There was once a TV ad for Lee Jeans. To assert just how American the brand was, the film featured several famous ‘Lees’ from the States. There was General Robert E. Lee, blues musician John Lee Hooker and, on the cover of a comic book, the legend ‘Stan Lee’.
As editor and later publisher of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee has been credited with originating the superheroes that now dominate cinema and TV – Spider-Man, The Avengers, and the X- Men. It’s true, as editor and writer; he had a hand in shaping them and down the years, credit and cash, fame and movie cameos, have gone to “Stan the Man”. But the debate goes on, not least among fans and the staff of the comic book industry: to what extent was Stan the Creator?
A new contribution to the debate is Danny Fingeroth’s A Marvelous Life (Simon & Schuster, 2019). It’s the hardback version, detailed and confident in confronting the issues for anyone interested in the phenomenon of Marvel or the business of making culture and money. Fingeroth is also interested in where those characters came from, as shown by his book Superman on the Couch. Why did the readers respond? What wish fulfilments and private struggles did the heroes evoke? Of course, such figures descend from a long line of male saviours. The word ‘hero’ comes from the root vir, the ‘manly’, that is, the husband and soldier. Heroes were not outlaws, but strong men who could be relied upon to defend and attack, admired by those early agricultural societies that invested so much in conquest and the organisation of war. Even a female Venus, when not a fertility god in golden robes, could be pictured as a warrior, as seen on a ring worn by Julius Caesar.
In amongst fascinating and entertaining details, this book is the defence of a proposition: that Stan Lee could be said to have created the Marvel Universe of characters and stories. Just as Jehovah created the world, leaving Adam with details like naming the animals, Stan was the creator while the artists and other staff were ‘co-creators’.
Stan Lieber was born to a garment worker family, the Liebers, who lived then in a small flat in Manhattan, where Stan slept in the front room. They later moved to the Bronx where he attended high school. During the Depression young Stan, ever-optimistic, joined the firm Timely (aka Atlas and later Marvel) owned by his cousin Martin Goodman. There he wrote and edited humour magazines and comic books throughout the 1950s. Famously in 1961 Goodman asked him to come up with a superhero team to rival DC’s revival of the concept from the 1940s. Stan, who was about ready to leave and write a novel, came up with a group of superheroes you might find in a novel. Though they started out as human and were changed by ‘gamma rays’ during a space flight, they walked the streets of New York, not an imaginary Metropolis. They not only fought invading aliens and un-American bad guys but quarrelled with each other and did things that non-super citizens did, like get married. The sales of the Fantastic Four were good and Stan and his collaborators, artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and his own brother writer Larry Lieber, began to have fun by exploring the concept of the flawed hero and inventing further characters.
Fingeroth sketches out Stan’s early life, implying the dimensions of fortitude and sensitivity that led to the development of his fresh take on the superhero, Stan’s combination of the mundane and the momentous, otherwise known as the Uncanny.
Some important details though are left out, like how Spider-Man was invented, replaced by a general celebration of the Marvel breakthrough. Did Stan Lee in his original synopsis make Peter Parker/Spider-Man a teenager because Lee wanted to do a teenage superhero, a first in comics? Or did he raise Peter’s age because in the very first draft the character had been a boy who turned into an adult hero through a magic ring? An idea too reminiscent, others thought, of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, so risking a copyright violation. Of course, when the cautious Lee made Peter a little bit older, this brought with it all the furniture of the high school story. Artist (and ‘co-creator’) Steve Ditko had to visualise such aspects as a school bully (Flash Thompson), teenage crushes, and a mean-spirited boss, J. Jonah Jameson. Think of Eddie Cochran’s Summertime Blues. The simple change of a number, from twelve years-old to sixteen, produced a whole new dimension for the superhero genre, one to serve the youthful times, as well as intrigued readers, with an adolescent hero.
Fingeroth’s book does contains some fascinating accounts, like the origin of Lee’s style of talking to the reader. This he began on a short lived satire mag called Snafu aimed at competing with Mad magazine. There’s also more background than ever before on one of Stan’s most important relationships, the one with publisher Martin Goodman, his cousin, basis of his survival within the Marvel company. The other ladder of his career was when the Marvel approach took off, Lee went all out on promotion, including of himself. In the late 1960s he became the high-profile editor, writing columns in the comics and giving employees nicknames, like ‘Dazzling’ Steve Ditko and ‘Fabulous’ Flo Steinberg. Steinberg was the one referred to in Stan’s ‘Bulletin’ column as his “Gal Friday”. She eventually left in 1968 when the publisher refused to give her a five-dollar pay rise. At about the same time editor Stan was beginning to accept invitations to speak at colleges and on radio and TV.
