For me, it all started with Stan Lee. Summer, 1974. I was eight years old. B. Dalton Bookseller had already overtaken the toy store as my favorite place to be. Just the inimitable smell of the paper from the tens of thousands of books had already become a source of comfort and happiness to me. But on that particular Thursday (I swear, I don’t know why I remember it was a Thursday – but that is probably the reason Thursday has been and continues to be my favorite day of the week), browsing through the shelves of books, one caught my eye. I slipped it off the shelf and gazed at the cover – a painted picture of a man’s hands working on typewriter keys while floating majestically in the air above, as if I was privy to the imaginative visions emanating from this man’s head, were brightly colored figures I was unfamiliar with (well, that’s not completely true, but more on that in a minute), but who nonetheless excited me, caused my heart to kick into a higher gear.
The title of the book – Origins of Marvel Comics by Stan Lee.
There was an orange, rocky monster who somehow managed to look comical and loveable even as he thundered towards me out of the cover. There was a green Frankenstein-like creature with swollen muscles and torn purple pants. There was a man colored red and entirely engulfed in flames. There was a regal looking man with a long moustache and goatee, flying with a long red cape streaming behind. One character was familiar to me only because I had a vague recollection of a cartoon with him (swinging around a building on a string?) in it, but I couldn’t even remember his name. He wore a brightly colored red and blue costume and, coolest of all, his eyes were big and white and rimmed with menacingly-shaped black outlines – he was immediately appealing to me.
I opened the cover. On the inside front dust cover was a black and white photo of a handsome man smiling from beneath a neat moustache, one leg crossed over the knee, both hands locked around it. That smile was something. I don’t know why, but I immediately felt a connection with this man, like he was a long-lost uncle that had given me sweets as a child but who I couldn’t consciously remember.
I thumbed through pages, stopping when I got to one that was even more colorful than the cover. There was an enormous reptilian monster breaking up through the street, and there was the man-on-fire from the cover flying around his head. Also from the cover was the orange, rocky lump, shoving a car aside as he strode towards the giant creature. In the beast’s hand was a woman, or part of one rather, as half her body seemed to be invisible. On the ground, trying to free himself from some rope (even then, I couldn’t understand how he got into that predicament – did the giant monster tie him up?!), was a man whose body appeared to have no bones. Across the top of the page were the words “The Fantastic Four” in the color of red M&Ms. I turned another page and was thrilled to see, as opposed to the expected lines of neatly typed text, pages of squared boxes (which I later learned were called panels) each filled with more exciting, colorful images of these characters.
At some point, my mom came in and told me it was time to go. Now, no parent is stranger to the ‘look’ and “Mom, can I pleeeasehave this?!” (whatever ‘this’ might happen to be) that inevitably accompanies any trip to the mall with a child. My mom had experienced it many times, and many times she had said no to less expensive and, probably, more impressive looking things. Maybe it was fate or just because it was that most magical of weekdays – Thursday! – but she took a glance at what I held so lovingly close to my body – so protectively! – and sighed something like, “Bring it up to the register.”
- *Note: Stan Lee would autograph this book for me nearly 40 years later!*
There were many more benchmark moments in my ‘relationship’ with Uncle Smiley, one of the humorous names with which Lee enthusiastically referred to himself. For as I came to realize, that was what drew me to him – his warm, welcoming, friendly, we’re-long-lost-pals manner of speaking through his writing, in the book as well as in the comics. With every word, every nuanced turn of phrase, he nurtured that relationship, made it something tangible, something real to me.
He became my hero.
The next year at school, while all my pals wanted to be Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man, I wanted to be Stan Lee. And in that spirit, I corralled all of them, a good half-dozen, and got them drawing comics for me. I called our ‘company’Club Comics Group.I told my friends I didn’t care what characters they used in their comics – they could use already established ones or create their own. The only stipulation I demanded was that across the top of the front page of each comic book, they let me sign my name in cursive followed by a neatly printed ‘presents…’ before the superhero’s name, just like my idol, Stan Lee!
I would then take these to the school office where a kindly secretary would mimeograph (and even staple together) the pages, and I would sell them for ten-cents each, giving each creator their cut, of course!
I said I wouldn’t bore you with my history, but I just wanted you to understand the extent of the influence Stan Lee had on my young mind.
As the title of the article says, It – my immersion into comics – Started with Stan. But, more importantly, so did the birth of the Marvel Comics Universe. There is much dispute as to how much input each collaborator Lee teamed with had into each story and creation. Lee stated he felt he ‘created’ the classic Marvel characters because he came up with the idea for each. The artists had various versions of how much credit they felt they deserved for the creations because they gave them form. Even more, the method they worked in – coined the Marvel Method – involved the artist essentially drawing the story based on a brief conversation with Lee which may have ended up resembling little of what they had discussed. Lee would then look at it and add captions and dialogue according to how he saw the story unfolding on the page, which could be completely different from what the artist intended.
