Nerd Factor: The Three Stan Lees
Dr Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication
There were three Stan Lees: Stan the writer, Stan the promoter, and Stan the icon.
In 1939, a relative got Stanley Lieber what we would call a “gopher job” at Timely, the comic book company that became Marvel. Stan eventually worked his way up as a writer, publishing his first all text story “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in Captain America Comics #3 (1941). Stan Lee was the pen name he used then so that he could use his real name for the literary career he envisioned.
Even after Stan was drafted into the Army, he moonlighted for the company.
Already a successful writer, Stan’s real contribution came in 1961. The company had changed its name to Marvel by then, but Stan was tired of it all and wanted to move on. Assigned to write a superhero team book to rival DC’s Justice League of America, Stan thought about quitting rather than return to what he saw as very formulaic writing. Luckily, Stan listened to his wife Joan, who explained to him that this was his opportunity to do what he wanted to do. If his bosses didn’t like it, well he was going to quit anyway right?
This is when Marvel Comics became Marvel Comics. The team Stan came up with was the Fantastic Four. Co-created with artist Jack Kirby, the Fantastic Four were different. The FF were a profoundly human team when compared to the boring comradery of the JLA. The FF fought, squabbled, lived, and loved. The melodrama in their lives matched the cosmic worlds they explored.
As good as the FF were, this idea of human characters in superhuman adventures found its perfection in 1962’s Amazing Spider-Man (co-created with artist Steve Ditko). Spider-Man had the best supporting cast in comics ever and a rogue’s gallery of villains that is probably only matched by DC’s Batman. And, of course, Spidey taught us that with great power there must also come great responsibility.
Stan stepped away from writing, showing up more as “Stan the Man,” himself-created nickname. Stan had that knack for promotion. As a writer and later editor, he encouraged characters to move between books, thus cross-promoting the Marvel Universe. On his Stan’s Soapbox page, Stan called fans the “True Believers”. He always pushed the latest work by the company’s line as its greatest. Everything was exciting and new. Marvel felt like a place where one belonged. From time to time, Stan would also write some very progressive pieces about the importance of equality and understanding. And Stan visited many university campuses.
Stan wasn’t always careful in this aspect. This is the time where he sometimes let promotion carry him away. Working together creatively with others is always tricky and Stan did not always show his co-creators their due.
Still, this is how the icon was born. Stan left his traditional Marvel duties and became a kind of walking embodiment of Marvel. Stan had a distinctive voice. I grew up listening to him narrate a host of superhero cartoons. But his cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe made him visually distinctive, someone to watch out the way we used to search for Waldo in puzzles. I just saw him in Ralph Breaks the Internet. My son shouted his name.
Stan Lee died on November 12th . By all reports, he loved what he did in all three of his lives. There was much to learn from him, but I think that enthusiasm is perhaps the best lesson.