narrate records. He ringmastered a weird Carnegie Hall show and spoke at colleges. He went on Dick Cavett’s talk show.
That approach to business, and his apparent willingness to take all the credit for Marvel’s creations, set him up as a target for resentment. Lee’s longtime partnership with Jack Kirby dissolved in acrimony in 1970. Kirby felt—not unreasonably—that Lee didn’t give him enough public credit and that Marvel didn’t give him enough money. Most of the artists for Marvel operated on a work-for-hire basis; Lee’s dual role as creative and spokesperson earned him money that other writers and artists did not. It all made Kirby so nuts he actually left Marvel for DC and, amid other craziness, created a villain based on Lee: the vapid, vain, cash-grubbing Funky Flashman. By the end of Ditko’s work on Spider-Man, in the mid-1960s, he and Lee didn’t speak to each other. Ditko did most of his work from home. The artists were doing a lot more than drawing.
By the 1980s, grimmer, grittier comics aimed at an older and more cynical audience were all the rage, partly because of the more mature themes Lee and his cocreators inserted in their work, skirting the weakening Comics Code Authority rules through metaphor and implication. By the end of the decade, Lee was mostly a figurehead; in the 1980s he narrated a Spider-Man cartoon and tried to license Marvel IP to movies and television. Marvel the company got traded around by corporate raiders before finally, in 1998, emerging from bankruptcy to merge with the toy company Toy Biz.
The reorganization actually saved the day. It paved the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, beginning with Iron Man in 2008. The next year, Disney acquired the company and the characters Lee had helped build. (And two years after that, the Comics Code Authority vanished completely, after multiple softening revisions initially forced by Lee’s flouting of it four decades prior.) Even into his dotage, though he rarely wrote, he appeared in cameos in multiple Marvel movies. For comics fans of a certain age—my age—Lee was very much the face of the medium.
Lee’s creative output never again matched what he’d done in the 1960s and ’70s. Let’s just say Stripperella, the character he created in the early 2000s with the actress and model Pamela Anderson, seems unlikely to have the staying power of, say, the Black Widow. He worked with other wannabe entertainment companies and ended up in financial and legal fights with some. Joan, to whom Lee had been married for 69 years, died in 2017. And in his final months, people in the industry worried that Lee’s caretakers were taking advantage of him. Lee filed a lawsuit against one earlier this year.
His death encouraged people to tell stories of Lee’s kindness and enthusiasm. But for every story that circulated after Lee’s death about how wonderful and caring he was, comics professionals tell other tales in which Lee is … not.
Every bit as complicated as the characters he helped bring into the world, Lee taught generations of nerds the concepts of responsibility, morality, and love. He waged a sometimes ham-fisted battle against prejudice, misunderstanding, and evil. This is what makes some of nerd-dom’s recent tack toward intolerance so painful; otherishness is engineered into comics’ radioactive, mutated DNA. Even if Lee wasn’t a super human, he was superhuman, empowering colleagues to leap creative obstacles and to give readers a sense of their own secret strengths.
Stan Lee died on November 12, 2018. But he leaves a legacy of work that pulses like mystic energy through the secret networks of our shared popular culture. Face front, True Believers! This is comics. Death is just part of the story arc. It’s never forever.
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