It’s strange to write about a voice that has been in my head since I was three years old. Stan Lee (né Stanley Lieber), who passed away last Monday at 95, was the man who wrote my childhood. He was America’s greatest living writer, and all the more so because he wrote in a “low” medium. For twelve cents, you could pick up a Marvel Comic, which paired his keen understanding of human nature with the most memorable characters since Shakespeare. The comic is the most American of art forms, and Lee was its undisputed master.
It began with the Stan Lee–Jack Kirby collaboration Fantastic Four, which with its oddball, flawed team of heroes, completely transformed the way people thought about comics as a medium. Both Lee and Kirby had worked on comics going back to the 1940s, and Kirby was the co-creator of Captain America, but nothing before had the impact of the Fantastic Four.
Famed English novelist and comic writer Alan Moore writes of the time his mother accidentally bought (he’d requested a different comic) him an issue of Fantastic Four when he was a child in the 1960s:
I doubt you can imagine the sheer impact that single comic possessed back there in the comic-starved wastelands of 1961 or whenever it was. Especially to someone whose only exposure to the super hero had been the clear-cut and clean-living square-jawed heroes featured in DC comics at the time.
Even though I grew up decades after the famed “Marvel Age of Comics,” I know how these flawed, human characters hooked readers. Like many, I have always been an avid fan of Peter Parker, the Amazing Spider-Man, whom Lee co-created with the brilliant and enigmatic Steve Ditko. Peter, a high-school student, was older than I was (when I started reading the comics), but, much like me, he was bookish and curious and had a strong moral center. Bullied by his classmates, Peter Parker often felt rage — and there were many panels showcasing the conflict inside of him; he knew very well that he could easily beat any of his bullies, but Peter knew to hold back, both to protect his identity and because that would be an abuse of power. He’s an illustration of what might happen if an ordinary person with a good heart found himself possessed of tremendous power — and who, with the death of his beloved uncle, realized his power was a calling. (Hence the famous words, “With great power, must also come great responsibility!”)
SLIDESHOW: Remembering Stan Lee
This calling was not always convenient for Spider-Man. His duties as a hero took a toll on his personal life, as he balanced being a teenager with being a hero. I reread the entirety of the original Amazing Spider-Man recently, and the realistic way these high-school-aged characters were portrayed anticipates the genres of young-adult literature (as well as their film and television counterparts) by decades.
The fact that Lee portrays both sides of the character’s life (something that was not limited to Spider-Man alone) makes you feel the pain of his sacrifices, even as you know that his need to do the right thing must come first. I didn’t have Spider-Man’s powers, but Stan made it pretty clear to me and all the other kids, that if I did, I too would make that hard choice. Maybe the comic book is a morality tale, but that is a tale that we need to keep hearing.
Spider-Man, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, the Hulk, the X-Men, and so many other characters continued to keep their fans’ attention as these readers grew from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. This was no accident. From the formative period, these characters, who shared a universe, evolved and had life-changing experiences. Lee often spoke of the letters he would receive from readers, addressed to the characters. (Iron Man in particular got a lot of letters from girls worried that he wasn’t taking care of himself.)
Stan was Marvel’s editor in chief, and he was responsible for scripting pretty much all of its major titles. (A bracing thought!) He spearheaded the “Marvel Method,” which both kept things efficient for him as editor and allowed the creativity of all parties to make itself known. He would give the artist a plot (some, like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, would sometimes come up with the plots themselves), the artist would then draw and lay out the whole comic, and then Stan would write the dialogue and exposition in his signature style. The method was showcased in bonus material in the comics themselves, complete with self-deprecating dialogue from Stan.
Today, many people are prone to downplaying Stan’s role, but frankly the sheer volume and consistency of his characters make it clear that there was a common factor. The artists absolutely share credit for coming up with the characters and stories; the likes of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Jim Steranko, Bill Everett, John Romita Sr., and many others from the “Marvel Age” brought something new, and they would continue to produce amazing work even apart from Stan Lee or Marvel. But Stan worked with all of them, and he was the one who established the norm of crediting comic artists front-and-center.
Stan Lee’s writing holds up to this day. Unlike today’s comic books, which can feel daunting — if not impossible — to jump into because of all the backstory, you can pick up any Stan Lee comic and immediately find yourself enmeshed in his world — in much the same way that Alan Moore recalled experiencing when he read Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Today they are available in collected editions, in digital and print, as well as through Marvel’s own Netflix-like subscription service Marvel Unlimited. However you get your comics, read Stan Lee’s work, and experience what six decades of people around the world have been transformed by.
Last week, I was asked who I thought was the greatest writer alive. I couldn’t think of an answer that evening — but it strikes me now that there was an answer I could have given, and been right. But it’s one that can’t be said anymore. Stan Lee passed away this Monday, and he belongs on the pantheon of America’s greatest-ever writers. The beloved comic-book writer was to the 20th century what Mark Twain was to the 19th, his stamp still firmly on the comics industry that he transformed, and the wider entertainment world.
Thank you, Stan. Excelsior!