Stan Lee is the most important cultural figure in my life. More
important than Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; more important than George
Lucas; far more important than John Lennon or Bob Dylan.
I do not remotely claim that Stan Lee is the literary equal of any
of those figures, although some sort of comparison with his Bobness
could probably be made. I do say that encountering Stan Lee at the
age of eight was like getting drunk or taking drugs or discovering
sex. Things which, admittedly, I shouldn't have been doing at that
More specifically it was like a conversion; like encountering
In the days and weeks since he died, comic book fans and movie
fans have been queuing up to say the same thing. Stan Lee changed my
life. Stan Lee changed the comic book industry. Stan Lee changed
movies. Stan Lee changed popular culture. Stan Lee changed the world.
Everyone loves Stan Lee
Everyone loves Stan Lee so much that if anyone had whispered
"Jack" or "Steve" or "co-creator" or
"original art" or "royalty payment", we would
have fallen on them, as if they had insulted our favorite uncle or
made a coarse remark about the Virgin Mary.
We may not read so many Marvel Comics nowadays. Our tastes are
broader and wider and deeper than they were when we were eight years
old, as well they should be. But loving Stan Lee—having once loved
Stan Lee—is part of our identity. Going to see the Marvel Movies
is, I am sorry, a sacramental act. When we were very young, Grandad
brought us a comic from the newsagent each week; and there on the
middle pages was a letter from Stan Lee; Stan Lee, speaking to us,
and us alone, directly. I am glad to say that I had never seen a
soapbox. I certainly had no idea why anyone would use a soapbox to
write a letter. I thought it was the box in which Stan stored
his pens and notebooks. I understood less that a quarter of what he
said. Excelsior! Hang loose! Bullpen! Irving Forbush! But still, it
was Stan, talking to little Andy and to no-one else. And now we are
fifty we go and see those very same characters having those very same
adventures in 3D at the shopping mall multiplex and always, always,
always, there is a moment when Stan Lee appears and does something
slightly whacky and we know that we never really got old and
everything is going to be the same for ever and ever and ever.
And yet, the question hovers, in the background. It scarcely seems
decent to ask it.
For what, apart from being Stan Lee, is Stan Lee famous?
What, if it isn't a rude or silly question, did he do?
Stan Lee ceased to be a comic book creator more than 40 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s he held the titles of Publisher and President of Marvel Comics, and he continued to act as a kind of brand-ambassador or company mascot right up until his death. But his last issues of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four were published in 1972.
Some of the people eulogizing Stan Lee are baby boomers in their
seventh decade: people who actually bought Spider-Man #33 and
Fantastic Four #48 off the news-stands; people for whom The Coming of
Galactus and If This Be My Destiny are as emblematic of the summer of
'66 as Revolver and Blonde on Blonde. The younger ones, like me, may
have been lucky enough to have lived in England in the years before
2000AD swept all before it: when Lee-era Marvel comics were being
reprinted in black and white 5p editions, in roughly chronological order, surrounded
by all the obsolescent paraphernalia of the Marvel Age. And, of
course, it is easier to read old comics than it has ever been. Some
of the supplicants at the shrine of Stan have presumably worked their
way through his oeuvre via Essentials and Omnibuses and Masterworks
and Marvel Unlimited and Comixology. I myself have listened to
the records of popular 1960s guitar bands like the Beatles. I even
had a youthful infatuation with Flash Gordon.
But I do wonder.
How many of the people filing past Stan Lee's coffin are fans of
his actual work? And how many of them love Dan Slott's Spider-Man or Greg Pak's Hulk and have some unexamined faith that
everything which carries the Marvel trademark proceeds from the heart
of Stan? How many of them buy into the corporate myth that Stan Lee
is the indirect creator of Moon Girl and Jessica Jones just as surely
as Uncle Walt is the presiding spirit which gives life to Frozen and
Pirates of The Caribbean IV?
Is Stan Lee a man who worked on comic books? Or is he the symbol
of our loyalty to a particular brand?
Is he Carlos Ezquerra—or the Mighty Tharg?
