Stan Lee [1922 – 2018]
Stan the Man.
. . .
I tell people that after four guys with Liverpudlian accents, the greatest influencers of pop culture in America in the 1960s were four editors.
A lot of us looked on them as uncles -- and an aunt -- who served as inspirations / role models / guideposts / influencers during our lives, especially our impressionable preteen through early adult years.
Uncle Hugh was the worldly bon vivant: Suave, sophisticated, erudite, hip. He showed us what it meant to be a grown up even if our parents disapproved of his lifestyle.
Aunt Helen was kind of Uncle Hugh’s female opposite number, trash talked a bit because she was a female and “women just shouldn’t behave that way” but y’know what, every family needs an eccentric-bordering-crazy aunt and she was America’s.
Especially for tens of millions of young women and girls to whom she demonstrated there wasn’t just one lifepath stretching before them but thousands.
Uncle Forry showed us it was okay to be obsessive and geeky about weird interests and, contrary to our parents’ advice, to seek community with others who shared those interests. Okay, so maybe there was something a little odd, a little off about him, but he showed us how the magic was made, and thus steered thousands of us into creative careers.
And Uncle Stan? Uncle Stan was the avuncular raconteur, the enthusiastic cheerleader crackling with energy, the slick yet charming salesman so good at his job it never seemed like he was selling anything even when he was most blatant about it. He got us excited about what he was selling, and unlike our other uncles and aunt, he would drop by once a week with some new adventures to share with us.
He was our storyteller, our mythmaker, and in a very real sense, our prophet.
I’ll leave it for you to decide if he was a false one or not.
. . .
Talent is tremendous, perseverance a plus, and skill a must, but it’s better to be lucky than good.
Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922, the son of a working class immigrant New York couple. He grew up in a manner very typical for New Yorkers and Americans of that era, struggling through the Great Depression, catching odd jobs where he could find them, finally landing a gig as a nepotist at a company owned by the husband of a cousin.
That cousin’s husband was Martin Goodman, and the company was Marvel (nee Timely) Comics.
If it had been a dress making factory we would have never heard of him.
. . .
Decades later, The Cannon Group -- that slapdash conglomeration of ruthless ambition and genuine love of cinema held together by the thinnest threads of artistic ability -- released their version of Captain America and erroneously attributed the character as “created by Stan Lee”.
To his honor, Stan was embarrassed by this gaffe and when asked would be quick to cite Jack Kirby and Joe Simon as the actual creators.
Stan entered the then nascent Marvel Universe early in 1941 with issue three of the Captain America comic book, penning a two page text story: Captain America Foils The Traitor's Revenge
And credit where credit is due: From the very beginning of his creative association with Marvel, he was adding innovative ideas (in this case, the first instance of Cappy using his shield as a frisbee to attack bad guys).
But that was far from the most important thing young Stanley Lieber created in that story.
The bigger, more important, far more influential invention?
. . .
Take a moment to understand how important writers were in American culture between the two world wars.
Hemingway kicked over the anthill.
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis probed deep down through the upper crust into the American psyche, John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair did the same in the opposite direction with their stories of working class people.
Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler looked at the underbelly of American cities while William Faulkner dug deep in the old south.
Anita Loos and Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and James Thurber and even irascible Alexander Woollcott brought sunshine and laughter.
These people were not just celebrities, they were looked upon as key influencers and trend setters, seeing where the culture was going and commenting on it, illuminating the way forward for the rest of us.
And that’s not counting the hundreds of other authors who wrote popular books and magazines, who filled the best seller lists with novels that became hit movies.
The American people read and they read a lot. Every week The Saturday Evening Post would deliver a half dozen top flight stories and articles to your home. Liberty and Collier’s and McCall’s and The Ladies’ Home Journal and Redbook would also bring dozens of well written stories to you, and that’s not counting the vast pulp market or publications like Reader’s Digest and The Saturday Review and The New Yorker which offered literary criticism not for a high brow elite coastal urban audience but for Americans all across the country.
