Stan Lee passed away Monday at the age of 95. There aren’t many comic creators who make the national news when they die. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were maybe mentioned briefly by most outlets, but Stan was a story. And part of the reason is that everybody knows him from his cameos in just about every Marvel movie, including those produced by other studios. But even beyond that, Stan spent most of his life making sure you knew who Stan Lee was.
It seems weird, but when the Marvel Universe began in 1961, DC Comics still didn’t have credits. Other than the myth that every Batman story sprang directly from the pen of Bob Kane, DC didn’t credit the writers and artists. Presumably that was to keep people replaceable, but it might just have been that the kids they aimed their material at wouldn’t care anyway. Marvel not only had credits but they had jokes in the credits – in those early days of Marvel it was rare to see a straightforward credit box. There’d be a running joke or a bit about how the rest of the team didn’t think it was fair that Stan was always listed first, so he’d be listed last but in a huge font. I remember a lot of digs at Amazing Spider-Man letterer Artie Simek. Which is kind of funny because he was the guy who would have had to fill in those credits but also, the man did a good job. Why pick on him all the time?
As soon as Marvel took off, Stan made sure to put the creators out there, just behind him. He was the face of Marvel, sure. But the old “Bullpen Bulletins” page would spotlight other creators and run their pictures. The Marvel fan club offered a record that they made in the offices where you could hear the voices of your favorite creators. (Except for Steve Ditko, who was a recluse before he was a recluse.) Stan Lee was selling Marvel comics but also Marvel the Experience. If you knew something about the people making your comics, maybe that translated to brand loyalty. (A strategy that wouldn’t have worked for DC, which at the time was a bunch of overworked middle-aged men and also Ramona Fradon.)
The relentless self-promotion made Stan Lee a famous name, but it also cemented the idea that he created everything. This is a myth that persists today. Putting aside the fact that virtually every significant Marvel character was a co-creation, there are Marvel characters who came long after Stan left the company, or were created by other teams. I bring this up because social media has given a man who deserves a lot of credit some unearned glory. He didn’t create Captain America (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby created him before Lee was even a professional writer), and he didn’t create, say, Wolverine or Thanos or Elektra or Luke Cage or Rocket Raccoon, or a lot of the characters you will see standing in tribute to him. But that’s my issue.
Still, here’s where it gets complicated. Stan’s self-generated mythology often came at the expense of the artists who worked with him. The old Marvel Method of creation was this – Stan and the artist would discuss a story (accounts vary wildly as to how much detail, but virtually every account is of a verbal discussion). The artists would then draw a comic book based on that plot to whatever degree they saw fit, and then Stan would script it. Which sounds bonkers because it seems like writing was the last step. Like that Megaton Man gag I love: “This week’s strips are lettered, they’re just waiting for you to write them.” And you can see all sorts of examples where Lee and his artists did not agree what a story was about. Word balloons emanating from off-panel try to build a story around things that Kirby definitely didn’t draw. Famously, Lee and Ditko had serious philosophical differences that let to Ditko leaving Spider-Man. But you see it with Kirby, too. Especially in Thor. It feels like Lee and Kirby had very different ideas who Thor was and there can be a real dissonance. In the earliest issues, Don Blake tapped his walking stick to be imbued with “the power of Thor”, but Kirby brought in Asgard and made Thor the actual mythological Thor and that just created a mess that took years to work out. And of course, Kirby just put the Silver Surfer in a Fantastic Four issue and Stan had no idea who the guy was.
The point is, Stan making himself the face of Marvel often devalued the brilliant artists he worked with. I mean, they’ve sorted out the movie credits, but Captain America includes the credit “Based on Characters Created by Stan Lee”. Nope. Same with Guardians of the Galaxy – the only character in that movie with a connection to Lee is Groot – Stan scripted his first appearance when he was a giant tree who menaced a small town. Jack Kirby’s heirs fought for years to get shared credit for his characters, and we finally get that “…and Jack Kirby” or …and Steve Ditko” or “…and Bill Everett” and in some cases, the actual post-Lee creators. It’s a big step but too late to do any good for Kirby or Everett. Ditko lived to see his creator credit on Spider-Man: Homecoming except that there’s no way he would have gone to see a movie and probably wouldn’t have cared. He’s a special case.
