So as I’m sure anyone who could possibly be reading this has already heard, Stan Lee passed away yesterday, at the age of 95. He had a good long run by anyone’s standards, and this week is being mourned by millions around the world, many of whom have never read a funnybook in their lives. But on the whole, he leaves behind a complicated legacy.
To the world at large, Stan will be remembered as Smilin’ Stan! Stan the Man! Everybody’s funnybook grandpa! And that’s an image he honestly deserves. He’s been comics’ ambassador to the straight world for as long as I’ve been alive, and he’s given us some great PR. It would be hard to imagine a better representative. He was charismatic, funny, genial, and (much like comics themselves) just a little bit ridiculous. Simultaneously grandiose and self-deprecating, Stan was an unapologetic huckster who let everyone in on the gag. And people loved him for it.
Hell, I loved him for it! When I was a kid, his public persona (as trumpeted in his “Stan’s Soapbox” column, appearing in every comic Marvel published) made him your perfect funnybook pal. He made you feel like you were part of a special club, with himself as the Grand Poobah. It was kinda bullshit, of course, but that’s okay. The bullshit was part of the fun.
His fiction writing style was perfect for a kid audience, too: catchy, melodramatic dialogue with plenty of gags where they were appropriate, and huge operatic emotions where they weren’t. And he never talked down to you. Never. He always trusted you to read up to his level, which made you feel awfully grown-up, but safe in your kid-world at the same time, because he never took it too far. It was one hell of a balancing act, and Stan pulled it off for years.
Not that he was still writing much when I came along; he’d given up most of his writing duties by the time I was three, and I didn’t buy my first comic until I was four or five. I knew his stuff through reprints, though, and through my older brother’s comics. And through all his imitators, which was very nearly everyone writing for Marvel in the 1970s. Stan’s style was the house style, updated a bit for current slang and trends, but still very Stan at the heart of it. And I loved it more than I can really explain.
As I got older, I still loved Stan (it’s hard NOT to love Stan), but the more I learned about the funnybook business, the more problematic I found him. In particular, I’m not real happy with all the credit he didn’t give his collaborators as they built Marvel together. Because, make no mistake, Stan is far from the true architect of the Marvel Universe.
He had the initial idea for it, I’ll grant you. The idea of writing super heroes with real problems, anxieties, and feet of clay was (near as I can tell) all his, and that is truly what made Marvel Comics special. It was also a breath of fresh air in a comics industry that had, since the implementation of the Comics Code a few years earlier, been churning out some pretty saccharine stuff. The spirit of EC Comics, with its good-natured cynicism and passion for a good yarn, lurked within Stan’s new heroes, and people responded in much the same way: with enthusiasm.
But Stan was not a creative powerhouse. The approach was his, but the characters themselves… mostly weren’t. Not entirely. One of his innovations at Marvel was the way he collaborated with his artists, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in particular. Stan would bounce an idea off them, they’d bat it around a bit in the office, then the artist would go off and make the thing they’d talked about. It wasn’t long before Kirby and Ditko were both plotting the books they drew, with Stan working primarily as story editor and writer of dialogue. They told the story. They created supporting characters and villains. Kirby would even suggest dialogue that made its way onto the published pages!
Which is not to say that Lee wasn’t a capable storyteller. The post-Ditko Spider-Man is one of my favorite periods of that book, and that’s pretty much pure Stan. John Romita followed Ditko as the artist, and he really wasn’t much of a plot guy. So it’s mostly Stan writing to Romita’s strengths, and Romita pacing things out for him. It’s not a run that brought us a lot of great villains (Stan, again, not being the creative powerhouse), but it established a tone for the character that still carries the strip today. What most people think of as “Spider-Man” is really that version, far more than Ditko’s.
But all the best characters came from Ditko, and that’s because he, like Kirby, mostly brought the stories to Stan. Mostly. At this point, with all the primary participants dead, it’s impossible to really know who came up with what. And I would never suggest that Stan’s contributions weren’t significant. His sense of story and ear for dialogue brought Ditko and Kirby’s creations to life in ways that neither of them were quite capable of. It was a true creative partnership, which is the way Stan himself often spoke of it in later years.
