A Real-Life Superhero: How Stan Lee Changed The World Of Comics
T. Gautham Shenoy
November 14, 2018
Born in 1922 to Romanian immigrants, Stanley Leiber had a tough childhood growing up in New York City during the Great Depression. In his teens, he did a string of part-time jobs but always wanted to be a writer who would pen great literary novels. Upon graduating high school in 1939, he landed a job at Timely Comics – which was owned by a relative, Martin Goodman – as an assistant to the editor, the legendary Joe Simon, who with the equally legendary Jack Kirby created the iconic Captain America. Leiber’s duties included keeping the inkwells filled, getting the staff lunch, and proofreading, among others. It was only in early 1941 that Stanley Leiber would make his writing debut with a text-only Captain America story under the pseudonym Stan Lee because he didn’t want his real name to be associated with comics and would reserve it for when he wrote the ‘great American novel’.
His next big break – again unplanned – came in late 1941, when both Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left Timely Comics over differences with Goodman, and Stan Lee, barely 19, found himself appointed as the Editor-in-Chief, an interim post that would become permanent once Goodman noticed his comics and business acumen. World War II would soon interrupt his comics career, and after serving in the U.S. Army, Stan Lee would be back to make more comics. But the ‘golden age’ of comics was coming to an end.
Overall, the 1950s were not good for the comic book industry. Its heyday was behind it, or so it seemed. The stories had become staid, creativity crippled by the Comics Code Authority. And so, with people losing interest in superheroes, Stan Lee spent most of the mid to late-50s – at Atlas Comics, as Timely was now known – churning out an endless string of generic stories and crime, romance, horror and westerns comics to keep his commercially-minded, trend-chasing publisher happy. By the late-50s, Stan Lee was tired having had enough of comics and ready to walk away from it all. But then two things happened. First, Martin Goodman, having heard of DC Comics’ success with a rebooted Flash and Justice League of America asked Stan Lee to come up with a superhero comic. Second, a conversation with his wife, Joan Boocock, who convinced him to give it one last shot by writing the kind of stories he wanted to write. After all, since he’d decided to quit anyway, what did he have to lose?
In November 1961, Marvel, as the company was now known, released the first issue of The Fantastic Four. Co-created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby – who’d joined the company again a couple of years previously as a freelancer – The Fantastic Four were unlike all ‘superheroes’ who’d come before. They were ordinary people who had their powers thrust upon them unwillingly. Their exposure to the cosmic rays was painful, and it was all downhill from there as they discovered what the implications were. These were common people with commonplace problems that people could relate to. Needless to say, The Fantastic Four was a success.
Stan Lee – along with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – didn’t so much turn humans into superhumans as they made superheroes human. Marvel’s heroes weren’t alien babies sent to earth because its yellow sun would automatically give them superpowers and make them gods. They weren’t the rightful ruler of the seas, Amazonian royalty or scions of wealthy families, but instead, ordinary people who had their powers thrust upon them, most often not by choice. The other big difference between Marvel’s heroes and other superheroes was the location. Marvel’s heroes weren’t living in fictional metropolises but real-world cities, more often than not, New York City.
It was this radical shift in attitude and outlook towards superheroes that would see the creations of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby capture the imagination of readers – and buyers – and lead to Marvel’s comics’ commercial success throughout the 1960s and beyond, with beloved characters such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, Silver Surfer and the X-men. With his brother, Larry Leiber, Stan Lee created Ant-Man, Iron-Man and Thor, and with Bill Everett, Daredevil, just to mention a few (for there were more), with him being the writer for all these titles in the beginning.
The other big change that Stan Lee, as editor, brought to comics was to have all of Marvel’s superheroes, supervillains and supporting characters inhabit a common, shared universe. While the concept of a shared universe wasn’t new per se, what was notable at Marvel under Stan Lee was that it was not a one-off interaction between different characters with their own titles or a novelty crossover, but a consistent feature, with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko given the freedom to cross-pollinate their story ideas. Different Marvel characters regularly made appearances in each other’s stories and often events in one superhero’s story affected events in another title. This approach would not just lead to Marvel’s own superhero team, the Avengers, which assembled characters from individual stories into one title but would also form the bedrock of the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe we see today.
