Ask Chris #178: Stan Lee, The Man And The Myth
Q: What is Stan Lee's actual legacy? -- @TheMikeLawrence
A: I don't think there could be a more complicated subject to tackle in a single column than this one, because as an industry and as an art form, I think we all have a lot of complicated feelings about Stan Lee. Depending on who you ask, when you ask them and what he's been up to lately, he's a conniving credit-stealer, a shameless self-promotion machine, a "driven little man who dreams of having it all!!!" and got it by coasting on the hard work of others, or he's a charismatic innovator who got put into that spotlight because he's a natural showman, a smiling ambassador of the medium and everybody's friendly comics grandpa. And it's further complicated because you can't really talk about him without talking about collaborators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, either.
That's what makes him hard to talk about, even if you've spent nearly your entire life being aware of him. There's just so much to get through that's filtered through so many angles, and as a result, I genuinely think that he's simultaneously the most overrated and underrated creator of all time.
Let's start with this: I say that he's underrated because it is almost impossible to overstate his contributions to the medium. There's a huge segment of die-hard fans and creators that fall all over themselves to minimize his contributions in favor of glorifying Kirby, and it's easy to see why: It's literally impossible to overstate Kirby's contributions, and he's the one who never got the attention that Lee's been reveling in for the past fifty years. But to claim that Lee wasn't a vital ingredient in those early years of Marvel, or that he didn't have value as a figurehead for the company well after he finally handed Amazing Spider-Man off to Gerry Conway is a disservice to both men, and it's something history doesn't really support. I mean, don't get me wrong, you're an absolute lunatic if you don't think Kirby was doing the vast majority of the work in their partnership, but still, it's not quite as one-sided for either man as some folks would have you believe.
If you go back and read through those first years of Marvel Comics, Lee's fingerprints are all over those books, if only as a function of the sheer amount of work he was putting in as the writer/editor who had a hand in every comic. That's the thing about his role scripting dialogue in all those Marvel books: The Pro-Stan crowd is often made up of people who see him as a writer in the way that, say, Alan Moore is, clacking away at a typewriter and dashing off these full scripts for classics like "The Final Chapter" and "This Man, This Monster" and then handing them off to artists who just do what they're told. It's a patently crazy idea, and I've had more than one conversation in my life where I had to explain the whole idea of the "Marvel Method" to someone who had no idea why I put so much stock in Kirby.
At the same time, it's just as crazy to go with the other extreme that you get from some Kirby-Ditko partisans, who would have you believe that Stan was just sitting in the office counting Scrooge McDuckian amounts of money until the pages came in, at which time he'd scribble in dialogue that was already half-written, sprinkle exclamation points like an overexcited Johnny Appleseed, and make sure his name came first in big letters on the title page. There's more than a little truth to it, sure. Kirby would often write dialogue in the margins that Lee would incorporate into his script, and at the time of Amazing Spider-Man #33 -- the single greatest Marvel Comic ever printed -- Lee and Ditko were in the middle of the period where they didn't speak to each other for years while collaborating on one of the most popular comics being published. In that case, I assume the art would arrive and Stan actually would just dialogue it and send it off to Artie Simek for lettering. Lee himself said as much in an interview in 1965, although he phrased it as "I guess I'll leave him alone until sales start to slip," which isn't exactly the most charitable way to refer to the work.
But let's say, for the sake of argument, that this actually was what Lee was doing in those years, not just on Spider-Man with Ditko, but on every book. Even if he and Kirby didn't have their plotting sessions, even if we didn't know that he was the one arguing with Ditko about wanting the Green Goblin to be revealed as Norman Osborn to give Spider-Man a personal connection to his greatest enemy, there's still a lot there. In the bare mininum, he was still writing dialogue, assisted or not, for every Marvel Comic, doing his best to add depth to those stories and build the connecting storylines that set Marvel apart from the competition. Obviously, it's not perfect by any stretch of the imagination -- that legendary scene in an early X-Men issue where Professor X has a thought bubble about how he's definitely secretly in love with high school-age Jean Grey certainly comes to mind -- but still, he was also the one keeping Peter Parker from becoming a super aggressive Randian creep. If that was the only thing he ever did, it would still be pretty darn impressive.