Is he Ray Kroc—or Ronald McDonald?
Theologians distinguish the Jesus of History from the Christ of
Faith. There are facts about an ancient Jewish holy man which could
in principal be known and proven and agreed; but there are beliefs and
credal confessions which no amount of historical research could ever
verify or debunk.
Or, in another sphere altogether: is it permissible to feel
nostalgic affection for Uncle Walt and the Mickey Mouse club while
admitting that, as a film-maker and a businessman, Walter Elias
Disney was actually a bit of a shit?
There are facts.
In 1939, at the age of 17, one Stanley Martin Lieber took a job as
an office boy at what was then called Timely Comics. His cousin was
married to the publisher; but that's just how kids from immigrant
families found work during the depression. The years passed. Timely
became Marvel: Stanley Lieber became Stan Lee.
He later claimed, with a flippant wink, that he wanted to save his
real name for when he wrote the Great American Novel. But his
greatest collaborator, Jacob Kurtzburg, is known to the world as Jack
Kirby. If you were doing stories about square jawed American heroes in '40s it was probably a good idea not to sound too Jewish. In latter years,
Kirby pointedly referred to Lee as "Stanley". It was a very
long time ago.
With a brief break for military service, "Lee" continued
to work for "Marvel" for half a century, ending up with
a million-dollar salary and the title of Chairman Emeritus. During
that half-century, he was credited as "writer" on many
thousands of individual comic books. Marvel Unlimited throws up 1575
hits if you search for his name. That's a respectable body of work; a
fine career; an all-American success story. But it is not what we remember him for.
It is indubitably a fact that in November 1961 "Stan Lee"
was credited as "writer" of the first issue of The
Fantastic Four. It is indubitably a fact that he continued to be
titular writer of that comic, and dozens of others, until March 1972,
when he effectively retired from active comic-wrangling.
Some of us may have taken the trouble to read endless 1950s twist-in-the-backside monster
stories with titles like Monstro: the Menace From the Murky Depths! But Stan Lee's reputation rests entirely on those final 11 years; the culmination of forty years in
the funny book trade.
So. In those crucial years, what did Stan Lee actually do?
"Surely everyone knows the answer to that question. Stan Lee wrote comic books, hundreds of them: Ant-Man and the Wasp,
Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Nick Fury, the Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, Thor, the X-Men."
Well, yes. But when we say that Neil Gaiman wrote Sandman, we mean that he
developed the characters, worked out the plot, wrote the dialogue,
and then handed a very detailed typescript to an artist. Lee wrote no
such typescripts, and rarely worked out plots in any detail. By his
own account creating a story often meant pitching a one
sentence idea, like "Maybe in the next issue Doctor Octopus
kidnaps Mary Jane": the sort of thing which any fan fiction
writer can come up with in their sleep. Plot, subplot, structure,
character, supporting cast—everything that would normally come under the heading of "writing"—all that was down to the artists, who
didn't necessarily stick at all closely even to these minimal briefs.
"OK: so Stan Lee didn't write most of the stories he is credited
with. But the artists wouldn't have had stories to tell if he hadn't
come up with all those great characters to begin with. Anyone can
make up a Spider-Man story: the genius is in thinking up Spider-Man
in the first place."
The idea of Stan Lee as the Creator of the Marvel Universe dies
very hard. The cover of his 1974 book, The Origins of Marvel Comics, shows Thor, the Human Torch, the Submariner, the Hulk,
Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and the Thing leaping from Lee's
typewriter, as if he is calling them into being. Yet by Lee's own
account, the idea for Doctor Strange came from artist Steve Ditko;
Lee did not write the first episodes of Thor; and the Human Torch and
the Submariner were created by Carl Burgoss and Bill Everett,
respectively, years before Stan got that first job filling Jack Kirby's
For Lee, creation is a singular mental act in which a
person conceives—"dreams up"—the germ of an idea. That
is the hard part: everything else is leg-work. The historical Stan
Lee "created" Spider-Man only in so far as he thought "I
would like to do a comic about a teenager who can stick to walls like
a spider". The iconic costume; the web-shooters; the radioactive
spider; and very many of the stories came from Steve Ditko.