We read more, and thanks to pre-TV radio we listened more, not sitting passively as images washed over us.
Being a writer was a big deal back in those days, even if it wasn’t the most reputable of professions.
My father wanted to be a writer, but after the Korean War he put that aside and started working in a dress factory.
You’ve never heard of him.
. . .
Like many young people between the two world wars, Stanley Martin Lieber harbored literary ambitions.
He’d written for his school newspaper, did some small scale copywriting for neighborhood advertisers, and briefly worked with the W.P.A. Theater Project as well as a couple of other entry level jobs typical then and now for teens after school or on weekends.
His initial employment at Timely Comics was pure schlub work: Sharpen the pencils, refill the ink wells, erase the pencil lines once the inkers were done.
I can easily imagine him pestering Joe Simon, co-creator and editor of Captain America, until Simon finally said, “Sure, kid, write a two page story for me” just to get him out of his hair.
(Sidebar: Back in the early days of comics, there was some question whether they qualified for the cheaper second class periodical mailing rates. The formula of two text pages per comic took root as the minimum number needed for a publication to get that postal designation, so that’s why there are literally tens of thousands of crappy short-short stories in old comic books; they just had to be text, they didn’t have to be good.)
When Stanley Martin Lieber turned in Captain America Foils The Traitor's Revenge, he didn’t put his name on it.
He was saving that for his big / important / serious work.
Rather, he put his pen name on it: “Stan Lee”
. . .
In all fairness, young Stanley Martin Lieber proved a fast study.
Within a year he was writing then creating back-up features for the various comic titles Timely published.
When the powerhouse creative team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left Timely towards the end of 1941, Martin Goodman installed Stanley Martin Lieber as the company’s new editor.
He was 19 at the time.
Now, while that is a laudable accomplishment, it’s also not as impressive as it sounds.
Low rent entertainment companies operate like assembly line factories: The creative talent throws their work into the hopper at one end, the distributor hauls the finished product out at the other.
If the basic structure is sound, it doesn’t need a lot of attention to function smoothly.
Proof of this is that almost no sooner had Stanley Martin Lieber been promoted to editor than he was drafted, and from early 1942 to mid-1945, while he was in uniform, Timely Comics chugged along quite nicely in his absence.
At the end of the war and his military service, Stanley Martin Lieber made a fateful decision: He went back to work for his cousin’s husband.
. . .
To understand much of Stan’s career and later years, you have to look at his mid-1940s mind set.
Stan had never really worked for a living.
As noted, all his earlier jobs had been teenage entry level work.
While he was happy to have the income and helped with his family’s finances, he never had to support himself, much less a family of his own.
Compare this to Simon and Kirby, who had hit the streets and hit ‘em hard during the Depression, scrambling for every odd job they could find, building their portfolio and reputation while supporting themselves.
There sat in the hearts and minds of the freelance writers and artists he employed a certain tough confidence that Stan never enjoyed.
His freelancers and co-workers who, like Simon and Kirby, could and would take principled stands were forever citizens of another country, another land that Stan could only gaze upon wistfully but never enter himself.
Draw your own Moses parallel.
. . .
If returning to Martin Goodman’s employ was a fateful decision for Stan, it was certainly a financially sound one.
Like many vets, he married soon after the war ended, in this case to Joan Clayton Boocock, a British hat model working in New York.
Of the many improbable things in Stan’s life, few are as improbable as this odd romance. The couple enjoyed a very happy and long, long life together.
Seventy years married.
We should all be so lucky
But the blessing of this marriage was clouded by Stan’s anxiety over providing for his family.
He worked hard to support his wife and daughter.
But he never had the courage or confidence to look elsewhere.
When he married Joan, for all intents and purposes Stan married Marvel as well.
. . .
While comics publishing in general and superheroes in particular did well during World War Two, the market changed drastically afterwards.
Superheroes faded fast, replaced by true crime and horror comics.
Even super patriot Captain America went the horror route with the last two issues of his book being retitled Captain America's Weird Tales before being retired in 1949.