The thing is, while Stan was out there as Mr. Marvel, Kirby and the other people who built the universe with him were being disrespected at a corporate level. They couldn’t get their original art back, they were unceremoniously fired, and they sure as hell didn’t share in that giant salary that Lee continued to collect even after he no longer had any creative connection to Marvel. There’s only one guy who had his name in every single issue Marvel published, and it was Stan. No acknowledgment that he had a partner in creating the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and that he couldn’t have picked the Punisher out of a lineup. That “Stan Lee Presents” put money in his pocket while Kirby had to do uncredited design work for Ruby-Spears to get by. In fact, when Kirby left Marvel for DC, it was promoted as an event. “Kirby is Coming!” And a decade later when his New Gods made their way into the Super Friends cartoon and a toy line, DC hired Kirby to redesign his characters to make them more action figure-y. It was going to happen anyway, but they made sure that Jack got the work and the money, which was more consideration than Marvel had shown him to that point.
And you can’t necessarily blame Stan entirely for the mistreatment of his collaborators. Marvel became a corporate entity and the accountants at whatever conglomerate owned them in any given year had more to say about that than the guy who built the place. But it’s not like he want to bat for them either. Maybe he fell for his own myth, maybe he couldn’t risk ruining his sweet deal. It’s the real world and nobody is entirely the hero or villain of their own story. As a big Kirby fan, I find aspects of his treatment by both Stan as a person and as a corporate icon to be shameful. But also? When they were in sync, it was magic.
There are people who will diminish Lee’s contributions, and sometimes I’m one of those, but there’s a theme running through those early Marvels. It didn’t matter if they were Ditko misfits like Spider-Man and Doctor Strange or Kirby’s larger than life modern gods like Thor or Hulk or the Fantastic Four. They were all broken. The DC guys were all good-looking and happy to be doing their superhero jobs and the closest they got to a problem was a love interest trying to expose their secret identity. The Marvel guys, things weren’t great for them. Spider-Man was hated by the press while Peter Parker was bullied and had to also deal with household finance as a teenager. Bruce Banner became an unstoppable rage monster when he got angry or when the sun went down, depending. The Fantastic Four bickered like families do and the most popular member (and greatest Marvel character) the Thing hated being a freak. Don Blake needed a cane to walk. Matt Murdock was blind. Stephen Strange had to stop being a doctor because he destroyed his hands. Tony Stark had shrapnel in his heart. The Silver Surfer was forced to do the bidding of a being who ate planets. Hawkeye and Black Widow were reformed villains trying desperately to redeem themselves in the eyes of the world. Captain America may not be a Lee creation, but he’s the one who made Cap a man living in the wrong decade. And these damaged heroes have made a jillion dollars because that’s a formula that works.
As a kid, I’d get these little paperbacks that reprinted early issues of Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. I was reading the current stuff, but I’d also get these little chunks of the Silver Age, and Lee’s writing popped for me in a way that I can’t even describe. Those first issues of FF are weird. Human Torch quits the team and then meets a hobo who’s actually the Submariner and then Submariner teams up with Dr. Doom to shoot a building into space and the team turns Skrulls into cows and the Mole Man has a horn that summons a monster and it takes them three issues to even get costumes. And early Spider-Man hits me really hard. I was an unpopular nerd then and now I’m a guy with unasked for financial responsibilities forced on my by family, so my life has been Lee/Ditko Spider-Man only without the superpowers or Betty Brant secretly being interested in me.
And to Lee’s eternal credit, from the very beginning, he spoke out for equality and against bigotry. Let’s be honest, he didn’t do a great job writing women who weren’t girlfriends, but he also had the Avengers condemn racism and the X-Men eventually became a civil rights parable. His characters did the right thing even when the odds were overwhelmingly against them. They faced losses and they kept going. He wrote stories that are in the DNA of the biggest movies around. And because of him, comics got better. They had to, just to keep up. There is always going to be a part of me that resents the bad stuff, but that’s fine. Stan loved flawed heroes and sympathetic villains and complicated characters that you’d root for even when they screwed up. My life, your life, pop culture, and maybe the world in general is better because Stan Lee was in it.