Of course Lee was not being serious when he compared himself with
God. But he did honestly believe in Spider-Man as a pre-existent
logos; and that once he had said "Let there be Spider-Man"
his work was essentially done.
"Okay: so he was an ideas man, coming up with high concepts that
artists worked up into full characters, and then full stories, which
later became the basis for successful movies."
After Jack Kirby quit Marvel Comics he worked for animation
studios and toy manufacturers. He could sit at an art table and sketch
characters and hardware that could be turned into exciting product.
Super Powers and Thundarr the Barbarian and Captain Victory are not
his greatest works; but they exist; they are out there; people
remember them. And they are undeniably Kirbyesque.
There are undoubtedly such things as "ideas men". Modern
screen-writing, we are told, relies on the "elevator pitch":
if you can't tell the studio what's great about your movie in two
minutes, it isn't a great idea. Terry Nation, who "created"
the Daleks for Doctor Who, seems to have had a knack for coming up
with one-line pitches for successful formats off the top of his
head. Say what you like about Blakes' Seven and Survivors, they are
great ideas for TV shows.
In the years after his collaboration with Ditko and Kirby, Lee
spent decades "dreaming up" new characters and pitching
them for films and TV series. Not one of them got picked up. The supposed creator of the Marvel Universe was being sold to
the studios as an endless source of sure-fire ideas. In fact, he
didn't offer them anything a competent amateur couldn't have done.
So what is left?
Stan Lee wrote the words which appeared in the
speech bubbles and in the captions. Very frequently—in some of the
best issues of the Fantastic Four, all of the good issues of
Spider-Man—he wrote those words for stories into the creation of
which he had had no input whatsoever. Where the artists were storytellers like
Ditko and Kirby, it worked great. When they got replaced by Buscema
and Romita—fine illustrators but not storytellers—then the
stories slowed down and the imagination drained away.
But still, Stan Lee put the words into the speech bubbles and the
text into the captions.
But that doesn't put it nearly strongly enough. We should rather say: for that defining decade, Stan lee provided Marvel Comics with its voice.
Here is the full text of one of Stan Lee's fondly remembered "Soap
Box" columns, from the 1980s:
Any decent copywriter could have conveyed this snippet of
information in 25 words:
"Michael Levine, vice President of New World Television,
today revealed that a new episode of the Incredible Hulk,
provisionally entitled "The Death of the Incredible Hulk"
will be released in 1990"
If we wanted to translate Stan Lee's text into plain English, we would come up with something like this:
- The point of this column is to bring you news.
I have some news.
Do not tell anyone this news.
This news was told me by a TV executive.
There is going to be a new episode of the Hulk TV show.
He also told me the title
You will be surprised when I tell you the title.
The title is The Death of the Incredible Hulk.
Although it may not be.
That is my news.
You should tell everyone my news.
Into this structure he chucks every literary device in the book.
He uses hyperbole as an ironic cover for self-deprecation. The news
that the Hulk TV series has run its course and the main character is
going to be killed off is hardly "top priority" and no-one's
senses are likely to be shattered by it.
"What's the point of having me at your beck and call with
these sense-shattering Soapboxes if they don't give you some top
is a purely ironic piece of writing. What he is actually saying
is: "I know these columns are increasingly trivial and I have
nothing much to report again this month."
He uses suspense to build up to the non-announcement. Having told
us that he has an interesting tidbit to pass on, he makes us wait for it
for ten lines, while he raps out some nonsense about us not being
allowed to tell anyone. Again; there is an
obvious inversion here—if the news really were secret, then
obviously, he wouldn't print it in every copy of every Marvel
magazine. But it also plays into the conceit that he is speaking to
each reader individually. "I, Stan the Man, am prepared to confide in
you, Andrew Rilstone from London, England, but not with anyone else."