The true crime and horror craze was soon scuttled due to Dr. Frederic Wertham and the subsequent Comics Code.
Timely renamed itself Atlas, and for the 1950s Stan busied himself on a variety of titles: Westerns, funny animals, teen, nurse (yes, there was a market for nurse comics), romance, teen nurse romance, and monster (a highly sanitized kid friendly version of the now banned horror comics).
He also got to know and work with an astonishing array of freelance talent: Jack Kirby (now bouncing from project to project), Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr., Marie Severin, Gil Kane, and Wally Wood among others.
He enhanced his income with an odd assortment of side projects, including a comic strip based on a radio show and a pamphlet on how to write comic books.
Stan joked that he was just Goodman’s interim editor, that he would leave Timely-now-Atlas the moment a better gig showed up.
Stan didn’t look for a better gig.
The better gig came looking for him.
. . .
There are numerous versions of how Marvel Comics came about.
They all start with the Justice League over at DC.
As noted, after World War Two superhero comics faded and faded fast.
All the superhero titles vanished except for Action Comics (featuring Superman), Detective Comics (featuring Batman and Robin), and the occasional Wonder Woman cover story published by DC.
And the reason those three titles stayed in print was that if DC failed to publish them, they would either lose the license (in the case of Wonder Woman) or open themselves to the possibility of their creators reclaiming them.
And greedy scum that they are -- hey, these are comic books we’re talking about, a.k.a. the sleaziest industry on earth -- DC wasn’t about to let those properties go.
Despite efforts by other companies to relaunch superheroes (including a failed attempt by Stan and Atlas with Captain America in 1954), the kids just weren’t buying.
But in 1959 DC comics reintroduced Aquaman and Green Lantern, added their revamped but lackluster Flash, plucked the Martian Manhunter from the sci-fi bin, and added them to their big three (or 3.5 if you count Robin) as the Justice League of America in a one shot story.
To their delight, they captured lightning in a bottle (or at least on the pages of a badly printed comic).
Now, there are three primary variants in the Marvel rebirth story.
The first is that while Martin Goodman was golfing with Jack Liebowitz of DC, Liebowitz couldn’t help bragging on the Justice League’s success and Goodman went back to the office and told Stan to come up with something similar.
The second is that Stan had noticed the success of Justice League and suggested it to Goodman when they were brainstorming ideas for Atlas.
The third is that Goodman was on the verge of shutting Atlas down, the offices were already being packed up, Stan was in a dither, and Jack Kirby told him to relax, they’d figure out a way of staying in business before Goodman lowered the boom for good.
What really happened?
Kirby’s version certainly sounds more in character for the men involved, but the paper trail points somewhere between the Goodman and Stan versions.
Maybe (probably?) some combination of all three, with each participant remembering only the part that seemed most important to them.
Whatever the true impetus, a decade and a half writing, drawing, and editing romance / soap opera and goofy monster comics served Stan and Kirby well.
The unique gestalt of The Fantastic Four flew right in the face of DC’s “super friends” approach: This was a team of superheroes who had their own personal problems, who didn’t like each other all that much, and who had to spend as much time fighting their own personal discord as they did the supervillains that threatened them.
DC caught lightning in a bottle.
Marvel (formerly Atlas, and before that Timely) caught…a spark.
The popular history (and we’ll get into how that was shaped in a moment) is that The Fantastic Four and all the other Marvel titles were huge hits from the git-go, steam rolling over all opposition to dominate the industry.
Insofar as they sold well and kept the doors open and attracted a good audience response and an appreciable amount of ancillary merchandising, yeah, that they did.
But DC outsold Marvel for most of the decade, including the roll out years when all their big characters / teams / franchises were introduced.
There’s a phrase I use: The jazz musician’s jazz musician.
I use it not to just specifically reference jazz but to point out the innovators who are doing highly influential cutting edge stuff that mainstream audiences just don’t get.
