In Memorium: Stan Lee

November 12, 2018

This is a hard one to write. Stan "The Man" Lee means so much to so many people. His passing at the age of ninety five marks the end of an era in comics. As I write this, on the evening of Monday 12th November every single one of my social media feeds is chock full of people telling their own personal Stan Lee stories, or just checking in with an "Excelsior".

 

If you like comics even a little bit you know who Stan Lee was. You also have a pretty good idea what his achievements were. I'm going to tell you again anyway, because they were many and should be celebrated. But mostly I'm going to consider what Stan Lee meant  - and continues to mean - to people. Because it is a lot.

 

We knew we were going to lose him, of course. The last few months of his life were played out in public, and I wish they'd been less troubled than they were. He lost Joan, his wife of almost seventy years in July last year - and hard on the heels of that loss, which must have been bewildering and traumatic he found himself embroiled in legal battles with executives from his company POW! Entertainment, his business manager and a man who had been looking after his affairs.


Whatever the rights and wrongs of those disputes, the stress involved must have taken its toll - and if all that wasn't bad enough in June of this year the Police in Los Angeles revealed that there had also been an investigation into allegations that Lee had been a victim of elder abuse. There is no suggestion that any of these things contributed directly to his death, but logically they really cannot have helped.

 

The child who would grow up to be Stan Lee was born in late December 1922 in Manhattan, the place he would eventually help populate with superpowered heroes and villains, the son of Celia and Jack Lieber. His childhood was unremarkable for a boy of his background. Times were hard in the New York of the twenties and thirties, but there were books and there were movies - he loved heroes and was a particular fan of Errol Flynn - and he loved to write, imagining as most young New Yorkers with literary ambition still do - that he might one day write the great American Novel.

 

Again, like most young men of his age and background, young Stan had to be practical. He got jobs delivering sandwiches, as a theatre usher, as an office boy, and his first paid writing gigs - although preparing press releases for the National Tuberculosis Centre and obituaries for news agency perhaps challenged his imagination less than he would have liked.

 

It seems he was a bright kid though. In 1939 he graduated high school at sixteen - a year younger than is usual - and with the help of his uncle, Robbie Soloman got a job as an assistant at Timely Comics, the company that would eventually evolve into the graphic gargantuan that is Marvel.


As you might expect, his initial responsibilities were somewhat menial. In an age where dip pens were still the norm he re-filled inkwells, he re-discovered his sandwich delivery days fetching lunch for writers and artists before moving up to proofreading and then finally, in 1941, flexing his writing muscles with the prose story  "Captain America foils the Traitor's Revenge"  in Captain America Comics #3.  This story has two distinctions - it introduced the good Captain's now trademarked "ricochet technique" with his shield throwing, and more importantly it was the first time he used the name Stan Lee.

 

It has been speculated that like many New York jews Stanley Lieber adopted a less Jewish sounding name to avoid prejudice anti-semetism. Lee himself stated that in fact he was saving his real name for that great American Novel, only legally adopting the Stan Lee moniker years later when it was the only name people ever called him by.

 

From there his rise was rapid - moving from prose filler to fully fledged back-up strips just two issues later and to writing and creating his own characters within the year. Then in late 1941, aged just nineteen, he was appointed "interim editor" at Timely, after Joe Simon and Jack Kirby* quit the company after a dispute with the company's publisher Martin Goodman (who himself was only thirty - in the nineteen forties superhero comics were a young industry in every sense of the word...).

 

Think about that for a second. He went from filling inkwells and fetching lunch to editor in two years, and all before he was twenty. Luck may have had something to do with it of course, but this still suggests something about the young man's drive, charisma and talent.

 

Of course at this point Lee's creative career was interrupted by the Second World War, where he served first in the Signal Corps and then in the training film section, but he returned to Timely on his return to New York when the war ended in 1945.

 

Lee plugged away, writing comics in many genres, from Western to Romance, and by the late fifties was getting jaded and disheartened. He'd set out to write the Great American Novel after all, and here he was, in an office in New York, churning out stories for the guy he'd been working for since he left school. He gave serious consideration to quitting and trying something else.

 

Meanwhile, across the street** at the company Lee would refer to as the "Distinguished Competition" the great DC editor Julie Schwartz was busy making the long moribund Superhero genre relevant again. Sensibly sensing that there was money to be made, Martin Goodman tasked Lee with putting together their own line of super powered characters. In what might have been the most important pep-talk in the history of popular culture, Lee's wife Joan suggested that since he was planning to quit anyway he might as well just do whatever he wanted  - what were they going to do? Fire him? If he was quitting anyway, who cares?

