Why Stan Lee's Flaws Were Part of His Virtues
Less creator than editor, pathetic company man, purveyor of childish nonsense? No amount of next-level quasi-sophisticated Stan Lee critique can avoid the proper conclusion: He was the Man.
Stan Lee, who died yesterday at age 95, is a topic that attracts obsessive nerds. Nerdery inspires a hunger to have a deeper, more complicated opinion than the standard one non-obsessives might have. In Lee's case that normal opinion is probably best expressed as "Stan Lee was awesome, the prime driving force of the wonderful Marvel Comics universe, which has understandably brought joy to millions in comic books and now in our most popular motion pictures."
When I was first began obsessively consuming Marvel Comics in 1975, Lee was already a half-decade past writing them himself; still, his spirit dominated them. Each comic the company issued featured a "Stan Lee Presents" logo on the splash page and his monthly "Stan's Soapbox" columns. Stylish hardcover books, as well as monthly titles from Marvel, were reprinting his 1960s work that established the intricately interconnected Marvel superhero universe. That sense of intertwined continuity has spread, as his youthful devotees took over popular storytelling everywhere, through entire multiverses of adventure movies to most quality TV shows that strive to do more than tell disconnected weekly stories of someone solving a problem.
But smart comics cognoscenti grew to a second-level realization: that loving and crediting Lee uncritically was untrue to how Marvel Comics were actually created. To boot, venerating Lee without proper caveats was unfair to some truly creative artists. It was his artist partners Jack Kirby (the Fantastic Four and Thor most prominently and continuously) and Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Dr. Strange) who most deserve credit for the wildest and most wonderful imaginings of Marvel, given how Lee as writer/editor (and company employee while his artists were freelancers) didn't provide full scripts, at most talking through story ideas with artists then taking their spectacular drawn pages that laid out the action and writing dialogue on them.
What's more, Lee's lifelong role as an employee or at least paid-off emissary of Marvel made him regularly refuse to fully and specifically credit his artist partners as true co-creators of the characters. (Books will surely be written, as many magazine articles have, on the specifics of Lee's relationship with the artists, the company, and the truth, but the preceding are the broad basics of the comics fan arguments.) Ownership of the characters, whomever truly created them, remained with the corporation and its owners, who are now Disney, never Lee or the artists. But to add injury to insult, as many Marvel fans saw it, Lee's continuing role with Marvel and as producer on the films made him far more money from his role as writer/editor than Kirby or Ditko ever saw.
A third-level clever take on Lee and his achievements, and those of his artist partners, is that, well, isn't it just embarrassing that so many adults in our culture have held on to affection for and obsession with these goofy preteen fantasies of impossible superbeings? Sure, learned critics, academics, and journalists have churned out decades of smartypants theses arguing Marvel Comics' relevance to the fears of the atomic age or their supposed mythic or Shakespearean echoes, but isn't that all just excuse-making for childhood toys we've been too indulgent to put away in the closet where they belong? (The continued affection of "serious" people for Marvel Comics has been expressed everywhere this week, though I confess to feeling at times that unlovely frisson of the nerd wanting to challenge interlopers with "Oh, you love Stan Lee, huh? Then please explain Mike Murdock to me, buddy." But it is true even in the '60s that many hundreds of thousands from ages six to at least 26 were reading his comics, and via reprints and the movies, now tens of millions have had a chance to become true fans.)
Reed Richards, universe-exploring leader of the Fantastic Four, is pictured in the panel to the right, as drawn by Kirby. In that panel his Lee-scripted soliloquy delivers a heavy dose of the fascination and grandeur of grappling with life itself that made Lee's comics so influential on so many who read them. He also says a few things that inadvertently frame the real way to consider Lee's career: "There will be others…those who come after me…and each of us, in his own way, does what he can for those who will follow."
So sure, If you wanted to minimize Lee's importance even in terms of the huge Marvel movies (those who love comics for their own sake often want to minimize them, and those contemptuous of the supposed idiocy of a culture that spends so much time and money making and watching superhero tales do so for their own reasons), you could rightly point out that beyond the sheer concepts of "Norse God superhero" or "gamma-irradiated scientist turns monster" or "iron-suited industrialist" or "Russian lady spy turned hero," the characters in the Marvel films are more based on later Marvel writers or the film writers and actors themselves than specifically on how Lee wrote them; and that Lee worked, since he was a teen in the early '40s, in a tradition and community of comic artists and writers from whom he learned and took much. It is true that Lee did not create de novo, and that the creations he had a hand in have had a rich, in some cases richer, life without him.
But the galaxy-brain level final conclusion to what to think about Stan Lee, after all the above has been justly processed, has to be: Stan Lee was awesome. His brilliant artists did not work in a creative or business vacuum. The particulars of his dialogue and characterization were absolutely key to Marvel's coolness and success.