Those in the know -- other jazz musicians, or in the case of Marvel, other artists and writers and editors -- grasp what’s happening immediately, but it isn’t until they begin reinterpreting it and filtering it through more audience familiar styles that the innovators’ true impact is felt.
And then, if they’re lucky, the innovators finally come into their own much later as the mainstream catches up to where they once were decades earlier.
Marvel didn’t exactly struggle, but they had to work hard to remain competitive during the 1960s -- and there was a lot of competition out there.
But the pay off came in the mid-1970s, when the young fans (and we’ll get to them, too) grew up and started entering the business.
I state this without equivocation: All American comics from 1975 to the start of the manga boom in 2000 -- every single one of ‘em -- were direct or indirect responses to what Marvel had been doing from 1961 to 1967.
What part did Stan play in all this?
. . .
There are almost as many ways to create a comic book as there are comic book creators, but the two chief styles are DC full scripts and Marvel outlines.
At DC, writers handed in scripts broken down panel by panel, dialog included; the artist followed the script as closely as possible and made no major changes without editorial permission.
At Marvel, Stan would discuss a story idea with a writer or sometimes directly with the artist. At most this would result in a short outline (three pages max for a full length comic) that laid out the basic idea of the story, described the characters and conflict, and gave some idea how things should wrap up. The artist then broke down and laid out the story by themselves; the editor would either add dialog themselves or send a Xerox copy to the writer for them to come up with dialog.
If you have a proficient hard working art crew, the Marvel method lets you produce a lot of comics very fast, and relatively cheaper since the editor and artist can knock out a story idea over coffee, thus sidestepping the writer for at least the first half of the process.
Stan and his artists had been working this way for a decade and a half.
They knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses, how to play into the former and avoid the latter.
Any competent bullpen can produce comics this way.
The Marvel bullpen had a lot of good, talented artists.
But it also had
J*A*C*K FREAKIN’ K*I*R*B*Y
The most interesting, the most innovative work in any art form gets done around the edges where the gatekeepers are loath to visit.
“Yeah, sure, whatever, knock yourself out, just have it done by Thursday…”
Low budget filmmakers, late night TV, garage bands, cruddy comedy clubs, fanzines, these are venues where the cutting edge bleeds, where most of the stuff is crap because nobody cares but because somebody cares part of it is dynamite.
Jack Kirby cared, and cared a lot about comics.
So did Steve Ditko.
So did Jim Steranko.
Stan was smart enough to see that and get out of the way.
. . .
So what part of Marvel’s success can be attributed to Stan?
Based on what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard, and what I know, I’d say anywhere from as little as 20% to as much as 33 1/3% of any specific title reflects Stan’s input.
Stan was no dummy, Stan had talent, Stan had skill, Stan had good ideas.
But Stan also had little time and even less help.
He’d throw the idea at the artists and the artists would throw their execution back.
Stan, to varying degrees, would refine the story in the dialog stage so that it fit in consistently with the rest of the titles they were publishing.
But the success of Marvel as an entity?
That’s 80% Stan’s doing.
. . .
I said Kirby and Ditko and Steranko loved comics.
Stan did, too, but he loved Stan even more.
He’d spent half his life laboring in relative anonymity.
His dreams of a serious literary career had come to naught.
His resume’ consisted solely of working for his cousin’s husband’s middling successful comic book company.
He lacked the courage and confidence that the artists in his bullpen possessed, courage and confidence they’d acquired by knocking on doors and chasing after jobs.
In 1961 he stood on the edge of middle age, with nothing significant to show for himself.
And while The Fantastic Four and Thor and The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man may not have equaled the successes at DC, they sure were more than anything he’d experienced before.
And by promoting them, he also promoted himself.
The Marvel method made lengthy continuities and crossovers easier to execute than DC’s formally scripted method. His lack of time led to multi-part stories and to setting those stories not in mythical Metropolis or Gotham City in real life New York so he wouldn’t have to provide artists with references.
These lengthy continuities and crossovers, as opposed to DC’s standalone stories, got Marvel readers to pick up more and more titles, and to become more and more deeply involved in the Marvel Universe.
