I have been writing this piece in my head for 20 years. And now that it’s time to do it for real, I find I’m not nearly ready.
Stan Lee, the great Marvel Comics writer and editor, died Monday.
And somehow, even though he was 95 years old and his health has been dicey the last couple of years, it comes as a shock. Somehow, I guess, I thought he would live forever.
He will, of course, in the metaphorical sense. The characters he co-created in the early ’60s’ big bang that birthed what we comics nerds call the Marvel Universe, will still be here long after we’re all gone. There will always be an Iron Man, a Thor, a Fantastic Four and a Doctor Doom. There will always be X-Men and Avengers, Daredevil, Hulk, Galactus and the Black Panther. There will always be a Spider-Man.
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In a few days, perhaps, that will be a consolation.
And yes, I know. Someone out there thinks this is a lot of fuss over the passing of an old guy who used to write stories about men and women punching each other and shooting rays out of their eyes. Maybe you had to be there.
I was. This was 1967, when I was 10 years old, and my cousin Al handed me a stack of Marvel Comics. I still remember vividly the first one I read: Amazing Spider-Man #44, “Where Crawls the Lizard,” written by Stan Lee. I read it and those other books till they literally fell apart. I was in nerd heaven.
Stan was at the peak of his powers then, in demand for college lectures and magazine interviews. He had managed to make comics, a disposable medium with a faintly disreputable image, relevant and even cool. Which had not been his aim at all.
Stanley Martin Lieber was the son of Celia and Jack Lieber, the latter an often-unemployed dress cutter. In his book, “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” Sean Howe writes that “Stan’s earliest memories were of Jack poring over the want ads and fighting with Celia. Stan slept in the living room of their cramped Bronx apartment.”
That upbringing notwithstanding, Stan was an improbably chipper and gregarious boy who read everything he could get his hands on, from Shakespeare to The Hardy Boys to the Katzenjammer Kids. When not reading, he was haunting the local movie theaters, soaking up Errol Flynn, Roy Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, King Kong.
In 1940, he was hired as a go-fer by Martin Goodman, his cousin by marriage and the publisher of what was then called Timely Comics. Stan was assigned to the company’s powerhouse team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who had created a new character called Captain America. He emptied their ashtrays, swept their floors, got their coffee — and annoyed them to no end by constantly blowing an ocarina around the office.
After a couple months, Simon assigned him to write a text feature — back then comics had to carry text stories to qualify for magazine postal rates — for the latest issue of Captain America. He wrote what Howe describes as “twenty-six ham-fisted paragraphs with the title ‘Captain America Foils The Traitor’s Revenge.’ ” So as not to sully his given name with comics — he was saving that for the Great American Novel — the young scribe signed himself “Stan Lee.”
Flash forward to 1961. Stan Lee was pushing 40. With the exception of a wartime stint in the Army, he had been with what was now called Marvel Comics, writing westerns, monster stories, romances, whatever would sell, for over 20 years. He was bored.
But then, comics were boring. In the censorious ’50s, a sensationalistic book — “The Seduction of the Innocent” by Dr. Fredric Wertham — and resultant Congressional hearings into whether the medium was turning teenagers into “juvenile delinquents” resulted in comics publishers creating a self-censoring agency, the Comics Code Authority. Among the Code’s many restrictions:
“Policemen, judges, government officials and respected institutions shall never be presented in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority.”
“In every instance good shall triumph over evil, and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.”
“No comic magazine shall use the word ‘horror’ or ‘terror’ in its title.”
The CCA made comics as wholesome as milk. And about as interesting.
Stan was ready to quit, but his wife, Joan, challenged him. Before you quit, she told him, why not just for once try writing comics the way you’d like to see them done.
The result was a book created with Kirby called “The Fantastic Four.” It was a revelation. For the first time, here were characters who, for all their outlandish abilities, had personalities and problems like real human beings, who bickered and didn’t always like one another and who lived, not in some fictional Metropolis or Gotham, but in the heart of an actual city, New York.
Stan created tales filled with humor and pathos more sophisticated than anything that had previously been directed toward kids. He gave us a monster (the Thing) who wanted to be a man. He gave us outcasts (X-Men) hated by a world they sought to defend. He gave us a Christ figure (Silver Surfer) trapped on a world of human violence. And he gave us Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, the guilt-ridden, perennially broke, always misunderstood teenager who became a patron saint to geek boys everywhere. Stan’s characters had soul.
And he sold them, sold Marvel, with a hucksterish twinkle in his eye that would have done Barnum proud. Writers and artists who had toiled for years in near anonymity became personalities on the pages of Marvel Comics, complete with snappy alliterative or rhyming nicknames: “Jazzy” Johnny Romita, “Sturdy” Steve Ditko, “Mirthful” Marie Severin, “Rascally” Roy Thomas, Jack “King” Kirby. Even Stan’s assistant got a nickname; “Fabulous” FloSteinberg . And he, of course, was the ringmaster, Stan “The Man” Lee.
Nor did they simply work in an office. Rather, they worked in “The Marvel Bullpen,” where their work and lives were recounted and celebrated each month on the “Bullpen Bulletins Page” beneath a corny alliterative headline.
And we readers weren’t just readers. We were “true believers” with our own language and catch phrases. “Make Mine Marvel,” Stan told us to say. “Face front!” he ordered. “’Nuff said!” he said.
It wasn’t just comics. For us nerd boys, it was our clubhouse, a place where we could go, something we could call our own. As Stan told the Los Angeles Times in 2003, “I wanted the reader to feel we were all friends, that we were sharing some private fun that the outside world wasn’t aware of.”
And we did.
Stan stepped down as Marvel’s editor-in-chief in 1972. A few years later, he moved to California, where he had only limited success in selling Marvel’s characters to television and film. In later years, he would be criticized by fans who accused Marvel of denying Kirby the rights to characters he co-created and the return of his original artwork. The man who made personalities of artists like Kirby would be accused of hogging credit from them. His company, Stan Lee Media, crashed and burned in 2000, and his business partner ended up in prison for securities fraud. He founded another company, POW!, with which he eventually ended up in since-resolved legal disputes. In April, The Hollywood Reporter published a heartbreaking story alleging elder abuse by his daughter, J.C., and assorted hangers-on. He denied the story.
Meantime, the characters he co-created are the foundation of Marvel Studios, a multibillion-dollar concern whose films routinely crush the box office. And no Marvel movie is complete without a Stan Lee cameo.
I once reminded Stan that I had interviewed him maybe a half dozen times going back to the early ’80s. Stan, whose memory was notoriously bad, quipped, “Did I like you?”
I can’t say. But I sure liked him. He was one of the seminal figures in modern pop culture. And he was the first writer I ever consciously imitated. If you ever read something of mine that includes agile alliteration and awesome adjectives, that’s a little homage to Stan. He was my hero.
So it seems fitting to close as he would have. You see, virtually every text essay Stan wrote ended with the motto of New York State. In English, he said, it translated as, “Ever upward.” But he preferred the Latin. So thank you, Stan, for everything.