One can obviously look at future solo works by the two collaborators around whom most of this debate centers – Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – to see how much of the finished product may have come from Lee and how much may have come from each artist.
It seems clear to me that, while there doesn’t seem to be overwhelming evidence that any one of the three contributed more substantially than the others, the action and visual mood clearly came from the artists, and the humor and personality of the characters came from Lee. In the end, I would call each of the efforts by these three, and other artists Lee paired with as well, a perfect synergy, a final product that was much greater than the sum of its parts.
Stanley Martin Lieber was born on Thursday December 28, 1922 in New York City to Romanian-born Jewish parents. Although poor, Lieber was always outgoing, optimistic and jovial. In his late teens, he got a job at Timely Comics through his uncle Robbie Solomon. Here, he was basically a gopher for the legendary creative team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the duo who had created the World War II superhero, Captain America. Because Lieber kept pestering them for more creative assignments, and because they needed text features to be written to fill out issues of Captain America anyway, they had him write a short story for the next issue. As Lieber had grandiose visions of writing ‘the Great American Novel’ and wanted to save his real name for that, he adopted a pen name for this assignment by splitting his first name in two – Stan Lee.
As the years passed, via a war of attrition, Lee made himself more and more valuable to the company. He weathered boom-and-bust cycles, the worst of which saw the entire staff – except for Lee – laid off more than once.
As the 60s rolled around, Timely’s publisher, Martin Goodman, asked Lee to create a superhero team comic to complete with DC Comics’ Justice League of America. Lee picked Kirby, and although the two have conflicting versions of exactly how the comic came to life, in November of 1961, the newly christened Marvel Comics put forth its fledgling title – The Fantastic Four – and it was a sensation.
Lee also paired with Steve Ditko to bring about Spider-Man, as well as Dr. Strange. As success begat success, they followed those up with one hit after another – The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, The Invincible Iron Man, Ant Man and the Wasp, Captain America, Daredevil, The Avengers, The X-Men, The Silver Surfer, Captain Marvel – the list goes on and on. Other artists followed as did new writers – Roy Thomas, Herb Trimpe, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Archie Goodwin, Larry Lieber, Gil Kane, Sol Brodsky, Marie Severin, Don Heck, Bill Everette, Jim Steranko, Dennis O’Neal – The Universe grew.
Lee became Editor-in-Chief and eventually, publisher himself. But even more than this, he became the face and the voice of Marvel Comics. He became Stan “the Man” Lee. He spoke directly to the fans every month through the comics via Stan’s Soap Box, an editorial-like column which he delivered in his own unique voice with his inimitable self-deprecating humor. He added his voice to television cartoons of the characters, and eventually, began appearing in cameos in big-screen movies about his collaborative creations.
On November 12, 2018, at the height of his fame, and in the midst of controversial financial and custody issues, Stan Lee died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
I was fortunate enough to meet and spend time with him on two occasions – one, an intimate affair in Baltimore in 2013, and the other a more public one at a convention in Kansas City in 2016. We took photos and made videos, and I will remember those experiences for the rest of my life.
One footnote to this personal account of the life of Stan Lee: Roy Thomas, Stan’s hand-chosen protégé and heir to his throne, finished an enormous work called The Stan Lee Story, a magnum opus of Lee’s life and work. Taking 8 years to complete, only 1,000 copies were published, each with Stan’s personal signature, his last such offering, and each with an initial price of $1,5000. I have since seen them selling for over $5,000. They were made available, coincidentally, right after his death. Roy Thomas went to see Stan on Sunday November 10th and they made the final arrangements over the book, little knowing that Lee would be dead two days later.
I told my wife that, even though it was very expensive, only Stan Lee’s greatest fans would own a copy of that book. I had always considered myself his biggest fan, even to the extent that I knew he hated it when someone told him they were his biggest fan. So I kept it a secret!
But this was a last opportunity to prove, to myself, that it was true, that I was his biggest fan. And just before Christmas 2018, a gigantic box arrived on my doorstep, covered with the faces of dozens of Stan Lee’s creations. On one side was a label that read, “The Stan Lee Story – Number 316 of 1,000”. It must have weighed 20 pounds! It came with a pair of white gloves to protect the pages. That’s the kind of book it is.
I’m not telling you this to bore you with my history or to brag in any way. I am merely trying to convey the kind of influence that Stan Lee has had over my whole life.