And no matter what the cultural adults in the room say, and without trying to staunchly defend it to such non-believers, this ostensible adult and so many, many others now pouring out love for Stan Lee prove it: Not every wonderful, affecting story has to have the depth of insight into the actualities of the human condition of a Henry James novel, or even the depth of character and cogency of concept of the best modern science fiction.
The concepts and characters and adventures of Lee and his partners at Marvel—in all their goofiness and absurdity—captured something compelling about heroism, and our sense of the core mysteries of human and cosmic existence, and besides any such hand-waving justificatory generalizations any of us might embarrassedly make, were just so damn cool, man.
Their sheer exuberant explosive existence justifies themselves, and kids and adults of all ages have been drawn into them, deep into them, for more than half a century, captivated by the concepts, the plots, the interconnections, even the specifics of his phrasing and language choice. (Face it, true believers, many Marvelites got a quarter or more of their "interesting" vocabulary straight from Lee, if truth be our destiny.)
Maybe we're all congenital idiots here on the bus of Stan Lee fandom, but in a sense the love and fascination inspired by his work at Marvel in the '60s are their own proof of greatness. We'll be awestruck by the Negative Zone and gangs of mutants fighting for supremacy and evil scientists with mechanical arms and giant Nazi robots and Asgard and the Dark Dimension and all the other concepts, acted out by enduringly charming and iconic if absurd and sometimes faux-deep characters, that Lee brought or helped bring us, as long as America endures.
When it comes to his relationship as a company man to the artists, above and beyond the question of ownership (which was outside his power to change), one thing comes to mind to this obsessive reader of his work and of work about him. Comics historians present a picture whose details are too complicated and huge to reduce to a singular conclusion of what kind of man or writer or boss he was.
But from the decades of detailed interviews with dozens of people who worked with Lee from the 1940s onward in the amazing comics fanzine Alter Ego—run, not coincidentally, by Lee's writing protege at Marvel, Roy Thomas—one thing that strikes me the most is that Lee was, even as the guy who hired them and assigned work to them and created with them, a dedicated and genuine student and fan of comics art. He clearly loved and valued those artists. Lee and the artists themselves were both faced with a business world that shaped the choices creators had to make in the years before the underground and indie comics revolutions made self-publishing an imaginable choice. But artists who wanted a steady paycheck and actual access to mass markets needed a company man editor to hire them to work. Their admirers may dream of a world in which that was not true, but the comics marketplace was a world that neither they nor Lee made.
And hire them is what Lee did. Lee did not treat Kirby and Ditko and his other amazing artists as well as they'd like, and the company certainly didn't. But in a popular culture that worked via mass production and distribution, Lee should be remembered as, whatever else he was, the guy who valued these artists and gave them a chance to work, often maintaining relationships over years or decades from the '40s on that a less caring—or less discerning of their greatness—boss would have let go. No one loves a boss in our culture, but creatives who wish to work for a steady wage need them.
Yes, Lee was a shameless self-promoter, and the public character of "Stan Lee" was one of his most enduring creations. But that is part of his magic, not something that diminishes it. Four years ago, at age 91, Lee was still attending and participating in pitch meetings at Pow! Entertainment, the company he was working with at the time. A writing partner of mine, Daniel Browning Smith, had hosted a Stan-branded TV show, Stan Lee's Superhumans, so I ended up with Daniel getting the honor of helping pitch some feature film and TV show ideas for Lee and his company to this man who was largely responsible for forging my own sense of story and character when I was a pre-teen.
This led to the actually strangely deep pleasure of having that man, at 91, taking time to be in a meeting he could easily have left to his associates, explain to me how a feature treatment I gave him a two-minute verbal pitch for failed to properly develop a rising sense of danger and conflict through act two.
Well, I thought, had I taken more than two minutes to explain every twist and turn maybe he'd see it wasn't that much of a bust in rising sense of danger terms, but honestly, he was likely mostly right, if not about that flaw then about others. Having someone you admire as much as him at the other side of a table doesn't bring out the most skilled arguer anyway. Nothing came of the meeting, and it was reasonably obvious by the end of it that nothing likely would, so I let loose the annoying fanboy and as we were shaking hands goodbye told Lee that his work forged in my youth what I saw as the key elements of myself as a person and writer.
"I get blamed for everything," he shot back, nearly before my mouth closed.
Obviously the sort of gush he fended off a dozen times a day, and I learned later his response was, of course, one of his rehearsed lines; all the better! Lee, at his age and already giving professionally and personally of his time, chose in an instant to give a younger writer and fan a further gracious gift. He responded to this hoary, to him, moment with not silence or a pro forma bored "thanks" but a memorable shot of the "real Stan" or at least the real public Stan: light and jokey and quick, that writerly voice that, combined with his pseudo-mythical grandeur, made Marvel so appealing. One quick quip, one more wonderful gift of so many from Stan Lee to me.