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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.

MarvelMarvel

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.

Photo Credit: rwoan on Foter.com / CC BY-NC

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  • ||

    It's weird that even obituaries get better when you avoid the SJW claptrap.

  • Weigel's Cock Ring||

    The MCU might be one of the very few things we have left that still unites the country.

  • Joe M||

    Guess you haven't heard of #ComicsGate. Lucky bastard.

  • JesseAz||

    Which version of MCU? Normal version or woke sjw in costumes version?

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    Had to walk away when the SJWs inserted black viking gods et al. The awful crap that has crept into the print books tricked into the movies, which are getting to be unwatchable.
    Which is sad, as Stan Lee had good takes on those concepts, but resisted change for change's sake (or, appeasement).

  • Les||

    Beautifully written. Thanks.

  • Brandybuck||

    Let me be the voice of negativity here. Marvel sucked off of the printed comics page. We all like to laugh that DC can't make movies, but only because we have terribly short memories. The MCU starting with Iron Man was very good. But everything else was mostly crap. Okay, the first and second Spider-Man movies were good, after that, trash until the third reboot with the MCU. And the original Hulk television and animated Spider-Man were excellent.

    But let's go over the absolute drek that Marvel has put out. All the television trash from the 70s (excepting the Bixby/Ferigno Hulk).Howard the Fuck. Hasselhof's Nick Fury. ANY Fantastic Four movie. The first Hulk movie. Hell, the first Hulk movie ranks up there in the top five worst movies every made on a big budget. The second Hulk movie was a huge improvement, although still dismal. Any but the first X-Men movies. I would crawl naked over broken glass for date with Jennifer Garner, but Elektra was gawdawful. And the Netflix lineup of Marvel television? Crap for fans who can't get enough and won't admit they're terrible. Some of them started out okay but plunged into television hell.

    This is NOT to detract from Stan Lee, but now that he's gone let's be honest that Marvel really doesn't have a great track record outside the printed comics page.

  • FreeRadical||

    I found your trail of negativity hard to follow. Many of the creations you mention came from many different sources and businesses. You seem to compare Iron Man to other efforts that are not part of the MCU.

    What do you think of the current integrated MCU under the umbrella of Disney? Iron Man was the first of those. I love most of them. I think they have just the right mix of mindless action, character development, and interesting story arcs.

  • Mongo||

    I have yet to experience character development and interesting story arcs in any superhero comic.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    ^so much this

  • Dillinger||

    comics likely not for you.

  • ||

    Bat-Man is pretty good though.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Batman is an interesting character. Mostly because he does not have any dumb superpowers that defy the laws of physics. But also because there is some depth to his persona.

  • ||

    Mostly because he does not have any dumb superpowers that defy the laws of physics.

    See - this is exactly where I couldn't abide the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. Supposedly Batman is a "realistic" hero whose abilities don't defy the laws of physics. But they turn around and constantly defy the laws of physics anyway.

    In the MCU, Spiderman can joke when he sees Captain America hurl his shield that "wow, that thing just doesn't obey the laws of physics at all, does it," and it's funny, because there's no pretense that you're watching anything but a comic-book movie where expecting things to follow the laws of physics is just out of context.

  • ||

    See - this is exactly where I couldn't abide the Christopher Nolan Batman movies. Supposedly Batman is a "realistic" hero whose abilities don't defy the laws of physics. But they turn around and constantly defy the laws of physics anyway.

    I disagree with both premises. Batman was extra dumb because he doesn't have powers. Half the swinging he does to passively get from point A to point B would dislocate his shoulders and destroy his knees and that's before he fights a single bad guy.

    I liked Christopher Nolan's Batman because the tone was more real in a character sense. Batman, like The Punisher, has always been on the edgy side of 'good guy' and Nolan's Batman was more than just a good guy in a black suit. The old superhero trope about a dead father figure (Uncle Ben, Jor El, Thomas Wayne) and Bruce Wayne appears to be the only one tortured and/or motivated by it. Everybody else's dead parents seem to just make them more heroic and even cheery.

  • ||

    Batman was extra dumb because he doesn't have powers. Half the swinging he does to passively get from point A to point B would dislocate his shoulders and destroy his knees and that's before he fights a single bad guy.

    That's exactly that I'm saying. And the entire final half-hour of the first movie was one constant eye-roll from a "we're playing this realistic" angle.