Stan interacted with these fans of Marvel comics (and they were enthusiastic, if not numerous). His column, Stan’s Bullpen, came out every week, whenever a new Marvel Comic hit the stands. He handed out No-Prizes to sharp eyed fans who spotted errors, getting those fans to read even more Marvel Comics.
“Face front, true believer! Excelsior!”
. . .
For all his delight in leading the fans in The Merry Marvel Marching Society, Stan didn’t lead his bullpen with the same enthusiasm.
Something transpired between him and Ditko. Ditko famously came in with the finished art for Spider-Man #38, dropped the pages on the desk of Stan’s secretary, said, “That’s that!” and walked out, never to darken Marvel’s doors again.
A few years later, as Marvel characters began booming in popularity and raking in licensing deals, Kirby approached Stan and suggested they present a unified front to Marvel’s owners to demand a slice of the pie they were generating for the company.
Stan asked for some time to mull the prospect over…
…and immediately raced to Martin Goodman and signed a long term contract stating that all the work and characters he and Kirby had created for Marvel were done under a work-for-hire contract, and that the company owed no shares or royalties to either of them.
Kirby left Marvel and, ever the jazz musician’s jazz musician, went over to DC and created new comic book series for them.
Marvel’s onerous work-for-hire contract (essentially by endorsing one’s paycheck one signed away all rights to work one had done) came under legal scrutiny, and when changes in US copyright law created the potential for the Kirby estate to sue to recover the copyright on the characters he had co-created, Marvel sued the estate to prevent them from going to court.
The Kirby estate was blocked again and again in their effort to regain their right to sue, but when the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case Marvel capitulated rather than run the risk they might win the right to sue and might prevail.
When Stan would go on vacation, Marvel employees would tremble.
Stan hated personal confrontations, and rather than fire someone face-to-face, when he would go on vacation it would befall some other member of Marvel management to discharge the employee.
(Stan would feign ignorance when he came back, and would promise to “see what I can do” to help the discharged employee, but of course that never happened.)
. . .
Stan’s hard work promoting Marvel as a brand paid off, and by the mid-1970s he and the company were dominating comics sales.
Ancillary merchandising and marketing varied from year to year as audience interest ebbed and flowed, but Stan was always quick to make sure his name got mentioned in every press release, his cameo in every live action movie and TV show.
And to be truthful, it was hard not to like Stan.
He bubbled over with energy and enthusiasm, he tirelessly promoted Marvel (and himself), and constantly engaged with fans.
For me, one of the highlights of my professional career was to pass Stan in the hallway of Marvel Productions in the early 1980s and to have him recognize me and call me by name.
I felt I had arrived.
Stan’s daily involvement with Marvel diminished over the years, first because he moved to California to make deals for Marvel movies and TV shows (not that many at that time), later because he no longer connected with the story telling style Marvel evolved into.
He formally split off from Marvel in the late 1990s (though retaining a healthy retainer from them) and got involved in a number of questionable ventures.
Our orbits intersected again during the short lived existence of Stan Lee Media (SLM), ostensibly his effort to create a new brand of superheroes for a new century, in reality a stock manipulation scheme that saw people sentenced to lengthy prison terms and the mastermind behind it fleeing to Brazil.
Stan, it should be pointed out, was as much a victim as Merrill Lynch in all this, but it also reflects a key shortcoming in his character.
I had, thanks to the intercession of Mark Evanier, been briefly employed as Stan’s vice-president of creative affairs for SLM.
From the beginning of our employment, I and most of Stan’s other staff wondered how SLM was supposed to make money, and couldn’t follow the business strategy of Peter Paul, the former lawyer turned convicted drug smuggler who had insinuated himself in Stan’s life.
Something was rotten in the state of California, and the more one questioned the wisdom of Paul’s strategy, the more likely one was to be shown the door.
