Last month Stan Lee, the former publisher and life-long mascot of Marvel Comics passed away, and PopCult, being a pop culture blog, could not let that go without comment. He was the editor-in-chief, publisher, head cheerleader and mascot for Marvel Comics, and without him, we would not have Marvel as we know it today.
Stan Lee passed while I was in the middle of writing The 2018 PopCult Gift Guide, and with that taking up all my time, I didn’t have time to compose a proper obituary. In a way, that was a bit of a relief.
See, I can’t sit here and say that Stan Lee created the Marvel Universe. It would not have existed without him, but he was not the sole creator, and his role as a co-creator is probably not what many people seem to think it was.
I give him all the credit in the world for hiring top-notch talent like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and helping them bring their work to the public. And I give him all the credit in the world for tirelessly promoting Marvel Comics and taking them from being a cheap publisher who hadn’t had a hit comic book in more than fifteen years to the number one comic book publisher in America.
Stan Lee did that. He sold the world on Marvel Comics, and without his salesmanship, we would not have the current crop of big-budget Marvel Movies. He was smart enough to hire people who could tell epic stories that touched the world.
Stan invented “The Marvel Method.” Many people praise this as an innovative movement that gave the comic book artist greater control over the pace and action in the story, and allowed them way more creative freedom than if they worked from a full script.
With The Marvel Method, the artist would be given a short synopsis of what would happen in the story, and then tell that story in the agreed-upon number of pages. Then Stan Lee would handle the final dialogue.
However, this was not really a case of artistic freedom. Stan Lee worked for Magazine Management, a company owned by his aunt’s husband, Martin Goodman. When sales of the comics dropped, what was then called Atlas Comics had to tighten their belt. Page rates were cut to near the bottom in the industry, so when Lee wanted a raise, he had to come up with a creative way to get it.
Basically, Stan Lee laid off all of Atlas Comics’ freelance writers, and had the artists start working from his springboard ideas. The artist would do the bulk of the work, plotting and drawing the comics, and then Stan Lee would write the dialogue, which sometimes was not much different from what the artists had suggested in the margins. Lee would then take full credit as the writer, and keep the entire paycheck that would have earlier gone to a freelance writer. When Lee did not take the credit and pay, it went to his brother, Larry Leiber. An example of how this worked is the way that the monster story that introduced Groot was done. Lee gave his artist, Jack Kirby, the instruction “Wood alien, six pages.” Lee knew that Kirby would run with that. Most of his ideas were more thought out, with a plot, but by that point the monster comics had become so formulaic that, with Kirby, he just had to tell him what kind of alien to use. Of course, Kirby didn’t get paid any more than if he’d been handed a full script.
Because he was essentially management, in a family-owned business, he could get away with that. The comic book market had dried up so much that artists were forced to work on those terms, or go without work…or work for Charlton Comics for even less money.
Stan Lee was not an artist. He did not draw comic books, ever. He held the title of art director, but that was probably more likely due to his family owning the business.
Lee was very smart to hire Jack Kirby at a point where Kirby had hit a professional low point. A dispute with an editor at DC Comics left Kirby looking for work to support his family. Despite not trusting Martin Goodman after Goodman had reneged on an agreement to share revenue with Kirby and Joe Simon from their creation, Captain America twenty years ealier, Kirby had no choice but to go to work forAtlas/Marvel, and with Stan Lee, whom he regarded as a bit of a pest.
Goodman told Lee to create a Super Hero Team, and Lee asked Kirby to do all the work. Kirby dusted off ideas that he’d devoloped for his DC Comics creation, The Challengers of The Unknown, gave them super powers and then Lee handled the dialogue, and that was what became The Fantastic Four.
With that being a good seller, Lee asked Kirby for other ideas. Kirby gave him the name for Spider-Man, and brought The Incredible Hulk, The X Men and several others to the table. Meanwhile, Steve Ditko developed Spider-Man into the hero we recognize, and other great talents like Don Heck, Gene Colan, Bill Everett, John Buscema and John Romita eventually came to Marvel. All of them did much of the writing for which Lee took sole credit.
Lee continued to take (or accept) credit for creating Marvel on his own as the media started paying attention and Lee became a popular speaker on college campuses. He even ran out and bought a toupee and grew facial hair to be more hip (that’s him with Jack Kirby in 1964 before Lee revamped his image seen above).
Eventually Ditko got sick of Lee taking all the credit in his ever-increasing public appearances, and left Spider-Man and his own creation, Doctor Strange, at the height of Marvel’s acension to prominance. Ditko actually preferred the low pay of Charlton to being robbed of his deserved credit as co-writer of the Spider-Man stories.
A few years after that, Kirby also left and went to Marvel’s chief competitor, DC Comics, to create The New Gods and The Fourth World saga, which is providing the foundation for many upcoming DC Universe movies. Coincidentally, around this time Lee pretty much stopped writing comics on a regular basis. Kirby skewered Lee in Mister Miracle as “Funky Flashman,” poking fun at his ever-present hairpiece and taking shots at Stan’s assistant, Roy Thomas. That type of payback does not happen without reason.
The Lee-Kirby partnership was not one of equal creators pitching in 50/50 on new characters. Kirby did most of the work. Lee handled the dialogue and most importantly sold the work to the public and created the illusion of a happy bullpen of comic book creators who all loved each other and were one big happy family.
Stan Lee’s legacy as a co-creator does not include much before or after his collaborations with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. His work before he teamed with Kirby on Fantastic Four was grossly unremarkable. After Kirby left, Lee basically quit writing comics.
His “creations” after this point included Disco Dazzler and Stripperella.
That’s why I call Stan Lee Marvel’s “mascot.” The man was a great editor. He had a real eye for talent. He knew how to pitch comics to the public. He was gregarious and friendly to fans who met him at conventions. The work he took credit for inspired many of the greatest writers in the history of comics. But after 1970, Stan Lee was more like Ronald McDonald than Walt Disney. His name was on every comic book, emblazoned with “Stan Lee Presents,” but it was increasingly clear that he wasn’t even reading them any more.
He was beloved by fans, and work that he was credited with inspired a whole generation of comics creators. But I can’t let his passing go by without mentioning that he also took credit for the work of others. Many of my friends on Facebook were posting tearful eulogies, then citing books that came out years after Stan Lee quit writing as their favorite work by him.
The last couple of years of Lee’s life were pretty miserable. He did not deserve that. His work as a publisher and editor brought joy to the lives of millions of people. While it is probably for the best that his suffering is over, it’s still a shame that he’s gone. The man was a grand ambassador for comics, even if he didn’t create quite as much as he allowed people to believe.
That’s why it’s a relief that I had to wait a few weeks to post this. I held my tongue when he died because it was “too soon” to point out that he didn’t create anything on his own, except for The Marvel Method of making the artist do more than half of the writer’s work.