When he comes to share the actual news, he doesn't just tell us:
he embeds it in a narrative. The historical Stan Lee, as president of
Marvel comics, presumably had short and well-planned business
meetings with the staff of film companies who held licences to
the company's characters. But in his story, he just happened to be in a TV studio, he just happened to have lost his way, and he just
happened to bump into one of the VPs who just happened to have just
had a phone call telling him that a new episode of the Hulk was in
the pipe line.
It would hardly be worth calling this "a lie": no-one
could remotely suppose it to be true. It's a jazzy way of passing on
a snippet. But much of Stan Lee's life takes the form of neat
little stories which are almost certainly not true. Perhaps in 25
years time "The tale of Stan Lee getting lost in the TV studio"
will be as established an historical fact as "The tale of how
Joan Lee persuaded Stan not to quit the comic business."
But he is still not done. Having started the letter by warning us
that we are not allowed to share what he is about to tell us, he winds it up by telling us to spread the news:
"Think of how you'll impress your friends and confound your
foes with this priceless piece of tantalizing trivia".
Hype and self deprecation in the same breath. Of course the information isn't
priceless: everybody now knows about it. And how can it be trivial
when a few minutes ago it was top-priority and sense-shattering?
This is banter: this is riffing. This is a 25 word press release
spread out to a 350 word column. This is a man who
loves the sound of his own voice and will fill empty air and blank
spaces with pages of it.
This is, in fact, genius.
Here is the complete text of a soliloquy from a 1967 Silver Surfer
comic ("perhaps the greatest fantasy saga of all time.")
"Amongst the mightiest—the most supposedly savage of all
earth's creatures—I sit in peace—I dwell in safety!
For food has been plentiful—and no longer do they hunger!
Unlike the humans—who call you beast—there is no violence in
No hint of avarice—no smouldering hate!
Yet man who has won dominion over all this world...is a stranger
to peace—a prisoner caught in the web of his own nameless fears!
And here stand I—hopelessly trapped in a world of madness!
Where reason is shunned while violence prevails!
But no longer shall the Silver Surfer be a part of man's insanity!
Let humanity do what it will—as for me, I shall dwell among the
This monologue has no particular bearing on the story. On one
page, the Silver Surfer is alone in the jungle; on the next page,
Loki comes along to engineer a big set-piece fight with Thor. There
could have been a story about Norrin Radd making friends with the
jungle beasts, but this isn't it. Like the infinitely extended news
item, it feels like a Beckettian game to fill blank space with words.
Elevated, godly beings have to talk in elevated godly language; and for
Stan Lee, this means they have to talk Old Fashioned. Unlike Thor and
Loki, the Silver Surfer never lapses into full scale cod archaisms ("Thou does
behold Loki...whom fate hath decreed thou shalt serve.") But he
talks about himself in the third person, and reverses the natural
word-order. ("No longer shall the Surfer be a part of man's
insanity.") He seems to consciously echo Biblical phraseology
("Let man do what he will, as for me, I shall dwell among the
beasts") And he cannot resist repeating himself; he feels a
strong need to say the same thing twice. "I sit in peace/ I dwell
in safety" "Food as been plentiful/ no longer do they
hunger." This technique is taken directly from the book of Psalms. The
sounds, as we were taught in Sunday School, do not rhyme: but the
Stan Lee cares about what his characters sound like. His first
thought on seeing Kirby's pictures of the Silver Surfer was "what
would that character sound like: how should he talk." But he
also cares about words themselves; their sounds, their rhythms; their
allusiveness: the way they can just sit on the page, talking to each
other, not quite making sense. He doesn't always get it right. He was as capable as anyone of saying
"pedagogue" when he meant "demagogue" or thinking
that "enfant terrible" literally meant "terrible
child". And he never sorted out the difference between "thou
art" and "you are". But he had spent 20 years
hammering away at an essentially low-brow medium, and came out the
other side with a patois all of his own. (That is the analogy I would
draw between him and Bob Dylan.)
