9 Reasons to Be Grateful for Stan Lee (Which Have Nothing to Do With Any Characters He May or May Not Have Created)
1. He showed up.
And so we say goodbye to Stan Lee: writer, editor, publisher, producer, and the public face of Marvel Comics for longer than most of his company’s fans have been alive. His passing prompted a plenitude of tributes from all corners of the world, even as more than a few folks took his death as their cue to rehash longstanding arguments about who created what in the Marvel Universe. Me, I’m going to put forward the radical notion that Lee (né Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922) earned his place in the pantheon of comic-book legends even before any discussion of which characters he may or may not have had a hand in creating is brought up.
How so? Let’s start with something basic: he showed up for work. In 1939, a 17-year-old Lee became an assistant at the new Timely Comics division of Martin Goodman’s publishing company, a job where the young lad started out fetching lunches for artists and erasing pencils from their finished pages. Goodman — who was married to Lee’s cousin — appointed Lee his interim editor at age 19, after Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left the company. Lee showed a knack for the business that led to him remaining as the comic-book division’s editor-in-chief — as well as art director for much of that time — until 1972, when he would succeed Goodman as publisher. (He moved to California in 1981 to develop Marvel’s TV and movie properties.) In all that time, Lee — who had dreams of becoming a great novelist — had plenty of chances to bail out of the comic business, and he almost did at a low point in his career in the late 1950s… but he kept showing up for work every day anyway. Whether he stayed out of fear or because he wanted to create comics he loved is besides the point. If he had walked away, if he had chucked the whole idea of working in comics to pursue another career option, then there’s a very good chance that Marvel’s corporate history would look very different today… meaning there’s a good chance none of us would have had any of the classic Silver Age Marvel characters we know and love today. For that alone, he deserves a raised glass.
2. He was a workhorse.
“The blackout? November of ’65. Denny O’Neil and I were caught on a subway; we were stuck there for a couple of hours. When we came out, we walked home. There was nothing to be done, we decided. The next day, Stan came in with a bunch of pages. He started apologizing because he had only written ten pages because of the blackout. He’d set five or ten candles around the table while the rest of us were playing, and written one of those back-page Asgard features with this beautiful dialogue. He didn’t let anything get in his way. The first vacation he had in years, he went to Florida and wrote on the train. He was totally dedicated to getting the stuff out.” That was writer-editor Roy Thomas, quoted in Steve Duin and Mike Richardson’s 1998 book Comics Between the Panels. Even though Lee was the boss of a company on the rise and could have delegated to his heart’s content, he couldn’t stop doing what he loved to do. Maybe it was because he came of age during the Great Depression; maybe it was because he was used to being the sole salaried employee in his office for so long. Whatever the reason, Lee wasn’t the kind of guy to sit back and let someone else do the work that needed to be done. Any honest review of his life can’t neglect the fact he churned out thousands of scripts over the course of his career, to say nothing of the countless hours he put in promoting the company and meeting with fans well into his 90s. There are a lot of words that people can use (and have used) to describe Lee, but “slacker” isn’t one of them.
3. The man recognized talent…
Take it from someone who’s held the title once or twice in his career: being an editor can suck. You’re often caught in the middle between your publisher, your advertisers and your freelancers… you’re forever running up against a deadline… any small mistake in the copy could cost you a reader or an advertiser, or even (gulp) spark a lawsuit… and when you’ve finally finished that issue and you take a moment to feel good about getting another one out the door, that one moment is all you get before it’s time to go to work on the next one. But one huge perk of the job is the ability to choose who you get to work with. And on that score, Lee had an almost preternatural ability to choose some of the best talents in the business. Giants like Kirby, Ditko and Wood come to mind, but the list of exceptional artists who passed through Marvel’s doors in the 1950s and ’60s is mind-blowing. Ayers, Maneely, Severin (John and Marie), Wildey, Brodsky, Sinnott, Hartley, Abel, Andru, Buscema, Romita, Morisi… I could be here all day and still not get through all of them. The point is, every single one of those people was hired by Lee to do their thing. If we’re going to praise an orchestra for its energetic and genre-defining sound, then it’s only fair to give the conductor a bit of credit for bringing them together.
4. …and the talent recognized him as a guy in their corner.
