Stan Lee at 93: a complicated legacy

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1965

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1965, during happier days.

Stanley Martin Lieber, aka Stan Lee, turns 93 today. People who’ve never read a comic book have heard of him. Lee co-created the Marvel Universe of comic book characters, starting in 1961 with the Fantastic Four.

He is famous because of that and also through his own commercial sense and self promotion.

Stan (it’s hard not to call him that for anyone whoever read Marvel titles in the 1960s and ’70s) broke out from writing and editing comic books long ago. His IMDB.COM ENTRY lists 91 acting credits (though most are cameos or consist of voice over work) and 156 “self” appearances.

Stan had a way of making readers feel they were part of a club that “got it.” Marvel was less stuffy, less formal than arch rival DC.

One example is an Iron Man story in Tales of Suspense No. 84 in 1966. Tony Stark has suffered a heart attack just as began testifying about the Iron Man armor.

Outside Stark’s hospital room, reporters are present when Happy Hogan and Pepper Potts (yet another example of Stan’s alliterate character names) show up. “It’s Miss Potts, Stark’s private secretary!” says one. “And Happy Hogan, his right-hand man and trusted confidant!” says another.

The later quote has an asterisk that refers the reader to a caption. “We know people don’t really talk this way…but we wanna bring any newcomer up to date! —Smiley.” Smiley, of course, is one of Stan’s nicknames.

By the mid-1960s, general awareness of Marvel was taking off. Stan Lee was the face of the Marvel.

The problem was, Marvel was a lot more than Stan Lee. Artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Wally Wood, among others, largely plotted the stories.

Kirby, in a Fantastic Four story, created the Silver Surfer on his own. Ditko created Dr. Strange on his own and actually began receiving the plotting credit for Amazing Spider-Man starting with issue No. 26. Wood felt he did as much writing on Daredevil, if not more, than Lee did. (Wood was credited with writing one issue shortly before exiting the title.)

All three left Marvel by 1970. Fans of the artists make the case none of them, and others, got the due they should have received.

In a visual medium, it was Kirby who brought the FF, the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, The Avengers and the X-Men to life in a two-year span. Earlier in his career, Kirby had co-created Captain America. As a result, Kirby laid the groundwork for much of the Marvel movie universe.

In the past few years, there has been a re-examination of Marvel’s early days, such as Sean Howe’s 2012 book, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.

Still, there’s no question there’s something about Stan that appeals to the public. In 2010, Lee made an appearance at a comic book gathering in Dearborn, Michigan. There was a long line of people. All had purchased tickets to receive a Lee autograph, each ticket costing at least $40. Lee, accompanied by bodyguards, began making his way to the desk where he’d write out the autographs.

“We love you, Stan!” somebody in the line yelled.

Lee, without missing a beat, replied, “I love to be loved!” It got a big laugh.

So, excelsior, Stan Lee. Below is an early 1970s installment of the syndicated To Tell the Truth show. Stan is the contestant in the second game.

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3 Responses

  1. Yes, I’ve read ‘Marvel – the Untold Story.’ Quite a mild shock to learn that the creators of the characters did not own them; they were the property of the publishers. Another shock is that Stan didn’t regard comics as a worthwhile pursuit … in other words, it’s sad that he was then pretending to love comics. We can only hope that he realizes the wonderful legacy he’s been part of. Perhaps the saddest shock is the estrangement within the ranks of Marvel, and especially with Jack Kirby. Money can be a good thing but for a lot of people, it ruins friendships. On a tangent, that’s what happened with the facebook guy, what’s his name. He gave a close friend, maybe his best friend, a bit of the boot when money reared its head.

  2. I had the privilege to work with Stan on a video for Activision some years ago. He was so nice & what a great sense of humor. Happy 93rd Birthday to one great guy!

  3. […] The Untold Story and a detailed article in New York magazine early this year. This blog even did a modest post on the subject a year […]

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