When it became apparent my neck was next on the chopping block, advice from Steve Gerber and several other former Marvel employees helped me secure a nice severance deal. The advice they gave was to approach Stan first before he had to bring the matter up, point out the fit didn’t seem to be working, and allow Stan to fall over himself in his eagerness to settle the matter without any negative confrontation. Which I did, and which he did, and we both came away happier for it.
Shortly after that, the company imploded as the stock manipulation became apparent, and Paul’s secondary scheme was revealed to use the same copyright provision Marvel and Stan fought against re the Kirby estate to lay claim to Marvel characters.
Stan moved on from there to POW! Entertainment, another effort to capitalize on Stan’s celebrity status, and while that company was legit, it did not generate the response they anticipated.
During that period, however, thousands of missing pages of Marvel artwork was discovered in a storage unit Stan rented.
The official story was that these pages had been accidentally scooped up when Stan left Marvel’s New York office, but that doesn’t pass the smell test. Those pages were supposed to be returned to the original artists; selling them as collectibles was an ancillary form of income and one that comics publishers allowed (the art having been transferred to either print film or digital files by that point).
Another thing that didn’t pass the smell test was the “lost” original outline for the first Fantastic Four story, a one and a half page document that had been displayed under glass at SLM office. The story of how it was “found” seems awfully suspect, and more than a few of us think it was a =ahem!= “recreation” typed up at a much later date.
POW! tried promoting him as a still viable, still vital creator, but anyone who had a meeting with him knew how much of his success rested on the talents of his co-creators. They tried promoting him as still current in pop culture, but he was too old and frail to sell that idea.
They actually tried circulating a “fake Stan Lee™”, an actor hired to go and do a Stan Lee impersonation at local conventions, but that idea quickly died an embarrassing death.
Eventually POW! and Stan dissolved their formal relationship, and POW! sold out to foreign investors, leaving Stan to his own devices.
The man who always feared not having somebody to work for was finally on his own.
In his latter years, Stan appeared in the news again and again, this time as an elderly man abused by at least some of his caregivers.
Stan sure could pick ‘em, huh?
That’s not the sort of publicity anyone deserves to have, much less endure. The abuse included dragging him around the country to conventions to promote…something.
Footage of him in a very disoriented state, being told how to sign his own name for autograph hounds who had just paid a hefty fee for same, outraged his fans, even those of us who recognized his complicity in his own misfortune.
. . .
Uncle Hugh did not age well. For a man so worldly and debonair, he never recognized when it was time for him to leave the party. After a while his hanging on became an embarrassment, like the old geezer trying to teach the young kids all the hot new dances such as the foxtrot and the twist.
Aunt Helen was more savvy in that respect, and she found that by stepping back a bit, she could wait for the occasional question to be directed at her, and for her answer to be taken seriously instead of with an eyeroll.
Uncle Forry was indeed a bit “off”, downright creepy in fact, and while much of his influence on others was for the good, a significant portion was not. We look back and say “we shoulda known, we shoulda known” but the truth was he validated our interests when no one else would, and for that we were willing to overlook a multitude of sins.
And Uncle Stan? He lived long enough to become a cautionary tale…
. . .
It’s impossible for me to dislike Stan.
Roz Kirby, Jack’s wife, hated him with an unholy passion, but she earned that right.
Steve Ditko clearly had an axe or three to grind, but he maintained his silence.
Steve Gerber had his friction points with Stan, but in the end bore him no animosity.
Another comics pro, when news broke of the discovery of the missing Marvel artwork, shook his head and said with a rueful smile, “Stan never fails to disappoint, does he?”
Stan the Man.
The man who was Marvel.
The mythmaker of modern superhero culture.
We want him to be as heroic, as noble as the heroes he wrote.
But he wasn’t.
He was all too typical of too many people.
Too easily swayed.
Too eager to succeed.
Too quick to take short cuts.
He loved his wife.
He loved his daughter.
He was charming and gracious in person, and there are few meals I’ve shared that were more delightful than those SLM business lunches.
There was good in him, but not enough strength.
We want our heroes to be strong.
Stan the Man.
Stan the human.
© Buzz Dixon