Stan Lee: ‘The Man’ Behind the Comic-Book Superhero Myths
“The Man” was the perfect nickname for him.
Stan Lee was the kind of person for whom the phrase “towering figure” was invented. As the co-creator of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Black Panther, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Avengers, Daredevil, Thor, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, Black Widow and countless other beloved characters, his influence on comics and pop culture — and on the world — is almost impossible to overstate. In that sense, calling Stan “The Man” rightly proclaimed his preeminence.
It also reminds us that he was, in fact, just a man — for better and for worse. As the public face of Marvel, from its fly-by-night pulp-publisher status in the Fifties and early Sixties to the Disney-affiliated corporate behemoth it is today, he was an instantly recognizable individual. Twinkling eyes behind tinted glasses. A smile as fixed on his face as that peculiar and somehow lovable hairpiece was on his noggin — seemingly unchanged for decades at a time.
In recent years, Lee’s role was more mascot than macher, a face trotted out for movie cameos and video games, an “Excelsior!”-exclaiming eminence grise called upon to recollect the golden years of the company from which he retired long ago. But even so, there was something important about seeing this wiry, lively old man in the flesh — whether he was greeting fans at comic cons, gawping at the latest apocalyptic threat to the on-screen Avengers or reminiscing about the characters he helped create in his warbling, Bronx-inflected baritone.
Stan Lee was a walking reminder that it wasn’t a company or a corporation or a brand that made all these things we love. Nor were they a “modern mythology” that sprang out of the collective unconscious before being marketed back to the masses. These godlike heroes and villains were the work of human hands and human minds, Lee’s among the foremost. Marvel was made possible by a person.
Indeed, Lee’s greatest contribution to the Marvel Universe was, well, the Marvel Universe. As a writer, editor, and employer, Lee provided the connective tissue that held the disparate creations that he and writer/artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were churning out month after month during the company’s great flourishing, from the debut of Fantastic Four #1 in 1961 through his final issue as the writer of Amazing Spider-Man in 1972. (Kirby departed the company under bitter circumstances in 1970; he was the John to Lee’s Paul, and not for nothing does their collaborative period roughly coincide with the existence of the Beatles.)
This doesn’t just mean the idea of a “shared universe,” in which the events of an issue of The Incredible Hulk one month would be reflected in an issue of The Uncanny X-Men the next. It means the catchphrases (“Excelsior!” “Face front, True Believers!”); the camaraderie (Lee invented the idea of “The Bullpen,” where all of Marvel’s writers and artists were said to work and interact, even though most barely ever set foot in the office); and the endless affection for alliteration that was his hallmark as the company’s editorial voice. The charming rhyming goofines of “Stan the Man” is just one example.
If the Man gave Marvel its persona, he also created his own. Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922, he adopted his pen name in part because he held out hope of becoming a serious writer under his real name. Meanwhile, he was cranking out comics of every kind for his uncle Martin Goodman’s publishing company, which eventually evolved into Marvel. That name and everything that came with it — the jocular personality, the never-changing look, the vague but unmistakable air of creative wizardry — was as grand an identity as any superhero’s.
Of course, he had a secret identity too. He was a hopelessly devoted husband to his wife Joan, a British ex-pat whose death in 2017 seemed impossible for Lee to ever truly wrap his mind around. And as recent exposés and interviews have illustrated, he was subject to the same depredations of age as any other person — confusing legal disputes with business partners, elder-abuse allegations — a sad coda to a life lived large.
And he was Stan the Company Man as well. Ask the late Jack Kirby, the creative dynamo (he helped invent both Captain America and romance comics with writer Joe Simon, long before he and Lee teamed up), who by all accounts did much of the heavy lifting not just as artist but as co-writer during their fruitful collaboration, despite Lee earning the lion’s share of the credit and compensation. Kirby’s legacy as “The King of Comics” includes a lengthy legal war against Marvel for rights, royalties, and even the physical pages he drew on. Though Lee assiduously pointed out the role his collaborators played in the formation of the company and its characters during interviews later in his life, he usually took Marvel’s side in these battles when they occurred. To many within comics, “The Man” has the same pejorative connotations it does when used to describe politicians or police.
But whatever his faults (many) and autumn-years misfortunes (also many), Lee’s ambition, imagination, and ability to combine high melodrama, high-octane action and playful, personable banter on the comics page was the foundation upon which the entire Marvel empire was built. And most importantly, long before his characters ruled the box office, they populated the back pockets and bedroom floors of countless kids, thirsty for adventure and desperate for connection. Peter Parker, Tony Stark, T’Challa, Natasha and the rest of the gang brought incalculable hours of enjoyment to their readers, and eventually their viewers. All of it based on Lee’s basic premise, reflected in his own life in so many ways, that radioactive spider bites or not, heroes are only human.
Without Stan Lee, it would be a poorer, lonelier, drearier life, in which picked-on kids would dream fewer dreams. Forget the Marvel Universe. Stan the Man reimagined our own.
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