C.S Lewis said (admittedly not entirely seriously) that a good
reader is one who will read the same book ten or twenty times and
would know and care if a single word were altered; and that a good
book is one that can sustain a good reading. Stan Lee was, in that
sense, the first good writer I ever encountered. I was a bookish
child: but the idea that anyone could love the words of Willard Price
or Hugh Lofting in the way that one loved the words of Stan Lee was
obviously absurd. Without Stan Lee, I would never have known that it
was possible to love writing, as such, for its own sake.
I wonder if it was from Stan Lee that I picked up the idea that
creative writing was something that I could be good at myself? You
pick up more grown-up words from the Fantastic Four than you do from
the Famous Five and it isn't too hard to copy his style when you are
told to walk round the field and write a description of what you see.
("Autumn trees! Standing sentry-like over the grass. And their
leaves, like copper, like red metal—what a mighty shape do they
carve"!) And once you have committed The Silver Surfer to memory, it is relatively easy to
transition to the classics. My first reaction on seeing a Shakespeare play or being taken to the opera was "Oh, I get it: this is like a
I have been writing for the last two and a half years about my deep
love for Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #33: comics which I read in reprint
between my eighth and tenth birthdays. I can still recite large
chunks of The Menace of Mysterio, the first comic I ever read, by
" 'I never thought this would happen. I'm afraid to shut my
eyes and go to sleep.' But eventually, sleep does come to the
stricken Peter Parker, and when he awakes....!"
When Peter Parker puts on that red and black mask he speaks with
Stan Lee's voice. And it was that voice which we loved; that voice which defined Spider-Man. A deep, New York Jewish, Groucho Marx twang,
every-other line a wise-crack.
"Spider-Man! I might have known!"
"No you mightn't! You're not smart enough!"
These are not comics which I once read and fondly remember. They are comics which I have read and reread
and will never stop rereading; stories and characters who have
accompanied me through my whole life. If anything, their impact was
greater, coming back to them at the age of 50, than when I first read
them at the age of eight.
"I didn't let you down this time, Aunt May. I didn't fail
There was also Thor. Thor was the back up strip in Spider-Man's
British comic. (The letters page was called "The Web and the
Hammer": how cool is that?) Thor was a bit of a bore to start with,
but it gradually became less and less about gangsters and commie
dictators and more and more about space gods and sentient planets and
the Colonisers of Rigel and Mangog, who had the strength of a
Billion Billion Beings. Thor stopped talking like Superman and
beganst to speaketh as doth befitteth the only begatten son of Odin.
Lee made no bones about Thor's daddy being a thinly veiled stand-in for Jehovah.
"Yea, beyond description...even as he who rules the fabled
land is beyond description...for he doth surpass all understanding! Let it suffice to know that he be Odin...the all-wise...the truly omnipotent!! Odin...maker of the law...speaker of the word...keeper of the faith!! Odin! The lasting power...the lightning
wrath...the living judgement!! Verily he be Asgard incarnate!! And to
the God of Thunder he be one thing more—he be flesh of my
flesh...blood of my blood...for Him, do I call..FATHER."
This is heady stuff when you are a Methodist Sunday School boy and
the closest you have come to a spiritual experience is making a doll
out of pipe cleaners and a house out of a shoe-box to represent the
father of the prodigal son. It would be an interesting exercise to
try to identify all the Biblical and hymnal allusions in that one paragraph.
Then there was the "Avengers"
comic. I never liked the Avengers all that much, particularly when
it became mostly about Hawkeye and Quicksilver quarrelling and
Captain America trying to keep them in order. But the second
feature in the British Avengers comic was Doctor Strange, with his distinct
vocabulary of spells and incantations and general weirdness.
don't know me, but..."
"DOCTOR STRANGE KNOWS ALL. Enter."
I rapidly came to understand that real magicians said "By the
Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth", while pretend magicians said
"Abracadabra." I assumed that Ali Bongo and David Nixen
would know this, and was annoyed when they seemed not to.