It's easy to look back on Lee-the-Writer and dismiss him, especially given the past 30 years of stunt projects with the Stan Lee name emblazoned on the cover. Stuff like Nightcat and Ravage 2099 and Stripperella and the almost-unreadable Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating The DC Universe books (which managed to include a pro wrestling Batman that I still didn't like, defying everything I know to be true about my tastes) doesn't do much to improve his image, especially if you're seeing it alongside the inevitable contrast of Kirby's later-era work. Hunger Dogs is a legitimate masterpiece, and Super Powers might be a weird little cartoon toy comic, but compared to Stripperella, it's the Sistine Chapel and Hamlet all rolled into one.
Point being, Lee's writing leaves a whole hell of a lot to be desired once you get outside of that lightning-in-a-bottle era where Marvel was redefining superhero comics with Lee arguably at the helm. You can look back on all that breathless dialogue from the early days and have a laugh at its expense, but compared to the house style of DC's scripts, it was a revelation. It seems hokey now, but so does Denny O'Neil's dialogue in Hard Traveling Heroes, and hell, so does a lot of Frank Miller's dialogue, and we've had 30 solid years of people trying to recreate that to get used to it. Again, at the bare minimum, he was a big part of something that redefined a genre. If the tradeoff for those first 100 issues each of Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man is the occasional Mighty 7, then it's a trade I'm willing to make.
But that's just Stan Lee the Writer. Like I said, bare mininum, if that's all he did, it's still a pretty impressive contribution to the medium. But the thing is, that's not all he did. Not by a long shot. Stan Lee's greatest talent, for good or ill, was never writing comics, or even editing them. It was promotion.
I touched on this in an earlier column, but the real magic of Stan Lee's contribution to Marvel wasn't just filling Kirby and Ditko's panels with five-dollar words and screeds against the commies. It was that brash, aggressive style that put a face (not coincidentally, his own) behind the comics. From very early on, the letters pages were clear to let readers know that "Stan and Jack" were the ones behind the adventures of the Fantastic Four, and again, you can't really overstate how revolutionary that was. This was a time when creators were rarely if ever credited, but Lee -- ironically, given the reputation that would come out over the years for stealing credit and hogging attention -- was part of the crowd putting their names right there on page one.
There's definitely a self-serving aspect to that, of course. I don't know if it's true or not, but if you told me Stan Lee started the practice of naming the writer first and the artist second, I'd believe you without even questioning it. Still, it's revolutionary. At the same time when that jackass Bob Kane was still claiming that he wrote and drew every Batman story, when readers only knew Carl Barks as "the good Duck artist," Marvel books listed writer, artist, inker and letterer. Imagine what a crazy shift that must've been for fans. Imagine, just for a second, not actually knowing who Geoff Johns or Brian Bendis or Jim Lee were, and having to guess at who made your favorite comic because this story looked a lot like that story, and the dialogue was similar to one you'd read last year. That's essentially what it was like. If you want to know who wrote an issue of Detective Comics from the early '60s, there's a chance you might have to go look up the records to see who actually got paid for the work. If you want to know if Sam Rosen lettered the Galactus trilogy, that dude's name is right there on page one.
Because of that ease in identifying just who it was that made these books, and because Lee took space in each issue to hype up Marvel's offerings, take pot-shots at the competition and compliment Marvel readers on their excellent taste in reading Marvel comics, there was a personality behind those books, and, oddly enough, knowing more about the people who made the stories also makes them feel more real. And because Lee was the one handling the words for the most part while Kirby and Ditko were going full-tilt at the drawing board doing the lion's share of the work, Lee was that personality. He was the one answering letters and shilling the books and using that bombastic style of his to charm readers and interviewers. Kirby might've been Marvel's heart, but Lee was Marvel's mouth in every way that mattered.