At the time, though, when he was out there building that Marvel brand, creating the legend of Smilin’ Stan… He mostly didn’t. In the press, HE was the guy with all those crazy ideas. HE was the creator of the Marvel Universe, and guys like Kirby and Ditko… They just drew stuff.
Whether he slighted them on purpose, or simply by omission, I couldn’t say. Maybe it was ego. Maybe he was a thoughtless glory hound. Maybe he got carried away, lost in the self-aggrandizement. Maybe it was easier to sell the idea of Marvel if he made himself the face of it. And honestly, neither Kirby nor Ditko were going to be any good at the PR end of things. Ditko was a recluse, and Kirby… Well, much as I love the guy, Kirby was not a great public speaker. Stan very much was, though, for reasons we’ve already discussed. That doesn’t excuse the slight, of course, and I still struggle to understand why he did it.
Because there could be all kinds of reasons for it. Much has been made of Jack Kirby’s fear of failure. The post-Code comics crash hit him hard, and he was always afraid thereafter that he wouldn’t be able to feed his family. But Stan lived through that crash, too. He had his editor’s job, made safe as much by family ties as because of his editorial abilities (which were impressive). But he saw the industry bottom out just like everybody else. He’s said in interviews that in the back half of the 1950s, he was afraid to tell people what he did for a living. So that Code-era fear may have driven Stan to bolster his role in things, too, making himself indispensable to the company he helped build.
There were also legal pressures to consider. Unlike his freelance collaborators, Stan was on the payroll, and so had a vested interest in protecting Marvel’s intellectual property. So when pesky things like copyright and the ownership of all those characters reared their head, it was probably quite convenient to have the Company Man pushing the myth that it was all his idea.
But now I’m just speculating. I never even met Stan Lee, and he famously hated talking about stuff like that, even to people he did know. So I’ll stop exploring that particular train of thought. It’s the kind of thing I think about a lot, though, as I try to reconcile the public Stan Lee that I loved so much with the reality that he excluded his greatest creative partners from sharing in the glory.
I almost said there that he treated them like crap. But I don’t think that’s really true. I think he thought very highly of both Ditko and Kirby, and treated them as well as he knew how. Or at least as well as the sorry, cut-throat business of comics would allow.
I remember reading a story once about when Stan was editor-in-chief at Timely in that terrible late-50s period, when so many freelancers were out of work. He would intentionally over-buy stories, paying people for work that he knew he didn’t have room to publish, just so they could feed their families. The stories would go into inventory, and eventually Timely publisher Martin Goodman would find out what was happening, and order Stan to use up the inventory before he bought anything else. So I suppose it didn’t help in the long run. But at least he tried.
I was also quite taken with an anecdote that Mark Waid shared in his eulogy for Stan yesterday, which I hope he doesn’t mind me quoting here:
“With his face-front-true-believers facade dropped, just being real and heartfelt and sincere, Stan started talking about what it was like working with his Spider-Man partner, Steve Ditko. How great Ditko was from the start but how much, and specifically in what ways, Stan saw him improve over the years. He dissected for me in detail how Ditko approached storytelling, and I wish to God I could remember chapter and verse because no Stan interview or retrospective had ever covered any of this before. What I mostly recall is simply the complete and total sincerity with which he shared the anecdotes, in a voice I’d never heard from him before or since.”
And that, I think, might actually be Stan Lee’s best legacy in comics: he was a good editor who knew talent when he saw it, and tried to present it in its best light. He clashed creatively with both Ditko and Kirby over their time together (as all great creative partners do). But my favorite of his Ditko collaborations is Dr. Strange, a strip that Stan himself has said was all Ditko. He just polished things up here and there, and wrote some nutty incantations. So, yeah. Nurturing talent, and adding to it instead of taking away from it. A laudable goal for anyone.
So rest in peace, Stanley Lieber. As conflicted and aggravating as you may have been sometimes, you will be sorely missed. Excelsior!