Unfortunately, lazy newspapers focused on “Stan the Man” as the main creative source, treating artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko as mere illustrators. As the ‘60s gave way to the ‘70s, Marvel was taken over by Cadence Industries and one of their executives told Jack Kirby, who had designed nearly everything, that he really wasn’t needed. Mr Lee would just come up with more great ideas which could be drawn by others.
There’s a page that survives of an early script by Lee from 1962 – Fantastic Four #8 – which shows the creative process, “the Marvel Method”, used at the company. Comparing Lee’s script/synopsis and the eventual pages drawn by Kirby, you can appreciate Lee’s subtle weaving of plot and character. But Kirby‘s finished panels add more incident and a look that strongly realises the story.
In the comic, the Thing Ben Grimm walks out on the FF over a quarrel and Sue Storm the Invisible Girl pursues him into the street, as described by Lee in the synopsis. Then, invented by Kirby, some thuggish men mock Ben, and Ben and Sue reunite to give the bullies what for. It’s a great example of a writer having a good idea and an artist improving it.
There is no doubt that it was Stan who introduced the soap opera elements into comic books – the tensions within the Fantastic Four, the relationship between Sue Storm and Namor the Sub-Mariner and Odin’s rage against his son Thor for loving the mortal Jane Foster. These became sub-plots, and sometimes major plot turns, that lent the stories texture and anticipation. Indeed, since Lee’s retirement as editor, such features have been reduced with a consequent simplification of Marvel storytelling.
In 1972 Stan Lee became president and publisher of Marvel comics. He’d already threatened the new owners Cadence that he’d leave entirely if the son of the outgoing publisher took the job. Stan really was “the Man” now. By the end of the ‘60s, not only Flo Steinberg but Ditko had walked and Kirby had gone to DC, Marvel’s biggest rival. The contentious issue for the artists was creative autonomy: they’d reached a level of experience where they didn’t think “the Man” should be interfering with their work.
As the movie and merchandising took off, court cases over copyright began to occur. Stan though did well by the company: he appeared at conventions and on broadcast discussions. In August 1987, on radio WBAI, Stan appeared as a guest on a show celebrating Jack Kirby’s seventieth birthday. Jack was on the line from California and Stan rang in from New York. Fingeroth prints the transcript of the conversation between them and comments on the heat it generated.
Discussing their division of labour and Kirby’s aspiration, Lee said “I don’t think you ever felt the dialogue was important”. Kirby replied, “I’m only trying to say…if one man is writing and drawing and doing a strip… I believe that [he] should have the opportunity to do the entire thing.” (Fingeroth, P.285). The chat ended with Lee praising Kirby as having made “a tremendous mark on American culture if not on world culture” and Kirby thanking him. But it was Stan who continued to get the wider recognition, above all, through cameo appearances in the Marvel movies, like some kind of low-brow Alfred Hitchcock.
Lee was a lifelong liberal but the kind who believed in winning the US war in Vietnam (and his comics reflected this) and thought African-Americans didn’t have much of a problem and that students who objected to weapons research within their colleges could be placated by a handshake from the principal. Marvel of course is still pro-Establishment. In Ms Marvel, Kamala Khan is the good Muslim who works unquestioningly for SHIELD (the CIA) while complications like supporting oil kingdoms and not touching Assad in Syria never come up.
I don’t think Fingeroth’s well researched pages and affecting arguments will stop the debate about the extent of creative contribution. But whether or not Stan was god or a godfather, he was certainly the editor, the leader who approved copy and suggested changes as well as writing the dialogue balloons. When Marvel took off in the mid-60s, so did he. Promoting the art and the company, he became the symbol and a celebrity, which was hard on those who had contributed as much if not more to the actual product. Stan didn’t always defend those people or share out the prizes when they came. And of course, he later wrote the histories (Origins of Marvel Comics, Conversations with Stan Lee and his memoir Excelsior) and did have a big hand in bringing the characters to Hollywood. The courtroom and print controversies over copyright and merchandise rights didn’t stop Lee finally reconciling with Kirby. But the underlying argument never stopped, sometimes fractious (as with the genius Alan Moore), but often giving Stan the benefit of the doubt by those fans who had become the movie adaptors and literary critics of the books.
You can’t deny the Man’s contribution in overseeing Marvel. Throughout the 1960s, as editor, he kept to the premise of giving superheroes human lives and problems. If you refer to the work of other companies at the time, like the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents at Tower, you can appreciate how easy it would have been to fall back into merely showing combat between brightly-costumed figures. Later, when he became even more the barker out front, Stan was astute enough to sometimes leave artists to their own devices. However, he was always the rank above, the publisher’s relative, and later the idol of Marvel’s new owners (and the company had quite a succession). But let’s give credit where credit is due: in the best of times, 1965-67, he made some excellent decisions. Yet the Marvel Universe was always polytheistic: others also made the marvels.