Ditko was, I don't know, its weird elongated fingers.
That is Stan Lee's greatest contribution. He was the pioneer of that bombastic style of good-natured self-aggrandizement and confrontational salesmanship that's still represented in the way Marvel presents itself to this very day. By getting out there, by making himself the focus, he became as much of a character, as much of a product as the comics. He was a marketable commodity, and he sold very well.
There's a reason that "Stan Lee Presents" tag lasted as long as it did at the start of every Marvel story, even once The Man himself had shuffled off to other projects, and there's a reason his projects to this day still lead with his name at the start of the title. Believe me, nobody actually wants to read a new comic written by Stan Lee, but when you spend forty years dropping his name at the start of every storyline, people have some pretty strong associations.
But then, that's also the problem, isn't it?
That's the other side of the equation, the point where it tips over from "charismatic ambassador of the medium" to "glory-hounding credit thief." Just as you can never really take away the value of giving Marvel as a company a personality that drew readers to their stories, you also can't get around the fact that Stan Lee made himself that personality, overshadowing his collaborators for decades and, intentionally or not, minimizing their massive, massive contributions to the medium.
It's something that's been a part of the Stan Lee that we know for as long as there's been a Stan Lee to know, and I think the best you can say about it is that it doesn't seem like he did it out of malice. That, however, doesn't change that it happened, and that it started early and continued often.
It's worth noting that the general public has never really had a good idea of how comic books work, and that the mass media is more guilty of this than most. Even today, when comics are providing the source material for a gigantic chunk of pop culture that's raking in billions of dollars, the people who aren't paying attention to them often don't quite understand how they work. Tell someone you're a comic book writer, and there's a good chance that they're going to think you're either something like a prose novelist, spinning an entire story out of whole cloth and then directing an artist as they provide optional illustrations, or that you're the guy who writes the words in the little balloons. Lee, who, if anything, was probably closer to the latter, was often portrayed as the former.
Quick sidenote: Remember in the late '90s, when Ben Stein had a talk show on Comedy Central? Those were strange days indeed. One episode featured Stan Lee as the guest, and I have a vivid memory of Stan Lee having to explain that while he had done some art for the army during World War II -- he talked about his crowning achievement, a poster campaigning against venereal disease that depicted a smiling sailor proclaiming "VD? NOT ME!" -- he was only the writer on all those classic Marvel stories. Stein, a dude who had a game show based around the premise that he knew a lot of stuff, could not understand this. Lee had to keep reminding him that he never drew the Hulk. Seriously. For some reason, they left all of this into the version of the show that made it to air.
That wasn't the first or last time that happened, either. In his absolutely indispensable Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe recounts the story of a 1965 profile in the New York Herald Tribune (the same source of that quote about Ditko above) about Lee and Kirby that went out of its way to glorify Lee at Kirby's expense:
"Freedland was impressed with Lee. He painted him as an 'ultra-Madison Avenue, rangy lookalike of Rex Harrison' responsible for tripling the comics' circulation to 35 million copies a year, selling 40,000 memberships to the Merry Marvel Marching Society, and inspiring 500 fan letters a day. Freedland depicted Lee wearing out his eyes from reading fan mail and fretting over the choice of exactly the right sound effect for a page of Fantastic Four #50. Charmed by Lee's self-deprecating quips and Fellini anecdotes, the reporter barely made mention of Martin Goodman, and skimmed over Ditko's contributions, referring to Spider-Man as Lee's masterpiece -- 'the most offbeat character he could think of'"
"Freedland cut to Kirby, 'a middle-aged man with baggy eyes and a baggy Robert Hall-ish suit. He is sucking a huge green cigar and if you stood next to him on the subway, you would peg him for the assistant foreman in a griddle factory."
