After he graduated high school at age sixteen, at the very end of the Great Depression, Stanley Martin Lieber needed a job, badly. And, through the help of his uncle (or a newspaper job advertisement, there seems to be some discrepancy over the exact circumstance) he was hired at age 18 by Joe Simon to work as an editorial assistant at a small publishing company called Timely Comics.
His first piece of writing was a two-page, text-only, story called “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge”, which was published in Captain America #3, cover-dated May of 1941. That was the birth of Stan Lee – a name which he later legally adopted.
Lee spent his early years at Timely working under Joe Simon and Jack Kirby (see my article about him here; Long live King Kirby – Ed.); the only other staff members that Lee actually recalls working with in those days were Robbie Solomon (who happened to be Lee’s aforementioned uncle), two bookkeepers, a minor executive, a member of the business department and a few others – quite the skeleton crew. Stan remembered what he did back then as “[I did] a little of everything. I went down and got people their lunches and I filled the inkwells and I did some proofreading and I did some copyrighting.” Joe Simon remembers it more as “Mostly we had Stan erasing the pencils off the inked artwork and going out for coffee. He followed us around, we (Simon and Kirby) took him to lunch, and he tried to be friends with us. When he didn’t have anything to do, he would sit in the corner of the art department and play his little flute, or piccolo, whatever it was, driving Kirby nuts. Jack would yell at him to shut up.”
Anecdotally, apparently, Lee asked for a promotion, not even a week after starting the job because he claimed, “I know everything.” This may very well have been the day on which Simon decided to let Lee write that aforementioned two-page story. Back then, the US Postal Service, in all their glory, had decreed that any magazine mailed out second-class (which included comic book subscriptions), had to contain at least two pages of straight-out text – no pictures on those two pages, just text. Apparently, no one ever read those, but Stan didn’t care, he took the chance to flex his writing muscles and brought his A-game to pen and paper.
After writing those first two pages, it only took another two months before he became a scriptwriter. In 1942, Lee was promoted to editor, by which time he had been writing fully-fledged comic book scripts for years (he’d had input on their writing since before ’41). Now, you may be wondering why he changed his legal name; you see, back when Stan started at Timely, he was hoping that, someday, he’d be writing novels, and he didn’t want his novels to be associated with comics – for as much as he enjoyed his job in publishing, to the young Stan, comic books were the bottom of the barrel when it came to storytelling – of course, it didn’t help that comics then became his life, by which point he had certainly grown to appreciate them a whole lot more. In the 40s and 50s, the company; now named ‘Atlas’; was struggling financially, and it was in this time that Lee created Jack Frost, Whizzer, Black Marvel, The Witness and The Destroyer.
While DC (known then as ‘National Comics’) dominated the comic book market, they only started to re-imagine their heroes in the mid-to-late 50’s (kicking off the Silver Age of Comics); but even re-imagined, Batman didn’t have much character beyond his intelligence and skills, Superman had zero character whatsoever beyond being wise, smart, super-strong and super-fast, and neither Gotham, Metropolis nor kryptonite existed. Lee took advantage of this. His heroes would live in real cities. His heroes would be flawed – his heroes would bleed: Bruce Banner was one of the smartest people on the planet, but the Hulk was a destructive, chaotic beast that could not be controlled. Spider-Man may have been strong and agile, but Peter Parker was socially awkward at best and struggled to maintain a social and school-life on top of being a superhero. Iron Man may have been invincible (as the title suggests) and incredibly intelligent, but he suffered from alcoholism and arrogant tendencies. Thor was physically the second strongest hero on Earth – but only so when he wielded his hammer, otherwise, Donald Blake was as physically unimposing as could be. Wolverine may have been able to heal from almost any injury, but his memory was faulty, often leaving him when his brain got damaged, and his rage was almost as uncontrollable as the Hulk himself. And while DC eventually came around to the concept of flawed heroes, it took even them quite some time to get around to it.
