Stan Lee, who almost singlehandedly (along with illustrators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) turned the fortunes of Marvel Comics around with his colorful and lucrative comic character creations, such as Spider-Man, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, Iron Man, and Thor, and started a revolution in print and eventually television and film media which helped make him and the comic book industry a somewhat credible, facile establishment, with annual earnings reaching untold BILLIONS, turns 90 years old today!
Born in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1922 as Stanley Lieber, and growing up in poor squalor type surroundings during The Great Depression of the 1930s, Lee found his solace in plenty of books and cinema of that period, in particular the exploits of the characters made famous by old school actor Errol Flynn, best remembered for his portrayal of swashbucklers and Robin Hood. It led to Lee’s writing pastime, which then led to small time gigs where he wrote obits and press releases.
A fortunate situation of happenstance by way of a cousin acting as proxy led to Lee getting a position at Timely Comics in 1939, which eventually morphed into Marvel Comics by the 1960s, during which time Lee became the ace in their stable, using his imagination and penchant for fantasy to create characters with gargantuan powers ala mythological figures, but with humanistic flaws. They could tear buildings down with their bare hands, or some, (usually by way of gamma rays) with imbued powers, helped them defeat plenty of charismatic arch villains and save millions of laymen in their cities, but they could also bicker amongst each other (As in The Fantastic Four), experience bouts of insecurity and doubt (as in Peter Parker, the alter ego of Spider-Man), or be a misunderstood freak show all together (as in The Incredible Hulk).
The marriage of the two styles worked wonders, and suddenly, Marvel Comics became a major player in the industry, on par like a Capitol Records or CBS Television. While main comic rivals DC had their own financial windfalls blowing from the four corners of the earth with their extremely popular and superstar successful franchises in Batman, Superman, Justice League, and others, there was something about Marvel that was a little more earthy, dare to say, even literary. If DC represented perhaps the Walt Disney of the industry, then Marvel was definitely the more hipper, cooler, jazzy Warner Brothers, who had churned out animation quite different than Walt Disney’s, but just as, if not more, memorable. In short, DC was like Bing Crosby, the crooner whose version of “White Christmas” remains the all-time top selling music single; Marvel was like Charlie Parker, the storied and troubled jazz saxophonist who influenced generations with his style of bebop music. The former played it safe yet was world renowned, the latter took risks and yet was world renowned as well.
Lee worked with his illustrators on projects at Marvel in a slightly unorthodox manner, which had been used before, but Lee popularized it and it became known legendarily as “The Marvel Method,” in which an artist works from a story synopsis (supplied by Lee) and creates the panels and action on the pages, and then, upon completion hands it back to the writer, who then fills in the “talk balloons” and does the final edit. This system worked extremely well, although in hindsight caused some debate on who actually wrote what. Ultimately, Lee co-shared credits with Kirby and Ditko on many of their productions and subsequent film productions/adaptations of their work.
By the mid-1970s, Lee had become the public face of Marvel Comics, making appearances and giving scores of interviews and even briefly become President of the company before personally relegating himself to Publisher. The scope of Marvel took on even higher astronomical heights when it started to adapt many of its characters Lee created (and which became the subject of many lawsuits and disputes as to who now owned the rights to the these characters) and put them in theatrical productions. Spider-Man, The X-Men, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk (and the off-shoot spinoff The Avengers, which had some of these aforementioned characters in that superhero union) became franchises and film series which propelled the comic book genre into one of Hollywood’s biggest financial successes of all-time, akin to the Star Wars franchise. Although some may scoff that in doing so, the industry has become a watered down mess where “real films” that have its energies and weight in stellar acting and narrative, have unceremoniously and forcibly taken a back seat to these comic book films, in which essentially they complain, are nothing more than men in tights up against green screens on wires.
Nonetheless, the comic book genre has spawned a revolution in fan base, transcending just the geeks or nerds, as evidenced by the success of The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers this past summer. Lee made cameo appearances in pretty much all these productions, the way Alfred Hitchcock used to make cameos in his films, and a lot of fun in watching the films is the anticipation of knowing Lee will be in them somewhere, and the fun of trying to guess where he is.
Still going strong, Lee continues to make tireless appearances at Comic-Cons and lesser known comic conventions around the country. He still produces media content here and there and now remains an elder statesman and an influence almost on the fringes of being God-like, to many budding and already successful comic book artists, writers, pencilers, inkers, graphic novelists, even screenplay writers for cinema and wordsmiths for literature. Stan Lee remains like a modern day Herman Melville, the writer of Moby Dick, who also wrote an adventure tale which is still one of the high watermarks for wonderment and awe in filmed, drawn, or scripted media.
Living legend is a term sometimes used rather erroneously, but it’s safe to say that in the case of the great Stan Lee, it might not even be good enough of a term to describe the efforts, creativity, and broad influence that has radiated from this man’s imagination. A Renaissance Man in a pulp fictional, pop culture sense, in every sense of those words, the works of Stan Lee are like the comic book versions of Shakespeare and Dickens, and the scope of what it spawned and continues to spawn is as eye opening and jaw dropping as most of Lee’s creations on the pages, in each and every one of its panels. Happy Birthday, Stan, Excelsior!