Stan Lee was also perhaps amongst the first to see the power of comics and the influence of pop culture on people, not in terms of vague metaphors but in terms of making concrete, unambiguous statements and being an agent not just of entertainment but also of education and changing mindsets. Being the writer of some of the most popular comics titles and as the Editor-in-Chief of a major publishing house, Stan Lee had great power. ‘With great power, there must also come great responsibility’ goes the maxim that he wrote, and he took his responsibilities quite seriously, as a person who believed in and was committed to playing his part in placing focus on social issues. So it was that with Jack Kirby, he gave the world its first mainstream Black superhero, Black Panther, not as a token or represented as a stereotypical African tribal savage but as the king of a country that was technologically ahead of the rest of the world, and more enlightened. Stan Lee – along with Gene Colan – would also introduce the first African-American superhero, the Falcon.
He wrote a monthly column called Stan’s Soapbox – to call out issues such as racism and bigotry. Apart from that, with Stan’s Soapbox, he also changed the tone and tenor of the staid ‘dear editor’ communication that marked other publications. He introduced a conversational, chatty tone that would engage readers, came up with creative nicknames for himself (Stan ‘the Man’) and his colleagues ( Jack ‘the King’), as well as began using his signature catch-phrase, ‘Excelsior!’. Stan’s Soapbox – and his dialogues and notes in Marvel comics that would often break the fourth wall – would go a long way in taking comics closer to the readers, and vice versa.
This important part that Stan Lee played – of being an ambassador for comics –cannot be understated. From the early 1970s, when he stopped actively writing comics, Stan Lee became, in time, the greatest salesman the (American) comics industry ever had. As a marketer – of Marvel, of comics, of himself – he was tireless in his efforts to make comic books acceptable and ‘respectable’ to mainstream audiences. A far cry from the person who’d once adopted a pseudonym because comic book writing was considered a lower form of writing, a pseudonym that he would during the 1970s legally change his name to – Stan Lee.
Ever an ambassador for comics and the ‘promoter-in-chief’ of Marvel Comics and its public face, Stan Lee would become a feature at all major conventions, his infectious enthusiasm never waning, and ever in the public eye – not least with his cameos in the Marvel movies. It was this role that Stan Lee would play in his later years after he left Marvel. His active contribution to creating new characters and writing comics was far and few between. Notable among these is his first work for DC Comics with the Just Imagine series in which he reimagined the origin stories of DC superheroes – whom he gave the alliterative names he’s associated with – such as Batman (Wayne Williams; with artist Joe Kubert), Superman (Salden; with John Buscema) and Green Lantern (Lan Lewis; with Dave Gibbons). He also created anime series such as Heroman (with Bones) and Ultimo (with Hiroyuki Takei).
It would interest Indian readers to know that Stan Lee also created an Indian superhero comic – for Graphic India comics – called Chakra The Invincible, about an Indian boy called Raju Rai for whom a scientist, Dr Singh creates a super-suit that activates the mystical chakras of his body and enables Raju to become invincible and fight supervillains. Comic books apart, Chakra The Invincible was also turned into an animated series. There was also a live-action movie planned, to be written and directed by Vikaramaditya Motwane, which seems to have been shelved, unfortunately.
But nothing can be more unfortunate – inevitable as it was – than losing a living legend who brought so much joy to so many, who leaves behind an unmatched legacy, whose characters and stories have influenced and inspired countless artists, writers and readers, and will continue to do so in the days, months and years to come.
Stan Lee may have passed away, but his creations are immortal and as long as they are alive – in the comics we read, in the games we play, in the movies we watch – so will Stan Lee.