In 1961, Lee and Kirby created The Fantastic Four; this was also the year in which the company dropped the name ‘Atlas’ and became known as ‘Marvel’. In ’62, Lee worked together with Steve Ditko to create Spider-Man – if you’ve read my Kirby article, you’ll know that Lee had a few ideas which he gave to Kirby and didn’t like what Kirby came up with using those ideas, so he passed them on to Ditko for tweaking, and so, one of the most popular superheroes ever created was born…
By this time, Lee, Kirby and Ditko had come up with what is now known as ‘the Marvel method’; a technique of writing which gave artists more creative control when it came to the plot of a comic – even DC used this method for a while. And while the Marvel Method worked quite well, it often led to disagreements between Kirby and Lee, who constantly argued, each always wanting to take a comic in a different creative direction.
As time went on, more and more titles joined Marvel’s ever-popular roster, such as The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men, Amazing Adventures, Tales to Astonish, Tales of Suspense, World of Fantasy, The Mighty Thor, Black Panther and the Invincible Iron Man. Lee progressively orchestrated the growth of Marvel into Marvel Entertainment: a multi-media juggernaut, producing games, movies, graphic novels, toys and all manner of merchandise to go with their comics, eventually sticking their fingers into almost every facet of the entertainment sector and occupying a sizeable portion of the comic book industry. But then came the ‘Comics Bust’, also known as ‘The Great Comics Crash’.
Between around 1993 and 1997, lots of people with little to no sales or marketing knowledge and, often, very little funding, decided to start all manner of comic book stores, practically popping up overnight. These stores got their comics from Diamond and Capital City, both of whom were distributors. Many comics publishers saw companies like these as an opportunity to cut back on costs: they could now just produce a comic, and someone else could worry about distribution. Gone was the need for a subscription. But, the inexperience of the people buying comics from the distributors and selling them to the general public led many of them to closing down very quickly. Their closing down and a lack of direct-from-publisher subscriptions meant that many smaller comic book publishers were forced to shut down or sell out; and despite Marvel’s size within the market at the time, they were also forced to sell out.
While Lee didn’t sell the entire company, he strategically sold-off the film rights for the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, along with a menagerie of other characters. Eventually, in 2009, Marvel Entertainment was bought… by Disney. Quite possibly the best business move, ever (and part of Disney’s ingenious plot to take over the world, no doubt – Ed.).
In the years that followed, Marvel again became the multi-media juggernaut they once were. Through Disney and through Kevin Feige (the Marvel Studios president), and inversely, through the efforts of Stan Lee – superheroes became mainstream. Sure, comics-wise, DC may currently outsell Marvel on a per-title basis, but month to month, Marvel sell more than anyone else out there; DC may have a few good animated movies, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe is currently one of the highest grossing franchises ever. You’ll always see both well-represented in a comic book store, but if you walk past a regular toy store, chances are you’ll see more than just a few Marvel superheroes on display in the window.
While being a geek is still somewhat niche, even Stan Lee knew that entertainment is important to everyone; and while many may still not know why they’ll never see Superman and Captain America sharing the silver screen, they’re learning, slowly, but they’re learning.
Thank you Stan.
You are quite possibly responsible for more than half of today’s popular culture, many have drawn inspiration from your work and not just in terms of film or comics. Your efforts show through in the merchandise, they show through in the games, they show through in the movies – because you seem to have a cameo in just about every other film. Your efforts show through in Artist Alleys, in every hand-sculpted figurine, in every piece of fan art. Your efforts show through in Cosplay Corner, where just about everyone wants to be Spider-Man, Doctor Strange or Captain America.
Your efforts show through in our smiles when we read your comics, in our excitement when we watch your movies and in our tears when we heard of your passing.
May you rest, eternally, in peace.
December 28, 1922 – November 12, 2018
“I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing.”
“Being a ‘geek’ has become a badge of honor. It’s geeks who really make or break a TV show or movie or video game. They’re the ones who are passionate about these things and who collect the paraphernalia and talk about them. A geek is really somebody interested in communication and entertainment and finding the best way to avail himself or herself to it.”
“Most people say, “I can’t wait to retire so I can play golf,” or go yachting or whatever they do. Well, if I was playing golf, I would want that to finish so I could go and dream up a new TV show.”
“I don’t know where the hell I’ll be in five years. Maybe I’ll be producing movies maybe I’ll be on a corner selling apples. I don’t know, but I’m having a hell of a lot of fun.”
“You know, my motto is ‘Excelsior.’ That’s an old word that means ‘upward and onward to greater glory.’ It’s on the seal of the state of New York. Keep moving forward, and if it’s time to go, it’s time. Nothing lasts forever.”