On Stan lee: The right writer for the right time
- By Dara McWade
More than a legend, Stan was The Man. For decades, when Stan said his catchphrase "Excelsior" his "true believers" listened. He is the co-creator of some of the most iconic characters in the world today. His reign as editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics lasting for decades as he ushered in its first era of greatness, the Marvel Age, where some of the most popular marvel characters were created (during what was known as the Silver Age of comics) between 1961 to 1970. He remained a spokesman for them well after too, cheering on from the side-lines through their financial troubles and introducing Marvel properties to Hollywood. From his "Stan's Soapbox" an editorial that Stan printed in the back of all Marvel comics during his reign, Stan preached with wit and humour for tolerance, understanding, and continued friendliness. His fundamental morality and belief in right and wrong is imbued within those pages, showing itself in the many heroes he had a hand in creating for.
Stan's Story is the story of a self-made man. Born as Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Stan started working for what was then called Timely Comics when he was seventeen, and by the time he was nineteen, he found himself editor-in-chief. He worked there on a succession of different genres, but it wasn't until the early sixties that Lee hit upon the formula that would give life to Marvel comics. The Fantastic Four were the start of the "Marvel Age". They were a team of four superheroes with complex interpersonal relationships and imperfect super-powers.
It's almost a cliché at this point to discuss the impact the work that Lee and frequent artists and collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had on the wider American mythology and on the idea of the superhero itself, such is their cultural reach and impact. Nonetheless it remains an important statement. These were brave and complicated men, creating flawed and more importantly, relatable people who rose above their foibles to become heroes. This was not the perfect mythos of a Superman or Wonder Woman. Spider-Man was a nerdy kid from Queens and Captain America was the children of immigrants whose bravery exceeded his body's reach. It's hard not to see their creators in their creations; Kirby, a hot-headed character who was known to get in scraps with home-grown Nazis. Lee was an incredibly ambitious and energetic young man from a working class family of Jewish immigrants. Both Lee and Kirby served in WWII, Kirby as a soldier on the ground, and Lee in the signal corps (Lee is actually one of the few military men to ever be given the title of playwright). They gave their characters their own flaws and troubles. The Fantastic Four bickered amongst themselves. The X-Men lived in a world that hated and feared them. The Hulk and The Thing cursed their superhuman rage and newfound inhuman physicality, and Spider-Man, well, he just couldn't catch a break. Their vibrancy came not from their superhuman powers, but from the people underneath the masks. Stan didn't care for the over-the-top outfits, so much as he cared about why those people would put those outfits on. These characters are best described by the man himself, on an appearance on Conan, "Like me, they have their faults."
While Lee is being credited right now in as many lauded publications as one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, I think that there is a distinction to be made here. Lee was the right writer, at the right time, a consummate showman and businessman with an eye towards entertainment with a message. Lee wasn't the major creative force behind his co-creations. The "Marvel house style" of comics creation at that time left most of the business of actual creation to the artists. The writers and editors would briefly outline plots, locations and characters, letting the artists illustrate and design the stories, and return to the finished product later to write the dialogue. But Stan's energy, enthusiasm and writing savvy had him catch the spirit of his moment. Through his soapbox column, he made the readers feel like old friends, popping round to see what adventures their favourite powered pen-pals have been up to.
It's a shame that maybe his most famous line, the one about power and responsibility, is so often misquoted. It's not "With Great Power comes Great Responsibility," but "With Great Power must come Great Responsibility." Responsibility is not an arbitrary result, but an active choice, an imperative. It's a reminder that those with power not only must come to understand their responsibilities, but that it is their duty to serve them. Lee seemed to understand his power. After facing the criticism that escapist stories should just be escapist, Lee once wrote that "It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul." He believed in the power of fiction to touch hearts and minds, and took his responsibility as the creator of fiction that appeals to young readers seriously.
As more and more stories are shared on social media from the creators, artists and people who knew or met Stan, his energetic goodness becomes clearer and clearer. He was an inspirational figure, always quick to give a kind word, a helping hand, or an important piece of advice. A writer from Indiewire recently shared VHS-based series that Lee used to run where he would invite artists on to create a Superhero in twenty minutes back in the nineties, and it's the perfect place to see his method. In this video, Lee has two artists, Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefield on his show. These were some of the biggest names in comics in the nineties, famed for their over-the-top, over-powered, pocket-abundant and shoulder pad-wearing Superhero fiction. Yet, Stan doesn't seem to be too impressed by their creation. He constantly asked them to explain their decisions, and trying to figure out who the man underneath truly was; is he a "ninety-pound weakling" under all that armour.
In the last twenty years or so, Stan's public image became inextricably linked with his cameos in Marvel movies. He would often pop up as a bystander caught up in these galactic battles, an unaware stooge with the best lines, or, in his most tender moments, someone who shows up to give the hero a small piece of kindness and advice. He tells Peter Parker that "Maybe one man can make a difference," right when he needs to hear it the most. With Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige's recent admission that there are plenty of Stan cameos locked up in their vault, we know we haven't seen the last of him on the big screen. But as long as his characters are alive in our stories, and in our hearts; as long as his work stands for stories with a message, well, we haven't seen the last of Stan at all.