Saying Goodbye To The Man
♦ Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman says goodbye to Marvel legend Stan Lee, who passed away today at the age of 95 years old…
I remember going to a Stan Lee panel in San Diego in the mid 1990s, in a relatively small room upstairs from the main area – the man himself regaling the audience with familiar tales of the bullpen, of working with Kirby, Ditko, Romita, Thomas and Shooter. It didn’t matter if we knew the Marvel Age script like the back of our hands – Mr. Lee could tell a story, and had us in stitches for most of the hour, answering every question, keen not to neglect anyone. Yes, he was at least partly a persona that had taken him over long ago, but he was still genuine, his wife in the front row there to gently mock him as he talked. You couldn’t help but warm to the man.
Born Stanley Lieber in 1922 to Jewish immigrants from Romania, Lee grew up in the Bronx where from the age of 10 he was an avid reader of both adventure stories and classic literature. Lee aspired to being a serious author but, at the age of 19, ended up at his Cousin Martin Goodman’s comic company, Timely, where he worked initially as scripter on Captain America before being promoted to chief writer. After the decline of super-heroes after the war, the company became Atlas Comics in the 1950s, churning out vast amounts of product to keep up with the insatiable demand for crime, horror and war books. Lee, who was adept at most genres, constantly turned over stories at the “binge and purge” publisher before the comics code, and more importantly the Atlas Implosion in 1958, forced him and the staff to regroup.
So much has been written about Stan Lee over the last five decades (a considerable amount from himself!) that a detailed analysis of what he meant to the medium is unnecessary here – he was, despite the constant divisive debate on countless chatrooms, the most important figure in the medium, bar none, and one of the key figures in pop culture. Of course, he is forever inseparable from his more talented Marvel colleagues – Ditko, Romita, Buscema and of course Kirby, who as many in fandom knows, had scant regard for the man who had ousted him from Timely, only to end up working with him a decade and a half later.
And it was that partnership that changed everything, regardless of all the acrimony over who created what. In 1961, due to a draconian distribution deal with arch-rivals DC, the Bullpen, led by Stan and Jack, were given time and space to develop a new, cohesive universe that would take less than ten years to eclipse Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, creating an ensemble that included the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Avengers, Daredevil, X-Men, Thor, Doctor Strange and many other lasting heroes.
Lee’s talent wasn’t just the scripting, or even breathing characterisation into the characters that had been drafted by his artistic team – it was essentially his marketing nous, and understanding that comics were indeed an art form. He was excellent at branding, developing a space not just in the stories but also in Marvel’s monthly bulletins that drew the reader into what was not only a world of spandex superbeings but also a community, and a forum to enthuse about the “new” company. Suddenly he was the impresario who carney barked regularly on Marvel’s Bulletin page, his team no longer invisible drones churning out product but credited names, given alliterative monikers that made them seem almost family. Fandom was there to lend a helping hand, correcting mistakes in the narrative or continuity for which they were rewarded with no-prizes or titles from the Merry Marvel Marching Society. This was mainly about a more sophisticated take on super-heroes as flawed human beings, but it was also about fun, wit, inclusivity and dynamic, kinetic stories that have been cherished ever since by millions.
It all happened so fast in the 1960s, with Lee himself morphing from a grey-suited straight into a jive-talking hipster, complete with toupee and ‘tache. As reinventions go, it pre-dated many – suddenly Lee was a rock star, who despite the tawdriness (he was often referred to as “Mr. Presents” by the early 70s, not to mention being reimagined as “Funky Flashman” by a resentful Jack Kirby in Mister Miracle) really did connect with the college crowd he was desperate to court.
By the late 1960s he was everywhere, touting his company in newspapers and magazines, selling himself and the medium for all it was worth. He was still writing, of course, his work with Kirby on Fantastic Four and Ditko and Romita on the Amazing Spider-Man masterclasses in invention, innovation and outsize, widescreen storytelling. Yes, it could never have happened without Jack and Steve, but he had ambition and boundless energy, which principally manifested itself in the series he most treasured – the Silver Surfer, a mature, thoughtful work deservedly hallowed by aficionados. One could say that this era was a culmination of twenty-plus years’ worth of work at Timely and Atlas, where he had routinely produced above-average tales and had learned every trope in the book, with a fair few being recycled or updated. Comics by then were riding the coattails of mainstream culture, but thanks to Lee they were doing it with panache, irony and the understanding that momentum was paramount.
By the mid-1970s, Roy Thomas had taken over the reins at Marvel as Editor, with Lee promoted to publisher. He had ceased writing by this point, but with the nascent convention circuit had taken up an emeritus role in the industry, attending every show, happy to be interviewed and do panels. There were the self-aggrandising anthologies that didn’t quite credit his former co-workers – Origins of Marvel Comics, Son of Origins, etc. which nevertheless had a certain knowing self-deprecation – this was his schtick, and he stuck with it. He had, by now, graduated to television appearances on various chat-shows where he handled himself more than admirably. He was no longer Mr. Presents. He was Mr. Comics.
Fast forward to now, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe sits atop the pop culture firmament (how Mr. Lee would’ve enjoyed that statement), its reach capable of making nerdy four-colour comics and their followers credible. Comic conventions are more popular than ever, and even though the readership isn’t what it used to be, the characters co-created by Stan Lee will now always be with us. As I write this, there are thousands of voices praising and eulogising the man’s memory, waxing, perhaps too grandiosely, that he gave us a set of idealised characters that had a moral code that one should emulate. But what he really provided was the storytelling, the sense of humour, fun, captivating tales that caught the imagination, and a truckload of tenacious advocacy. He really was comics’ ambassador in chief, by a country mile. Jack Kirby may correctly be referred to as the King, but Stan Lee will always be the Man.