Stan Lee, the Would-Be Novelist Who Created Worlds
One of the Great American Storytellers
For better or worse, we live in Stan Lee’s America, and not just because the comic book characters he co-created have been so successfully woven into the iconographic tapestry of modern American popular culture: Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Nick Fury, Daredevil, Ant-Man, the Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.
Aside from creating these iconic characters and, in effect, revitalizing both Marvel Comics and the whole superhero genre in the 1960s, what Stan Lee was most known for was his big personality—a man of catchphrases and cameos, of braggadocio and self-myth, of hyperbole and silliness. You’d be forgiven if you saw him as a forebear of that other classic contemporary carnival barker, Donald Trump.
But while Stan Lee arguably shared the cultivating of a larger-than-life showman persona with our current reality-TV-star president, the substance hidden beneath their outlandish surfaces couldn’t stand in more stark contrast.
Despite his eccentric public persona, Lee was a nuanced, humanistic bard who spent his life turning what was essentially a “child’s medium” into a deeply human, mature artform.
In his late teens, Lee began his career in comics as an assistant at Timely Comics, though he harbored hopes of becoming a novelist, dreaming of one day writing that ever-elusive white whale: the “Great American Novel.” For two decades he worked at Timely Comics (which in those twenty years became Atlas Comics, and then Marvel Comics), with a brief hiatus to serve in WWII. But as the 1960s began, Lee, now in his late thirties, had become dissatisfied, and he thought of switching careers when he was asked by his publisher, Martin Goodman, to create a superhero comic that could compete with DC’s new Justice League of America.
“Personally, he had never liked comic book superheroes very much,” wrote Bradford W. Wright of Stan Lee in his book, Comic Book Nation. “They were always too perfect and unbelievable, and he felt that most discerning adolescents could not relate to such stiff and silly characters.”
He had also, more generally, grown tired of writing comic books at the publisher’s whim, doing things the way his bosses wanted them, rather than the way he thought they ought to be. His wife, Joan, said to him at the time, “If you’re planning to leave anyway, why don’t you just turn out a couple of books the way you think they should be done, and get it out of your system before you actually quit?”
Though the superhero comic was a dying genre in the late 40s and early 50s, DC Comics had recently had some luck in reviving a handful of its Golden Age heroes in the mid-to-late 50s. Goodman wanted to capitalize on the success of their big rival. He asked Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby to create a team of superheroes in the vein of the Justice League. They created the Fantastic Four, which was ostensibly a superhero comic, but more literally a sci-fi family drama. This was a story about family first, superheroism second. The four main characters of the book squabbled like a real family, but came together when it counted, as a real family should. With this, a new age of superhero storytelling began.
The “Silver Age of Comics” (from the mid-50s to the late-60s) is often also dubbed the “Marvel Age” because of how that company, with Stan Lee leading the charge, revolutionized the medium. DC Comics had long been the giant, barely even acknowledging Marvel, which must have looked like just another boy with a slingshot at the time, but eventually, as the 60s rolled on, and Lee kept creating complex new character after complex new character, hit comic title after hit comic title, DC had to take stock.
Though Lee’s dream of becoming a great American novelist would never come to fruition, he managed to take a more novelistic and adult approach to superhero stories. Wright explained: “Lee hoped to recapture the teenage audience with a new kind of superhero comic book—one that played to some of the moral ambivalence that young people recognized and responded to.” But his books would also, notably, no longer only be geared toward children; they could be admired by readers of all ages.
Lee’s main innovation seems like an obvious one in retrospect: make the heroes ambivalent, make them capricious, make them imperfect—in short, make them human. So Lee, with his colleagues at Marvel, created a whole pantheon, not of one-dimensional superhero gods, but of three-dimensional flawed people, with tempers and tantrums, blindspots and regrets, fears and neuroses, doubts and desires, hubris and shame, in addition to their superpowers. In fact, often these heroes saw their strange powers as curses rather than gifts. Not only did Lee give his new characters these more human characteristics, but he placed them in the real world—often New York City, rather than the Metropolis or Gotham of Superman and Batman—forcing them to deal with real world problems. They had bills to pay, jobs to hold down, paramours to impress, family members to deal with, existential crises to work through.
“Superheroes with awesome powers and human shortcomings became the defining feature of Marvel comics,” wrote Wright. But it was more than just giving them flaws and angst, Lee treated these heroes as the fleshed-out characters of a 300-page novel rather than the archetypes previously seen in the panels of a comic. Fellow comic writer Grant Morrison explained, “Stan Lee went back to first principles. In the Marvel universe, heroes needed reasons, motivations.”
When I was a kid, I really loved Marvel superheroes, but I could never really get into the DC characters. I stood by this principle, outrightly refusing to read any DC comics. I remember one night my well-meaning, good-liberal father tried to convince me that it was akin to prejudice and bigotry to discriminate against a whole host of characters merely because of the company that created them. What I couldn’t articulate then, but what was already clear to me, was that the Marvel heroes felt more genuine. They jumped off the page, seemed more like me and the people I knew in real life.
Each Marvel hero was in his or her own way “the hero who could be you” (a line Stan Lee wrote of perhaps his premier creation, Spider-Man). As Morrison admitted:
Stan whipped up a fierce rivalry between Marvel and DC, while the giant paid him no heed, at least not in public. But the new Marvel heroes were so radioactive with rough-hewn novelty and pure personality, they made DC’s product seem like juvenilia, forcing DC to change in order to keep up.
Superheroes have continued to change over the decades, and DC’s heroes are now as complicated and human as those in the Marvel stable—but this is in no small part because of that little guy with the pen for a slingshot, Stan Lee.