    The thing I like about the MCU is that you would never sit and ask the questions you're asking all through the Nolan movies because the questions themselves are stupid in the context of the MCU. But the MCU can raise questions like "who's responsible for the huge messes these 'heroes' make?"

    And the villains in Marvel are better accounted for than "somewhere there's a deep, dark hole where we keep big evil guys who escape occasionally."

    I liked Christopher Nolan's Batman because the tone was more real in a character sense.

    Yeah - I get that, and it had its moment in the wake of the sillier Batman movies of the '90s. If there's one superhero whose character invites deeper development, it's Batman (other than maybe Deadpool). I still can't quite get myself 100% behind a deadly-serious character study of a guy who dresses up in a bat costume and beats people up. I like that Nolan tried, and I think the second one (the one with Heath Ledger) almost works. I just don't think superhero comics are the place to go for character depth.

  • ||

    Yeh well the best Bat-Man was Adam West.

  • Dillinger||

    yes. liked Michael Keaton too.

  • operagost||

    Well, Jor-El was killed by a natural disaster and Uncle Ben was killed by a thug who Peter would have stopped had he not been apathetic. Bruce Wayne saw BOTH his parents gunned down in front of him. He was both a helpless child like Kal-El, AND a witness to the murder. That's a pretty big difference.

  • Radioactive||

    his psychosis is his super power...you obviously didn't spend enough of your petty cash on comic books as a child.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Man-Bat for me.

  • TuIpa||

    That's more an admission of your own personal flaws and lack of observational skills than anythong else.

  • Brandybuck||

    The Batman dark knight trilogy.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    The first and third were pretty lame. The first was interesting because it introduced a different take on the Bruce Wayne character; the third sank like a stone under the Bain story line though Anne Hathaway was pretty okay cute as Cat Woman. Dark Knight was not so bad, but really only because of Heath Ledger. Take him out of the pic and it is about as stale as the other two, even though Gary Oldman worked his ass off right through that god-awful last line. Fact is that Ledger really retired The Joker, but the movies can't let him rest (sorry Jared Leto, but ….)

  • The original jack burton||

    Stan Lee practically created the concept of character development and story arcs for comics in the early sixties. The idea that what happened in this month's comic would affect and be continued in the next month was mind-boggling to those of us who were actually there at the time. And the first 100 issues of Fantastic Four or Spiderman showed as much character development as any person could want.

  • ||

    I love most of them. I think they have just the right mix of mindless action, character development, and interesting story arcs.

    Agreed.

    One of their great virtues is to use the light form to raise interesting questions without feeling any need to take stances or pontificate. I think of Black Panther and Civil War, in particular, but also Iron Man 2. They take simple formula-action plots and insert interesting stories about black nationalism, the UN's authority over quasi-military activity, and the issue of gun control/private-weapons-manufacture writ large but they allow them to just be thematics in service of the story. Issues that the characters have to face and deal with but that don't have clear solutions.

    And it's the light, pseudo-comedic tone that makes it possible. This is why DC and most previous superhero movies have failed - either they take themselves too seriously, or not seriously enough. The MCU mostly strikes a near-perfect balance.

  • Brandybuck||

    Black nationalism fine, but then the movie went and tried to view that through a global lens where it made no sense. It explains why Killmonger's mad at world, but it makes no sense why so many native Wakandans want to join with him.

  • ||

    it makes no sense why so many native Wakandans want to join with him

    It makes sense if you view Wakandans as idealized proxies for American blacks. That's why the "pretend-world" feel of the MCU is so important - the producers understand that it's about symbolic logic, not "real-world realism."

    I saw Black Panther in Richmond CA where easily 90% of the audience was black. The sense of catharsis at the end of the movie was tangible. The specter of race-revolution was raised and rejected without being de-legitimized, in no small part because the movie did such a good job of walking a line where Killmonger's view of the world was 100% understandable and resonated with a lot of young, black men but the movie confidently concludes that Killmonger's is not the way forward.

  • Brandybuck||

    I'm talking about Marvel as a whole. Whenever a DC movie comes out all the peanut gallery starts throwing feces saying that DC can't make good movies. But most Marvel movies have been absolute stinkers. Not only are they unable (or unwilling in your case) to think back before 2008, they are also unable to remember how awful their current television outings are.

    I think people hate DC because DC makes you think about character motivations. They don't want to see Batman as a morally conflicted vigilante, they just want to see me make quips and shit they can repeat over the water fountain.

