Stan Lee was “The Man”
With his signature phrase, “Excelsior!” and his close association with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, making small surprising cameo appearances in all of the Marvel films and even some television episodes, Stan Lee became the iconic face of the modern Comic Book hero movies.
Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Leiber in 1922. At 17 he became an assistant at the new Timely Comics division of pulp magazine publisher Martin Goodman’s company. This was one of those many companies that moved into comic books because the market was lucrative.
Lee’s duties were to keep inkpots filled and to get the artists their lunch. He did proofreading and he erased the pencil lines from the finished inked pages. But his ambition was to be a writer.
Eventually he got his chance and he adopted the pseudonym Stan Lee with a text filler he wrote for Captain America #3 in 1941. He introduced the character’s now iconic ricocheting shield toss.
Following a dispute with Martin Goodman, Timely’s editor, Joe Simon and his creative partner, Jack Kirby left the company. Goodman promoted the nineteen year old Lee to editor. Lee showed a knack for the business that led him to eventually become the company’s editor-in-chief as well as art director.
Timely eventually became Atlas Comics in the 1950’s and Lee wrote stories in a wide variety of genres including Westerns, Romance, Horror and Suspense titles. But in the late 1950’s Timely’s rival, DC Comics, revived the superhero comic, which had fallen out of favor, and experienced a significant success with its update of The Flash and the introduction of the Justice League of America.
Goodman assigned Lee to create a new superhero team
Lee was growing dissatisfied with his career at Atlas and felt he had nothing to lose. He created a team of superheroes who had flaws, who were complex and naturalistic, who had tempers, fits of melancholy and vanity and who occasionally bickered among themselves. Lee’s characters worried about prosaic things like paying bills and impressing girlfriends, who got bored and even sometimes caught a cold.
The first team that Lee and Jack Kirby (who had returned to Atlas) created was The Fantastic Four. He and Kirby would go on to create the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and the X-men. With other artists, Bill Everett and Steve Ditko he would come up with Daredevil, Doctor Strange and Spider-man, all of whom lived in the same shared universe. Lee and Kirby gathered several of these new characters together into a team title The Avengers and would revive early Timely characters from the 1940’s the Sub-Mariner and Captain America.
While DC’s superhero revival was suffering a creative drought a new audience for comic books, older, teen-aged readers responded to Lee’s flawed heroes. The company, now renamed Marvel Comics, was poised to supplant DC in comic book supremacy.
The flawed heroes and the shared universe weren’t the only revolutions that Stan Lee brought to the business. Lee included bulletins about the company. His readers were older now and interested in how the comics were created. Lee included information about the writers and artists, and in those bulletins he spoke directly to the readers. He wanted the fans to think of the creators as friends and considered it a mark of success that letters to the company, which at other companies would be addressed as “Dear sir…” or “Dear Editor…” at Marvel were addressed “Dear Stan and Jack”. Lee’s friendly, chatty style endeared him to readers almost as much as the superheroes themselves.
That, almost more than anything, is what transformed comic books from a faceless publishing house into an organization that readers invested in. The branding was a success and with slogans like “Excelsior!” and “Make Mine Marvel!” the company made its mark among the comic book reading public and throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s many titles became top sellers.
The artists excelled at creating dynamic panels. More than just men in tights who beat up bad guys, the Marvel heroes had depth and the art reflected that. Unusual angles and lighting effects were explored and the character’s expressions had to relay the complex emotions they were feeling (even when they were wearing a mask).
Following his retirement from Marvel, he remained a public figurehead for the company, and frequently made cameo appearances in movies based on Marvel characters. Meanwhile, he continued independent creative ventures well into his 90s.
Stan Lee died yesterday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 95.
So long, Stan. We’ll miss you.