Here’s what John Romita Sr. said in a 2002 interview about working with Lee as an editor: “Stan Lee was amazing… Other editors have sometimes a taste problem, or a judgment problem. They don’t really know what’s good or what’s bad. Or if they know what they like, it’s not as good as it could be, because their taste is bad… I learned more every time I went in with Stan with a story, and he would take the time to critique it. That’s how I learned so much. I was feeling my way, and he was the best editor.” People who want to diminish Lee’s contributions to Marvel tend to focus on the question of whether he had any input on creating this character or that while overlooking his other job functions as editor-in-chief during Marvel’s greatest years. And while it’s perfectly fine to have a debate on, say, who first came up with Spider-Man, focusing solely on who created what tends to diminish the very real impact Lee had as an editor of an incredibly diverse and demanding line of books. Did things always run smoothly? Hey, mistakes were made — ask “Peter Palmer” about that. But take a look at any of the tributes written by the writers and artists who worked side-by-side with Lee over the years — many of them for decades — and tell me there isn’t a lot of appreciation out there for the man who, as Romita said, took the time to give every story that landed on his desk the respect it deserved.
5. He recognized the marketing potential in forging a sense of community among readers.
Let’s be clear: Marvel didn’t invent the concept of a fan community. Other publishers — EC being a prominent example — published letter columns, created fan clubs and encouraged readers to feel like they were part of a select group years before Marvel did. But one of Marvel’s — and Lee’s — strengths was taking that idea of brand loyalty and freaking running with it, not just with stories that spoke directly to readers or with letter columns that printed full mailing addresses, but with regular editorial features that took readers “behind the scenes” at Marvel’s offices. “Bullpen Bulletins” would inform readers about what’s happening in the lives of Marvel’s staff and artists, “The Mighty Marvel Checklist” listed all the books coming out from Marvel that month (complete with blurbs highlighting who’s guest-starring in which book, a sneaky way to encourage fans of a character to check out other books), and “Stan’s Soapbox” offered Lee a direct line to readers, which he used to remind “true believers” they were “the ever-lovin’ greatest.” By giving shout-outs to his artists, riffing on the production side of the business, or giving readers the inside scoop on Hollywood projects based on Marvel characters, Lee created a casual, inviting, we’re-all-buddies-in-here atmosphere that was often hokey as hell — but he was so excited about all the news he had to share that readers couldn’t help getting reeled in by it.
6. Remember that “With great power…” line he was always pushing on the kids? So did he.
If Lee had put all his talents to use making Marvel bigger and more profitable, and had focused only on that, then that would have been enough for most people to consider him a good guy. But Lee recognized that he and Marvel occupied a unique position in the cultural landscape, one where they had a chance to speak directly to millions of readers — most of them kids — about this business of doing good in the world. Sometimes, that effort took the form of an editorial in Lee’s Soapbox column, like the one above in which Lee decried racism for the stupidity that it is. (Lee re-shared that 1968 column in August 2017 in response to the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, following it up with a video pleading for an end to racist violence). Other times, he followed the writer’s credo of “Show, don’t tell” by introducing non-white characters into the books, like Sgt. Fury’s Gabe Jones, the Black Panther in Fantastic Four, and Luke Cage, the first African-American superhero to star in his own book). Then there were the times he could have easily stayed out of the fray but leapt to the defence of his company’s right to be more inclusive, like the time he debated anti-gay advocates on CNN when Marvel came out with a book starring a gay Western gunslinger and the usual “what about the children” whinging started up in conservative circles (prompting Lee, who was 80 at the time, to suggest he had a better handle on the demographics of comic readers than his debate opponents.) And then of course there were the stories themselves — thousands of them, either written by him or inspired by his example — that illustrated the importance of being a hero who, in Lee’s words, “is concerned about other people’s well-being, and will go out of his or her way to help them — even if there is no chance of a reward. That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.”