I came late to the Fantastic Four. There was a little digest comic,
published in the Summer of '78 off the back of Star Wars, which
reprinted hundreds of pages of late '60s FF, starting with the
wedding of Sue and Reed and ploughing on through the Kree and the
Inhumans and the one where Doctor Doom steals the Silver Surfer's
Power Cosmic. The original Galactus Trilogy (which introduces the
Surfer) is more famous; but Doom Stealing The Surfer's Power is bigger, sillier, more over the
top and much more like the Fantastic Four. And it contains the best
caption that Stan Lee ever wrote:
"Like some predatory winged monster from another
age...another universe...the incredible arch-fiend zooms
westward...at a speed which virtually defies belief...!
DOOM: "Nothing can stop me now!"
FOOTNOTE: Who says this isn't the Marvel Age of cliches?-
And there, in a panel, is everything you need to know about Stan
Lee. He turns the volume up to 11. He allows the most evil villain to
steal the power of the most powerful superhero. He allows the villain
to rant and rave like villains do. And then he inserts himself in to
the comic, in his own voice, the voice of the soapboxes and the
letter columns, and admits that the whole thing is a bit of a cliche. He isn't really ashamed of what he has written, not even a
little bit. He is loving it, and so are we. But there is a half wink.
"The Marvel Age of cliches." He knows perfectly well what he is doing, and so do we.
People have called it "camp". Camp means different things
to different people; but this isn't the camp of the De Laurentiis Flash Gordon movie or the Adam West Batman TV show-—the camp of positioning yourself as superior to
the material. It is much more like the reassuring voice of Grandpa. "She does not get eaten by the eels at this time." It gives
you permission to love the story, by reminding you that it is only a
I could go on. The death of Gwen Stacy's father, in Spider-Man's
"It's Gwen. After I'm gone, they'll be no-one to look after
her. No-one, Peter, except you. Be good to her, son. She loves you so very, very much."
Captain America's spirited defence of his generation, Stan's
generation, the generation of his readers' parents and increasingly
"So I belong to the establishment! I'm not going to knock it!
It was that same establishment that gave them a Martin Luther
King—a Tolkien—A McLuhan and a
couple of brothers—named Kennedy!”
And the scene that Lee himself would single out as his favourite,
a few issues later, when the Silver Surfer, bruised from his
encounter with Doctor Doom, decides he is going to try out being
evil, The Watcher, a supporting deity who lives on the Moon and never
interferes in human affairs fudges his cosmic non intervention
policy to warn Mr Fantastic about the situation.
"What can he do against the all powerful Silver Surfer!?"
whines the Invisible Girl.
"All-powerful?" replies the Watcher "There is only one
who deserves that name! And His only weapon is love."
Irony; religious allusions; meta-textuality; lyricism; the love of
language for its own sake.
And if you insist, superheroes with acne
who spoke like neurotic, down-to-earth people, but truly, if that's all you see when
you look at the Stan Lee age of comics, you are reading them wrong.
And yes. More than half of what I loved about Spider-Man—the
ludicrous webby waistcoat, the aerial ballet, the web shooters, the
whacky villains, and the farcical soap opera came from Steve Ditko.
And more than half of what I loved about Doctor Strange—the
strange, non-euclidean alien dimensions, the psychedelic clashes
between Eternity and Dormamu—that all came from Ditko as well. And more than half of what made the Fantastic Four truly the world's
greatest comic magazine came from Jack Kirby. The page on which Doom
steals the Silver Surfer's powers may be the most impressive panel of any
comic book ever. If we had not got that image in our heads, then
Lee's wise-crack would have fallen flat.
Sometimes embellishing the pictures, sometimes drowning them out,
sometimes providing a secondary theme. Stan Lee's voice was what all
the comics I loved and all the comics I still love had in common.
Stan Lee did not create Spider-Man in a single divine act. He did
not come up with the idea of realistic dialogue in a unique light
Stan Lee was a word-smith. Stan Lee slogged away at a typewriter, bashing out text, for thirty years. He took the characters of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and he gave them voices. Or if we want to be melodramatic about it: he gave them souls. And he left us perhaps 10,000 pages of comic books to read.
time we abandoned the myth, snuffed out the incense, and started to read them.
The Marvel Age of Comics.
With words by Stan Lee.
A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book.
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Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copywriter holder.
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