STAN LEE 1922 – 2018 – A CREATIVE LIFE IN CONTEXT
by John A. Short
If you are an aspiring writer you probably have the dream that you can be successful enough to just make your living from it. If you are particularly ambitious you may hope to create something that will be famous enough to be a household name. We know the name of Ian Fleming because he created the ‘James Bond’ books. We know of Conan Doyle because he created the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series. Most people would be hard pressed to name other things written by those very well known authors. Agatha Christie is exceptional because we can lay two very famous characters (Poirot and Marple) and some other globally-famed stories at her doorstep.
How much more successful would a writer have to be to have a dozen or more household-name series credited to them?
Stan Lee co-created THE FANTASTIC FOUR, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, ANTMAN & THE WASP, THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, THE UNCANNY X-MEN, NICK FURY, SHIELD, DOCTOR STRANGE, THE MIGHTY AVENGERS, MARVEL’S THE MIGHTY THOR, BLACK PANTHER, GROOT, BLACK WIDOW, HAWKEYE, DAREDEVIL and many, many more. I think we can predict that some of these characters will continue to be world famous for decades and (yes) centuries to come. That kind of creative achievement is almost unique. That’s why I think in future Lee’s name will be spoken (with respect) in the same breathe as someone like William Shakespeare.
Perhaps that might sound over-the-top to you? I don’t think it is. Look at the similarities between them…
They both worked in mediums that were (or are) looked down upon by those who think of themselves as the elite. Theatre in Shakespeare’s time was thought of as something for the illiterate masses… A low form of art… Just as some might characterise comics today.
Both used their stories to talk about human emotions and the human condition in morality tales deeper than they might first appear. (The first Spider-Man strip for example, where Spidey refuses to help stop a robber who he could easily have caught, only for the same thief go onto kill his own beloved uncle – so teaching Peter Parker a lesson in responsibility… Who says Americans don’t understand irony?)
Shakespeare and Lee both redefined the mediums in which they worked. Both spread their influence to every kind of storytelling genre. Both created so many famous ‘franchises’ that it’s difficult to name them all.
The extraordinary thing about Lee is that most (perhaps all) of his really famous, really successful creations happened in one five year period from 1961 through to 1966. Strange for a man who wrote from when he was a teenager through to his 90s? He was around 40 when he finally found that successful streak. Perhaps it says something about being in the right place at the right time?
Part of the success was no-doubt due to what a shameless self-publicist Lee was. You could see it in him every time he was interviewed even in recent years with every well practised anecdote and quip. In the 1960s through editorial pages and even the caption boxes in the strips themselves Lee would tell his ‘True Believers’ how great the characters and stories they were reading were. It has an amazing effect on your audience if they can see that even the creators are enthused about their creations. Confidence breeds success.
It has to be said that Lee’s prose-style on those early strips hasn’t dated well. His chummy attitude is as unique to Lee as Shakespeare’s flowery dialogue is to him.
But of course, Lee is only a co-creator of his most famous titles. He is only the writer and collaborated with many comics artists without whom his works would have been nothing. Some people give more credit to such pencillers as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko with whom he worked in the early 1960s. As with any creative collaboration it is difficult to know where one person’s contribution starts and another ends.
Because of the way that Lee developed in the 60s for working with his artists, it’s even more complicated to unpack in the case of Marvel Comics. Lee instigated the ‘Marvel Method’ of writing comics, where he would only provide a rough plot and leave it to the artists themselves to breakdown the comic into a blow-by-blow structure as they drew it… He would only start scripting the dialogue once he had the final pages in his hands. This was necessary because as Marvel took off in the early 60s he was practically the only writer working there.
Some have it that some of his greatest plots and characters were invented by the artists on the page as they pencilled. There maybe some truth in the idea. Opinions vary.
But what we can credit Lee with, without much doubt, is the way that he changed the way that American comics were telling stories. Up until 1961 your average superhero story would return to a baseline status quo at the end. Lee broke that mould with the introduction of soap-opera-style subplots in his titles. So if Spidey’s girl friend was mad at him at the end of one story… she still would be at the start of the next.
Also he added a simple, but unheard of, level of realism in his stories. What if Spider-man’s costume gets torn? Can he afford a new one? Has he got the needle-skills to sow it up himself? Superman never had to worry about such things.
All this meant that his comics could be consumed by an older age group than superhero titles had up until that point. Before Lee American comics were mostly aimed at the under tens. In the early 60s Marvel Comics began to be aimed at young teenagers, by the end of the 60s they were being read by college-agers.
The Distinguish Competition (as Lee called DC Comics) had no choice but to follow his lead and they have been telling stories in the Lee-style ever since.
There are controversies that surround him. Lee went onto be a millionaire through Marvel Comics while some of his co-creators got nothing. Perhaps this wasn’t completely intentional on Lee’s part? He had a foot in the door to the management of Marvel by being related to their owner. And he stuck with the company on the production side long enough to get himself in a position of power (allowing him to secure a legacy for himself) while his artists tended to stay as freelancers? But I have no wish to excuse the undoubtedly shabby treatment that many creators had at Marvel (perhaps even to this day.) There is no excuse for the comics industry not to work like any other other field of the creative arts, where the author owns their own work.
Of course, in recent years Marvel Studios have made Lee’s creations (and the man himself) more famous than ever. As Hollywood special effects have caught up with what Kirby and Ditko could do on the comic page the whole world now marvels at the concepts and characters that only comic readers enjoyed only a decade ago.
Lee was one of a kind. We have amazing stories and characters thanks to his involvement. Was he a great human being? There are stories and opinions that he wasn’t. That I can’t say. I can only address his work… and that is marvellous.
John A. Short