 

What followed was an amazing explosion of creativity. How much of it was purely Stan's is a matter of conjecture at this point. It seems pretty well accepted that he might have over-claimed his input into some of the characters he worked on, but honestly that really is a subject for another time and place.

 

What cannot be disputed is that alongside Jack Kirby he co-created The Fantastic FourThe X-Men***The Incredible HulkThor and Iron Man. With Steve Ditko he co-created Doctor Strange and of course the character who was to become Marvel's figurehead and one of the most recognisable comics characters in the world - Spider-Man. If all that weren't enough he also worked with Bill Everett to create Daredevil.

 

All in the space of just a couple of years in the early sixties.

 

Frankly, it's almost showing off.

 

And of course these characters really were different. Gone were the square jawed irreproachable heroes of the forties. (Well, they brought Captain America back, but they also brought him more up to date.) Now we had characters who were complex. They had problems, they got angry. They didn't always do the right thing. They were younger too.

 

There had been "kid" characters in superhero comics in the forties of course, but they'd been in the "kid side-kick" role. Characters like Robin and Bucky who existed to be assistants to the adult heroes, serving mainly to give the main characters somebody to explain the plot to. These new characters that Lee and his collaborators were working on were different.

 

Peter Parker was nobody's sidekick. He was a clever high-school kid who was bullied and lonely, and suddenly found himself changed and in possession of great power. This perhaps was the start of the development of super-powers as an allegory for puberty, and certainly a little bit of wish fulfilment on the part of the creators****.

 

But teenaged Peter Parker was still Spider-Man, not "Spider-Boy" or "Spider-Teen", Spider-Man. The sixties were beginning to swing and young people were beginning to wonder why they should defer to their elders and starting to demand some respect.

 

Stan Lee gave it to them.

 

The rest, really, is history. Stan Lee changed the world.

 

True, he did not create idea of superheroes. He was a co-creator on the major characters he did create, and it's absolutely fair to say that without the likes of Kirby and Ditko he couldn't have built the Marvel Bullpen and it's astonishing stable of amazing characters. 

 

But that misses the point entirely. Without Stan Lee those characters, or characters very like them, might well still exist. But the world of comics that we love would simply not exist in the form we know today. Because Stan Lee was not just a creative genius. He was a genius showman. He had the charisma and the enthusiasm to sell those characters not just to a generation of kids, but to every generation of kids that followed.

 

He didn't just write twee stories of good guys beating up bad guys. His characters tackled real issues - maybe they couldn't tackle racism and bigotry on directly, but that's really what those early X-Men were about. His was the guiding hand on the tiller of the good ship Marvel in its glory days. He was largely responsible for making super-heroes cool and making superhero comics the force in the industry that they continue to be.

 

Even if you don't like superheroes, take a look at the people writing the comics you do like. Take a look at their social media right now. A very large chunk of them are only in comics because of Stan Lee. He was beloved in the industry - which is not an easy thing to become when you consider the number of egos and big personalities that are involved - and he was beloved by fans. Who amongst us doesn't look forward to seeing where the great man manages to squeeze in a cameo in the next Marvel movie?

 

Well, I guess we have to accept that we're coming to a time when there won't be anymore (I think there are still a couple in the can that have already been filmed, but still...) and I'm truly not sure that I'm OK with that.

 

I never met Stan Lee. That doesn't mean he didn't change my life. Without him, I doubt I'd own a comic store, or have upwards of 20,000 comics in my attic. It's a tough loss to take, but we should perhaps console ourselves with the fact that he lived a long life, and left a legacy that will outlast all of us.

 

He made True Believers of us all, and we all have much to be grateful to him for. So join me in raising a glass in thanks and homage to Stan "The Man" Lee. The toast is a hearty "EXCELSIOR!"

 

Rest in Peace, Mr Lee. Our sincere condolences go out to his family and friends.

 

 

 

 

*Yep, that Joe Simon and that Jack Kirby. This was truly a time when giants roamed the Earth.

 

**Figuratively at least

 

***The concept, lore, back-story and original team. Other X-Men, created by many other people would follow over the next half century...

 

****Look at a picture of Peter Parker from the early comics, and then look at a picture of a young Steve Ditko. Just sayin'...

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