Needless to say, the article was a sore point for Kirby for years, and was almost immediately followed by Ditko's departure from Marvel. Lee's often-repeated story about how he created Spider-Man when he saw a spider and thought it would be "groovy" (he always says "groovy") if a person had those powers, an origin story that has neglected to mention Ditko every time I've heard it, probably didn't help.
To be absolutely fair about it, that's not entirely Lee's fault. He played up to it, sure -- he's been playing up to it for half a century now -- but you can't blame him for being an outgoing and naturally charismatic guy. It's easy to see why Nat Freedland fell into the trap of Lee's magnetic personality, even if he was grossly irresponsible as a result.
It's worth noting that in the '60s, Marvel produced a record for the Merry Marvel Marching Society where the members of the Bullpen performed a strange little skit -- likely written by Lee given the quality of the jokes -- and Lee is far and away the most personable, charismatic of the entire bunch:
Kirby and Flo Steinberg are pretty enjoyable too, but everyone else is charmingly awkward as they read from the script. If you're trying to put a public face on Marvel, if you're setting up stage shows and college tours like they were doing to capitalize on the company's success, you can tell just from that recording who you're going to pick -- and it ain't Steve Ditko, who didn't even want to be on the thing.
Looking back, it seems to me that the attention took Lee by surprise, and even though you can debate for days about whether he actually tried hard enough to credit his collaborators and was just outdone by a combination of ignorance of the medium and his own charisma, it's hard to blame him for embracing it. Why wouldn't he? It was wealth and fame, two things that very, very few people have ever turned down.
But that, in turn, is something else that casts him as a villain of sorts -- and a very Marvel Comics type of villain too, compared to Ditko's reclusive, principled loner and Kirby's imaginative, energetic workhorse. Howe's book -- which is about as even-handed a recollection as you're likely to find -- paints a picture of Stan Lee that seems like someone who was eager from the start of things to leverage his fame in comics to get into other media, leaving comics behind in favor of magazines, movies, records and stage shows. It's more than understandable -- by the '70s, Lee had been working in comics for thirty years, going through the boom and bust of the Golden Age and then again in the early days of Marvel. It's a volatile market, and to put it bluntly, he'd contributed more than enough to be justified in leaving at that point. The problem is that all the ventures he tried to hitch his rising star to had attempts at recapturing the sense of personality that had brought such success at Marvel -- only now, it manifested as an element of glorifying Lee himself.
Howe, again, in Marvel: The Untold Story (I told you it was indispensable) recounts one of the worst examples:
"Lee's name also appeared at the top of the masthead of Celebrity, a People knockoff that inserted Lee into the action, posing for photos with story subjects. The vintage of the stars -- Mae West, Mickey Cohen, Robert Wagner, Lucille Ball, F. Lee Bailey -- gave it the feel of an episode of Love Boat. The articles fawned over all of them. 'If Celebrity's attitude to the phenomenon [of stardom-obsessed culture] seems diffident,' wrote one observer, 'that may be because it is published by Stan Lee of Marvel Comics fame, and primarily devoted to the exploits of Lee, the first comic book author to gain celebrity status.'"
It's not hard to draw a straight line from fiascos like that to the ongoing eye-rolling saga that is Stan Lee Media, a company that Lee himself is no longer associated with, but that he sold his name to in a bid for new media fame. Howe covers that, too, and folks, if you don't think that story involves defrauding Fidel Castro and people fleeing the country with a quarter of a million dollars in cash at one point, you really need to get that book.
Again, it's hard to blame Lee, because again, who's going to turn down that level of fame? Who's going to not want to get into the thriving movie industry when he's been through comics collapsing twice at that point in his life? But when you combine it all, the hunger for stardom, the tendency to glory in the attention, the self-deprecating attitude towards the genre and medium that he helped revolutionize, the minimizing -- intentional or otherwise -- of the contributions of others, it's easy to see how we arrived at the caricature of Lee the glory-hound, the pitch-man and promoter that he's become instead of the creator that he was.