My love of Lee changed as I grew too—changed, but didn’t lessen. As a kid, I loved Lee because of his panache—the bloviating, the campiness, the way he addressed the reader as though he was a friend telling a secret—but as an adult, why I continued to admire him long after the schtick had lost its sheen was that beneath the public persona was a storyteller committed to wrestling with a complicated world in a nuanced, open-minded, and open-hearted way. I would have pitied the failed novelist if he hadn’t, instead, found a better avenue for his particular talents.
We mustn’t forget that he first saw himself as a novelist though. While Stan Lee is perhaps more well-known for his cameos in movies and as the purveyor of an artform dominated by illustration, it is important to remember that he was not an illustrator, nor was he a filmmaker; he was a writer and, importantly, a reader.
“I can’t remember when I first learned to read, nor can I remember a time when I wasn’t reading,” Lee wrote in his memoir. “I read everything I could find, everywhere, every chance I got… My mother used to say that if there was nothing to read, I’d read the labels on the ketchup bottles, which I did.”
Because he was a reader first, he wrote like a reader, thinking of the reader’s humanness and humanity. In this so-called “child’s medium,” he found artful ways to tell deeply moving, existential human tales, about love and loss, power and respect, horror and courage, pride and shame, darkness and light. Even though the comic book form, at least at the time, lended itself to stark black-or-white divisions, classic good-vs.-evil plots of moral absolutism, simplistic views of our complex world, Lee found a way to wrestle with the mystery of the universe in almost every panel—to embrace ambiguity, uncertainty, and nuance somehow in stories where men wore primary-colored capes, tights, and masks.
It’s easy to remember the Stan Lee persona, which looms large—the one who gleefully becomes self-parody, the one who Jack Kirby mocked through his character Funky Flashman, the one with silly cameos in just about every Marvel film, the one with an eyeroll-inducing slew of alliteration and catchphrases like “‘Nuff said” and “Excelsior!”—but in that clown’s shadow was a master storyteller who saw the possibility of giving this fledgling medium the gravitas of the novel.
Lee’s comic innovations were not limited to giving superheroes human flaws and real world woes though, he also revolutionized the interaction between content-creators and their fans. The Marvel fandom was the first of its kind, and much of that was because of how Lee engaged his readers. “Lee’s conversational narrative captions dropped all pretense of a dispassionate authorial voice in favor of a chummy camaraderie that made it feel as if he were there with you,” claimed Morrison. “The comic itself became a buddy. Lee interjected his own persona into little editor’s footnotes that provided links between stories or reminded readers of salient facts, all in Stan’s wink-wink ‘How’s-it-goin’-pal?’ style.” He spoke to his readers as friends. He wanted to be on a first name basis with his fans. Whereas one imagines a letter-to-the-editor sent to DC at that time would have been addressed “Dear Editor,” most of Marvel’s fanmail would have naturally been penned directly to Lee, “Dear Stan.”
In the back of Marvel comics of the time was a section called “Bullpen Bulletins,” which was Lee’s best informal and fun way to interact with the fans. In that section, Lee often wrote an editorial called “Stan’s Soapbox,” a little missive addressed to the readers. Though its name implies a certain didacticism, and though its author often overused exclamation points and bombast, “Stan’s Soapbox” was only sometimes the promotional comic book equivalent of a used car commercial; more often it managed to be a place of honest questioning and nuanced thought, introducing young readers to new ideas and pushing them to engage with a changing world.
“For many years we’ve been trying, in our own bumbling way,” Lee wrote in one column, “to illustrate that love is a far greater force, a far greater power than hate.” He sometimes used this platform to engage in important political discussion and to call out discrimination:
Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.
In the editorial from Spider-Man #96, published in May 1971, Lee used the column to respond to an anonymous letter which had decried the company’s engagement in divisive political issues and contemporary cultural concerns. “Marvel is trying to brainwash the public,” the anonymous letter read. Lee’s rebuttal, while using his trademark carnival-barking style, invoked his best, secret tendencies—the nuance, ambivalence, and ambiguity behind the bluster:
During the early years of Marvel’s growth, our more aware readers used to ask why we didn’t editorialize more, and I’d answer that we didn’t feel it was within our purview. However, as time went by, and we realized that our readership was far more mature, far wiser than anyone had suspected, we began to touch upon real issues, real problems that confront this woebegone world of ours. Now, here’s the hairy part. The more relevant our stories became, the more flak we took from every spectrum of opinion. The radicals claim we’re too archaic! The conservatives claim we’re too liberal! The doves call us hawks, and the hard-hats call us peaceniks! The Pollyannas say we’re harbingers of doom, while the drop-outs and cop-outs tell us we’re living in a fools’ paradise! No matter what we write or draw, half of you disagree—and, just between us, that’s the way it oughtta be! We don’t characterize ourselves with any particular labels. We represent virtually every shade of opinion, and like most of you, we’re just trying to make some sense out of the nutty news items and ridiculous reports that assail our senses every minute.
That “just between us” aside is classic Stan Lee. Though the editorial was clearly addressed to anyone who bought that issue of Spider-Man, it reads like a personal plea from a friend, a reminder that we can be above our petty affiliations, and a hope that we can, together, wrestle with the world.
This is Lee’s legacy—that a pop artform, one originally intended for children, could harness adult aspirations.
This could, I’m sure, be expounded upon, in more or better words than I’ve been able to say in my own bumbling way, but for now, in the master’s own immortal tongue: “‘Nuff said.”