In 1939, a 17 year-old aspiring writer named Stanley Lieber landed a job at Timely Comics in New York City.
At first, Stanley’s job was just to get coffee, make sure that the inkwells were full, and occasionally proofread copy. In 1941, when the third issue of Captain American Comics needed a text story so that it could be shipped as a magazine instead of just as a comic book, Stanley was assigned the job. Because the young man had an ambition to some day write the great American novel and felt that being associated with comic books would make it more difficult to convince publishers to take him seriously, Stanley Lieber wrote the story under a pseudonym, Stan Lee.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Timely eventually became Atlas and then Atlas was rebranded Marvel and, through it all, Stan Lee remained at the company, providing continuity from one decade to another. Ironically, for someone who originally feared being too associated with comic books, Stan Lee went on to become not only the face but, for several decades, the voice of Marvel Comics.
Among comic book historians, Stan Lee is an often divisive figure. By his own admission, Lee loved the spotlight and it can be argued that he unfairly overshadowed his publicity-shy colleagues. To solely give Lee the credit for creating characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four does a disservice to the work of artists and writers like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and so many others. As a company, Marvel has a deserved reputation for not treating its artists with the respect or the financial compensation that they deserved. How much of the responsibility for any of that falls on Lee’s shoulders is a controversial subject and will continue to be so for years to come.
What isn’t controversial was that, whether he hitting the college lecture circuit, recording the introductions for the animated Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends TV show, or giving interviews with publications like Playboy and Rolling Stone, there was never a bigger cheerleader for comic books than Stan Lee. At a time when DC comics was busy imitating the campy Batman TV show, Marvel Comics were, in their own way, dealing with world in which their readers lived. From the platform of Stan’s Soap Box, Stan Lee spoke against racism and prejudice. When the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare approached Lee to do a story about the dangers of drug abuse, Lee did it in defiance of the Comic Codes Authority. Three issues of Spider-Man were released without the CAA’s seal of approval, opening the way for all comic books to deal with real world issues.
Stan Lee as Mr. Fantastic in What If #11 (as drawn by Jack Kirby)
For many comic book readers who might have otherwise felt that they didn’t fit in, Stan Lee said, “Here, you do belong.” Today, it might seem easy to poke fun at Lee’s endless enthusiasm, his cries of “excelsior,” and the way that he called Marvel readers “true believers.” But for many readers, there was much comfort to be found in Lee’s corny sayings. Lee had a way of making readers feel as if they were all in it together. Whether you were a true believer or a member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, you belonged. For kids who felt like outsiders, Lee was there to tell them that everyone was capable of being a hero, whether they had super powers or not.
In his twilight years, Lee was rediscovered by a new generation of fans. Spotting Lee’s trademark cameos became one of the pleasures of watching any Marvel film. Sometimes, he was a postman. In Deadpool, he worked in a strip club. More than once, he was a janitor. I once saw him driving a bus. In the second Guardians of the Galaxy film, he was sitting on the moon and telling the Watchers about his adventures on Earth and it just seemed like he was right where he belonged.
Stan Lee passed away today at the age of 95.
I knew I’d have to write this some day but I always hoped it wouldn’t be any time soon.
Rest in Peace, Stan Lee.