  • ||

    And I love the Alfred-Lucius-Commissioner Gordon (and even Cat Woman) dynamic.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Wholeheartedly agree. MCU movies bore the shit out of me. At least Magneto was an interesting villain. I did enjoy the first season of Legion, mostly because of Aubrey Plaza and the cool psychedelic imagery.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    I also liked Deadpool because of the humor (and Morena Baccarin didn't hurt).

  • TuIpa||

    You like a movie with no character development or interesting story arcs, while bitching about comics with no character development or story arcs.

    It's like you're desperate for everyone to know you're an idiot.

  • Toranth||

    Or its like a 2-hour movie and a 5 year comic storyline should accomplish different things?

  • Dillinger||

    >>>the first season of Legion

    something not to like about second season?

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    I was happy, happy, happy that they finally made a Dr. Strange movie. Back in the day that character along with Wolverine were what made my stoner days livable. Benedict Cumberbatch did a good job with a role that had to be hard to get a handle on, and I don't give two shits that Tilda Swinton isn't Asian. The movie had just enough character and plot to justify the CGI; although I don't normally like that stuff since I knew that was going to be everywhere in this one I just relaxed and went along for the ride, and did indeed enjoy it. Not enough to follow the character into the Avengers series, though. I got what I wanted and I'm happy to leave it there.

  • FreeRadical||

    So wonderful. The end almost brought tears to my eyes.

  • Mongo||

    Comics dorks used to plead with me to read Alan Moore's Watchmen so I did.
    I learned that massive exposure to radiation turns you into a giant blue superhero.
    I really liked his comic-within-a-comic, the Black Pirate, though. Pretty cool.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    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.

    I cannot make sense of this sentence.

  • Dillinger||

    "and" before explain would help but still a mess

  • Zeb||

    You'd have to change a few other things for that to work.

    I think it's fine as it is.

  • Dillinger||

    >>I think it's fine as it is.

    as long as we're not grading or critiquing it in any way whatsoever, I agree.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    "This led to the actually strangely deep pleasure of having that man 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."

  • ||

    I cannot make sense of this sentence.

    Still better than a fictional gay Iceman reflecting Shackford's sexuality back at him decades before either one of them were gay.

  • Radioactive||

    needs mor comixs...

  • Mongo||

    I don't remember the media heartbreak and the drooling on teevee news when Moebius died.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    But the galaxy-brain level final conclusion

    Is Doherty a 4channer?

  • DiegoF||

    >>But the galaxy-brain level final conclusion
    >Is Doherty a 4channer?
    I think that's surpassed a hell of a lot more levels of normie beyond 4chan for several years now. It's on the cusp of entering full-on Dad meme phase by this point.
    Fuck, chan culture itself is becoming so normie even its formatting has become a visual joke for some random Puerto Rican from the '90s to make on a Koch think tank website comment section full of old farts.

  • SIV||

    Well this was much better obituary than Shackleford's paen to Stan Lee as a homo-recruiter.

  • DiegoF||

    Man are fans pissed about that fucking Iceman thing! With good reason, far as I've read about it. Shackford's obit was not good overall, but as soon as I saw him bring that up, I thought, "Oh fuck son, you done stepped in it now!"

  • Radioactive||

    sooo much time and effort spent on analyzing made up people doing made up shit in made up ways

  • ||

    analyzing made up people doing made up shit in made up ways

    How pointless!

    Serious people have better things to do.

    ~puts on serious hat and gets to better things~

  • Radioactive||

    make sure you get the one with the pointy top to fit over your pointy head...

  • Dillinger||

    irony lost in anonymous electronic comment? +1 road to nowhere?

  • Radioactive||

    sooo much time and effort spent on analyzing made up people doing made up shit in made up ways

  • DiegoF||

    I see someone's favorite comic book hero is Squirrel Girl.

  • Radioactive||

    yeah, so what? I'll bet you dream about her naked too.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    Nah, just Google the nudie pix online

  • Ama-Gi Anarchist||

    This is why I stuck to localized manga (what amount of it there was) way back in the day. And role-playing games like AD&D, Rifts, Robotech, Shadowrun, World of Darkness, etc.

  • Radioactive||

    I would have guessed no friends, but go with what makes you feel warm & fuzzy

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    And lest we forget, Stan Lee also revived the McGuffin.

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