Nov 13, 2018
Written by Patrick Reed
These are words that are difficult to write, because they hurt, and because they don't quite seem possible. Stan Lee lived on this earth for more than ninety-five years, but the imagination and persona that we know as "Stan Lee" have long since exceeded what any one man could possibly constitute. He appears onscreen in Marvel movies, alongside heroes and aliens and gods. He has been a constant presence at comic conventions, smiling and chatting, signing his name and taking photos, jumping onstage to recount for the millionth time stories of how he helped establish a modern mythology. He lent his voice to cartoon characters, he developed ideas for TV shows, he visited with world leaders and international celebrities, and he still found time to work for many hours a week and employ dozens of people. He had a career that spanned more than three-quarters of a century. He wrote stories that millions of people have thrilled to, and co-created many of the most recognisable characters in popular culture.
And more than any other person, he is responsible for what the world now knows as The Marvel Universe, a sprawling and splendiferous tapestry of intergalactic conflicts, spandex-clad crimefighters, and human foibles that has won the hearts of audiences around the world through comic books, films, cartoons, and other forms of media.
Lee's professional career in comics began in 1939, when he was just out of high school, but it was not until the early 1960s that he, along with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko started to push the the medium in new directions. Over the course of a few short years, Lee, Kirby, Ditko, and a handful of other collaborators would give birth to iconic characters including The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, and Doctor Strange, and dozens of others. Unlike most established comic heroes, these wouldn't just be two-dimensional stereotypes, good-hearted all-American white bread caricatures – these heroes bickered, worried, and had to deal with real problems in between beating up on the bad guys. Nobody had ever read anything like it, and before long, Marvel had become a sensation.
To further reinforce a sense of reality, Lee and his collaborators wove together a universe that encompassed the widest possible spectrum of humanity, and addressed subjects that no other publishers dared touch. Lee's co-creations included the first Black super hero (The Black Panther), the first African American super hero (The Falcon), a hero who was legally blind (Daredevil) and another who suffered from a heart condition (Iron Man), and a group that were discriminated against on the basis of their genealogy (the X-Men) – in fact, Lee and Kirby even rewrote the history they themselves lived, and established that in the Marvel Universe, America's key asset in World War II was an ethnically and racially diverse squad of elite operatives. In the Marvel Universe, women and men could fight side-by-side as equals, a black man could hold a high-ranking position at a major media outlet, and witches and mutants and green-skinned outcasts and sullen teenagers and student protesters and Bowery bums and African kings and out-of-time super soldiers all had a place at the table. Characters interacted without concern for color, status, or creed, and even crossed between each others' books – heroes could share supporting cast members and battle each others' villains, their actions in one story not only affecting the next issue of that title, but also events in other series.
But this was just part of what Stan Lee did, and it only tells half the story. In fact, he actually created two Marvel Universes simultaneously, each dependent on the other. The first, of course, was this multi-layered multicultural fictional world. And second, there was the stable of creators and staffers, the fabled "Marvel Bullpen" who, through credit boxes, alliterative nicknames, and in-house editorials, became almost as well-known to readers as the mutants and misfits and web-slingers whose tales they produced.
This was Lee's true masterstroke. He brought together creators, he served as line editor, he plotted stories and wrote dialogue and guided cover designs and requested changes and corrections and assigned tasks, and then gave us a glimpse behind-the-scenes and spoke directly to us, the audience. He gave us characters who, despite their strange powers and colourful costumes, had an innate humanity – and he told us about the real people making these characters and telling these stories, which only heightened the appeal.
For while Stan Lee was a good writer, editor, and storyteller, these were all just facets of his greatest skill. He was, at heart, a communicator. In the '60s, long before comics were considered a legitimate medium, he toured college campuses on speaking tours. in the '70s, his “Origins of Marvel Comics” volumes reprinted classic issues in a high-quality format, landed on best-seller lists, and helped create a bookstore market for comic material. He narrated the short-lived '70s Fantastic Four radio show, and the hugely successful Spider-Man cartoon in the '80s.
He wrote in a way that made each reader feel like the story was talking directly to them. He was a raconteur and hypeman, he could blend off-handed witticisms and self-effacing comments with grandiose pronouncements on the human condition, and then he could wrap it all up with an enticement to buy next month's issue. He created myths for a modern age, and made them so entertaining that they have persevered for generations. He told us that what matters isn't the power or the costume, it's the person inside, and he did so in a voice that spoke directly to us, and made us part of the story. We can all find ourselves inside the Marvel Universe, because we are all part of the Marvel Universe. Stan Lee told us so.