Awesome Men Throughout History: Stan Lee
Given how successful the Avengers movie has been, and how successful the Spiderman and X-Men movies were (even if each franchise’s third installment was dumb), it’s never been more socially lucrative to be a comic book fan. Granted, comic book fandom is still nerdy and sad beyond a certain threshold of enthusiasm, but the medium has garnered a lot of cultural and critical respect over the past decade or so. The groundwork for that respect was laid quite some time ago by a guy who is known more for his awesome mustache and current role as an industry spokesman than for his prior innovations. I’m talking about Stan Lee, this week’s Awesome Man Throughout History.
Lee was born in New York just seven years before the Great Depression, and his only escape from both poverty and his family’s uncomfortable living conditions (four people in a one-bedroom sucks no matter what the circumstances are) was writing. He even put his hobby to work as a teenager, writing obituaries for a news service and press releases for the National Tuberculosis Center to earn money for the family. He had other, less depressing jobs during that time as well.
Lee entered the comics industry thanks to his uncle, and worked for Timely Comics (which would be renamed Marvel a bit later) as an assistant inker and sandwich-getter. He also wrote a few comics, the most famous of which was Captain America, before enlisting in the US Army’s Signal Corps, where he was one of only nine people classified by the Army as a “playwright.” Lee also, as was customary back then, cranked out formulaic horror, adventure, Western, and science fiction stories for comic magazines that, after the end of the Second World War, had lost interest in superhero stories.
That turned around in the mid-1950s, though, and Stan Lee led the charge. Lee had worked his way up to chief editor and art director of Marvel by this point, and was burning out on the industry when his wife suggested just going for broke and writing the kinds of comics he’d like to read. Lee took her advice and started creating more realistic superheroes who pissed each other off, worried about paying rent, and had actual moods and physical frailties that the previous era of superheroes didn’t. As an editor, he made it a point to engage the readership with news about Marvel staffers and storylines, and as an art director, he brought in artists whose style was as dynamic as Lee’s storytelling demanded, and he gave them room to interpret his ideas. Lee also credited them on the splash page of each story, and was the first in the industry to credit the inker and letterer alongside the writers and main artists.
All this may sound quaint, given where comics have gone since the peak of his career, but without Stan Lee’s much-needed shakeup of superhero storytelling, guys like Frank Miller and Brian Azzarello and maybe even Neil Gaiman wouldn’t have been able to build on it and create the brooding, complex superheroes we see in movies now.
Lee’s contributions to the Marvel brand went far beyond the editorial page, too. He was a constant presence at comic conventions, and participated in college lectures and panel discussions as well. Lee’s a likable guy, and his affable personality and sense of humor went a long way towards making Marvel a true competitor to DC Comics. He also inadvertently changed part of the Comics Code when he introduced a storyline in Spiderman about Peter Parker’s best friend getting hooked on pills. The Comics Code Authority balked at such risque content and refused to authorize it, but the issues sold well and Marvel got a lot of praise for their social conscience, so the CCA took that as a nod to allow negative depictions of drugs and etc. in comics from then on.
So yeah, that’s Stan Lee, a chill bro if ever there was one. I’ll leave you with the man himself talking about his friendship with Michael Jackson, who was so obsessed with Spiderman that he almost bought Marvel Comics outright. Have fun with that.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.