7. He gave out credit when he didn’t have to.
Yes, it wasn’t perfect. In an ideal world, artists like Kirby and Ditko — anyone who worked with Lee using the “Marvel Method,” really — would have been credited from the start as co-plotters and co-writers of the stories they created. But (to use a phrase) let’s give credit where it’s due and recognize that Lee was under no legal obligation to include any credits at all. Right from the start, comics were a collaborative medium, and while you can find the odd writer or artist signature in comics prior to Lee and Marvel, publishers felt no pressing need to include credits in their stories. Even in books by industry leader DC, readers never knew that Curt Swan or Wayne Boring was the artist on their favorite Superman stories, or that Mike Sekowsky was the artist behind the Justice League of America. (Stories starring Batman carried Bob Kane’s signature from the start but, as Lee might have put it, ’nuff said about that.) But by the ninth issue of Fantastic Four, Lee was not only crediting Kirby for the pencils, but also Dick Ayers for the inks and Art Simek for the lettering. The lettering, people! When had that ever been done in a comic before? And any assistant editors or colorists that might have felt blue (pun!) about being left out soon joined the ranks of the credited. Bottom line: we can probably go around and around until the end of time arguing over whether Lee could have done more to make the greater world aware of who was involved in the creation of Spider-Man, the X-Men, Doctor Strange and so on. But even Lee’s fiercest critics can’t deny that his decision to provide credits for all the major players in the production process was a huge leap forward for creators’ rights, in that it acknowledged there were many creators behind all those stories.
8. He defied the Comics Code Authority when no one else did.
Take a look at this cover for The Amazing Spider-Man #96. Notice anything missing? Marvel’s books in the 1960s challenged every convention of comic-book writing, and The Amazing Spider-Man was no exception. But none of Marvel’s stories ran afoul of the Comics Code Authority until this one, a tale in which a “freaked-out cat” jumps off the roof of a building just as Spider-Man is swinging by. It’s highly implied the jumper was under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug, and one of Peter Parker’s friends later berates drugs and their effects on people. “It was a good story and everyone involved was very happy with it.” Stan said in a later interview. “As usual, we sent the book to the CCA and, amazingly, and ironically, they said they had to reject it.” As he expanded in his book Amazing Marvel Universe: “And when they were reading these [Spider-Man] stories, before they would put the seal of approval on the magazine, they said, ‘Oh no, you can’t do this story.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ They said, ‘According to the rules of the Code Authority, you can’t mention drugs in a story.’ And I said, ‘Look we’re not telling kids to take drugs, this is an anti-drug theme.’ [They said,] ‘Oh no, it doesn’t matter, you mention drugs.’ And I said, ‘But the Department of Health Education and Welfare, a government agency, asked us to do it.’ And they said, ‘it doesn’t matter, you can’t mention drugs.’” Lee called their bluff, distributed the book without their stamp, and waited for the public’s reaction. Not surprisingly, it was overwhelmingly positive, as readers responded favourably to characters dealing with real-life issues. It was a blow for artists’ freedom, and shortly thereafter the CCA amended its rules to allow references to drugs.
9. He was a tireless promoter for an industry that sorely needed someone to take on the job.
To quote pop-culture commentator Nathan Rabin: “Stan Lee didn’t just make comic books. No, to me he was comic books. He embodied the medium. He was its unofficial official face in no small part because he was an upbeat, charismatic, handsome, energetic man with a gift for gab and genius for branding and self-mythologizing, and not a brooding, angry, sullen loner raging at the world.” Lee was so ubiquitous on the comic scene for so long that it’s easy to forget what the industry’s image looked like before Lee shed his editor-in-chief duties to become Marvel’s full-time promoter and ambassador. Back in the day (as in, the industry’s earliest years) no one saw the point of promoting a product that sold itself; by the mid-1950s, when comics were seen as a bad influence on kids, most artists were content with leaving their comic work off their resumes, never mind going out to promote their industry. By the time comics were somewhat respectable again — the late ’50s and early ’60s, when DC dominated the field — most people who thought about the faces behind the comics (if they thought about them at all) likely imagined a lot of pipe-smoking middle-aged men hunched over their drawing tables. Lee’s genius was in recognizing the comic business needed a face, someone who could embody the gee-whiz optimism of the medium and go forth to spread the word about what was happening in the business. He was also one of the earliest proponents of thinking beyond the printed page, tirelessly pitching Marvel characters to Hollywood long before anyone considered superheroes viable film properties. Or to put it another way, if you enjoyed watching Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War on the big screen (as I did), then you have Stan to thank for making it possible. So thanks, Stan. Thanks for everything. Excelsior.