Face Front: A Birthday Tribute to Stan Lee
Comic fans have debated about just how much Stan Lee contributed to the creation of Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, the Silver Surfer and the Avengers for decades. Most likely, it'll be a point of debate for many more, considering that his collaborators --- artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Bill Everett, to name three --- have said all they'll likely say on the matter.
But this point is inarguable: Stan Lee, born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922, co-created some of the most enduring, popular and beloved superheroes in popular culture. He is as responsible as anyone for the success of Marvel Comics. And he's still going strong as a cultural force.
Lee got involved in the world of comics when he was still a teenager, joining as an assistant at Timely Comics in 1939. He was a gopher to start, filling inkwells, picking up lunch orders and occasionally proofreading. By 1941, he had written his first published story, a text backup titled "Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge" in Captain America Comics #3. The story introduced Cap's signature shield ricochet maneuver. From there, Lee moved up to writing backup comics stories, and that same year, after Captain America co-creators Kirby and Joe Simon left Timely, publisher Martin Goodman gave Lee the title of interim editor. Lee was just 19.
In 1942, Lee, like many of his peers, joined the Army to help in World War II. He spent the bulk of his time in the Army's Training Film Division, where he wrote what we might call marketing materials now: training films, manuals and slogans. He returned from the war in 1945, where he continued his comics career at Timely, which was renamed Atlas Comics in 1951.
Comics were changing drastically at the time, with a shift away from superhero adventures and toward a bigger genre spread of romance, western, and horror comics, and more. The formation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954 changed things even more, and despite working on a strip based on the radio comedy My Friend Irma with artist Dan DeCarlo, Lee found himself growing disillusioned with his work.
The start of the Silver Age in 1956 spurred Goodman to shake up things at Atlas (which officially changed its name to Marvel in 1961). He asked Lee to devise a new superhero team, and Lee partnered with Jack Kirby, who had returned to Goodman's fold after a run at Harvey and an attempt to launch his own company. The result was the Fantastic Four.
The following several years at Marvel were arguably the most fruitful any comics publisher has ever had in terms of character creation, and Lee's name was on every book as writer. (Lee is often cited as one of the forces, if not the force, behind standardized comic creator credits --- in the Golden Age, credits were a bit scattershot, and sometimes they weren't there at all.) Indeed, as editor-in-chief and editor emeritus of Marvel for decades thereafter, his name would remain on all the books under a "Stan Lee Presents..." banner.
Lee popularized the "Marvel method" of comic storytelling during those fertile years. He provided his artists with a rough outline of the story --- and according to Ditko, sometimes not even that --- and the artists would draw the pages, and then Lee would write the dialogue to fit the art. Ditko and Kirby, among others, accused Lee of overshadowing their sizable contributions to the characters and stories by claiming more credit than he deserved --- you can find a detailed rundown of the debate here. Famously, Kirby based a character in his 1970s DC Comics work, Funky Flashman, on Lee. The character was a shallow huckster; reportedly Lee was hurt by the portrayal.
Those squabbles aside, Lee's unambiguous contribution to comics in the 1960s and '70s --- he stopped writing full time to serve as editor-in chief in 1972 --- was his elevation of Marvel Comics as a brand. Much of the culture around the publisher in the era was the result of Lee's "Stan's Soapbox" column, his promotion of the Merry Marvel Marching Society fan club, his mythologizing about the "Bullpen" of editors and creators, and his abundant use of catch phrases such as "Excelsior!" Marvel Comics felt like a cool club for fans to be a part of, and Lee himself was the figurehead.
Lee became such a popular figure in his own right that he's still associated with the Marvel brand today, years after he has had any functional position within the company. His cameo appearances in every Marvel movie --- including those made by 20th Century Fox and Sony --- certainly help with that, as does his appearances in numerous Marvel video games and other promotional materials.
Lee left Marvel's New York home for Los Angeles in 1981 in an attempt to shepherd Marvel properties into film projects. Since then, he has only returned to writing comics sporadically, working on a few Silver Surfer projects, DC's "Imagine if Stan Lee created..." event, and a handful of other projects.
In 1998, after being given a strictly ceremonial title at Marvel after the company's reorganization after bankruptcy, Lee co-founded Stan Lee Media, an entertainment company that itself went bankrupt in 2000 as a result of illegal stock manipulation. Lee was not implicated. The company still exists, but Lee ceased his involvement.
In 2001, Lee co-founded POW Entertainment, the production company behind many of his later projects, including the Spike TV animated series Stripperella, which Lee created, and the reality series Who Wants to be a Superhero?, which he co-created. POW rebranded the Comikaze Expo in Los Angeles as Stan Lee's Comikaze in 2012.
In addition to some ongoing animated projects and his World of Heroes YouTube channel, Lee has also devoted more time to charity work, founding the literacy and diversity-focused Stan Lee Foundation in 2010.
Even in his 90s, Stan Lee remains a giant in the world of comics. Though he's sometimes a controversial figure, it's arguably true that no one has trumpeted and bolstered the medium quite as compellingly as Lee has done throughout his long career.
Happy birthday, Stan.