For his part, Kirby (someone who was a lot closer to the situation than anyone else) painted a brutally vicious picture of Lee when he introduced Funky Flashman in Mister Miracle #6, only a short time after leaving Marvel and his final falling-out with Lee. You can tell how angry he is with the way he sets the story up, making no bones about what he's doing with the #5's "next issue" blurb, announcing "I know him! You know him! But do we need him?!"
When the actual character showed up, well, "harsh" doesn't quite cover it. The issue opens with Kirby labeling Flashman as "the driven little man who dreams of having it all!!! The opportunistic spoiler without character or values who preys on all things like a cannibal!!! -- including you!!! Like death and taxes, we all must deal with him sometime!" If you can measure Kirby's emotion by the number of exclamation points he used per page, he might've had actual steam coming out of his ears when he drew it.
Then it gets even more savage, with Flashman introduced as the master of a crumbling estate that he never earned, attended by a toadying manservant:
With Funky Flashman, Kirby even blew the secret of Stan Lee's toupee right there in a DC comic. It's "Ether" in four colors, with Houseroy -- maybe even more vicious a parody of Roy Thomas than Flashman is of Lee -- thrown in for good measure.
What makes it the most damning is that, like all of Kirby's superheroic sagas, it has at least an element of truth to it. When the guy who was there for all of it, who did the majority of the actual work that Lee's reputation is built on, puts someone on blast to that level, it's hard not to side with him. Especially when Lee's position as an unquestioned figurehead continues to this day, while Kirby remains in relative obscurity.
Remember at the beginning of this, when I said it was almost impossible to overstate Lee's contributions to the medium? The reason I phrased it that way is because people somehow manage to do it. There's a segment of fandom that has this blind hero worship of Lee that seems like a satire of those early Marvel days. It wasn't that long ago that I saw a post on Tumblr lauding Stan Lee for his decision to write the comic about Northstar's marriage, completely without irony. I'd like to think that's an isolated and extreme example, but I've seen enough people gush about Lee being the creator of the Marvel Universe (with the usually unspoken corollary that he's the sole creator) to know that it's way more common than I thought.
Incidentally, my "favorite" example of this? Kevin Smith, who put Lee in a movie and gushed in the dialogue about how great it was that he created the Marvel Universe, and then later mentioned in an interview that he "never got" why people liked Kirby so much. Smith would go on to play a character named "Jack Kirby" in the Daredevil movie.
But again, you can't lay the blame for all of that at Lee's feet. Yes, he's the one who shows up in the movies, yes, he's the one with a convention named after him, yes, he's the one that's always in the media being credited erroneously, but that's largely a function of the fact that he's still alive. Ditko is still alive and still producing comics, but he's made it clear in no uncertain terms that he doesn't want anything to do with Marvel, even going so far as to legendarily use his original art from Spider-Man as cutting boards. If Kirby was still alive, I'm sure he'd be doing interviews and making cameos in the Avengers movie too, but he's not. Stan Lee is, and as much as it might fuel that public perception of his godlike role as a creator, there's nothing wrong with respecting his accomplishments. Besides, at 91 years old, you'd probably stop correcting people too. If I live that long, I'm going to claim to have created Spider-Man all by myself.
So what's his legacy? Well, as someone who tries really hard to be an optimist, I'd like to hope it'll be closer to the first half of this column than the second. Lee, for all his many flaws, for all the funky flashiness that drew attention away from the people who deserved it just as much as he did, was a driving force in shaping superhero comics and through them, pop culture as we know it. I might be a Kirby partisan -- I am a Kirby partisan, if we're going to start fighting that fight -- but minimizing Lee's contributions to the medium doesn't fix anything. It just wouldn't hurt to look at it all with a slightly more critical eye.