Stan Lee was the voice of my childhood. As I sat transfixed by Spider-Man cartoons on Saturday mornings, his energetic narration welcomed me into the story; made me feel part of the gang. Never mind that the animation wasn’t up to much; it looked like a comic, had a great theme tune, and Stan “The Man” Lee, my buddy, was giving it his personal seal of approval.
Famously, Lee originally honed this warm persona in print. The words “Stan Lee Presents” in the Marvel comics I was also feverishly devouring – black and white British reprints of the American originals – were a guarantee of quality. When he signed off a letters page or editorial with his trademark “Excelsior!” I never failed to smile. I was, and remain in many respects, a “True Believer”, as Lee called all dedicated Marvel readers. As we shall see, however, the man’s performance masked some uncomfortable truths.
Lee, born Stanley Martin Lieber, had been working in comics since 1939. He was first an office assistant for Timely, the company that went on to become Marvel, before becoming an editor and writer. He would eventually rise to editor-in-chief, chairman and publisher, but it was his work as a writer in the early 1960s that changed comics forever.
At the time, superheroes had fallen out of favour, following the heyday of Superman and Batman in the 1930s and 1940s. Marvel now helped turn that around, with angsty rebellious heroes like The Fantastic Four (launched 1961), Spider-Man (1962), The Hulk (1962), The X-Men (1963) and so many more.
A huge part of the success was the fantastic artwork and storytelling of two other comics geniuses, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. But nobody wrote like Stan. Having written many romance and horror comics in the 1950s, his tone was over-the-top, bombastic and mock-Shakespearean – but always warm and inviting.
The mythos that Lee created also extended to the gang behind the scenes. In regular features “Bullpen Bulletins” and “Stan’s Soapbox”, he wove tales of the Marvel Bullpen, the lively creative hub at the centre of the studio’s success, with characters like Jack “King” Kirby and “Sturdy” Steve Ditko. This human touch was Lee’s gift. He made these comics creators seem like friends, and made the readers feel like part of a gang or club.
When I learned about the history of Marvel Comics later in life, I realised that things were not always as they seemed. The angst in those Spider-Man and Hulk comics wasn’t all on the page; like any business, there were tensions and rivalries behind the scenes. Many of the artists who worked with Lee harboured deep resentments.
In the 1960s, Lee and the artists developed what became known as the “Marvel method” of creating comics. At rival DC Comics, home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the editor was king, and kept a firm grip on the factory-line production process of creating a comic. But at Marvel, Lee would come up with a story idea and pass it to the artist as a kind of pitch or brief.
This allowed for huge creative freedom and sped up the production process considerably – a real benefit for a small company with big ambitions. But the artists’ work was not always fully recognised. They were being credited purely for the art when they were often creating the characters and story, too – before Lee layered the dialogue and captions on top.
Lee compounded this recognition problem in interviews and in books like Origins of Marvel Comics (1974), where he talked enthusiastically about how he had created all the stories and characters. The artists knew different. Frustrated by creative differences, Ditko left in 1965 and Kirby went five years later.
To make matters worse, their original artwork often wasn’t returned to them – at a time when a community of comic collectors was coming together and a market was emerging for this artwork. Marvel made millions exploiting the rights to the characters and stories while the artists received very little.
Having risen to a position of power in the company, Lee could have shared more of the profits – and the limelight. But he was a showman, an impresario, and a businessman. He took the credit and protected the company he had worked so hard to build. As a salaried company man, he was not always as loyal to his collaborators – many of whom were freelancers.
Later in the 1970s and early 1980s, when young comics creators like Frank Miller were championing creator rights and lobbying for the return of artwork to Kirby and his family, Lee was sometimes cast as the villain. I am sure he wasn’t. But like the best Marvel heroes, he was certainly flawed. He could have been at the forefront of creator rights and made the “Marvel method” stand for something more. Instead, Marvel ended up echoing practices at DC Comics, where artists like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman, were made to wait decades, often in crushing poverty, for a small share of the profits.
The consequences of Lee’s silence were considerable, not just for those in the Bullpen but for following generations of comics creators. Even now, the relationship between publishers and creators over rights and profit-sharing has been rocky to say the least. Lee was courageous in other ways – his comics battled racism, for instance, and he wrote a landmark essay on the subject in 1968. It also goes without saying that he helped create characters who continue to inspire millions. But had he taken a stand on creators’ rights, the industry and comics historians might not be so divided on his legacy today.
Postscript: Stan’s last act
Stan Lee’s later years seemed tumultuous. He would make appearances at huge comic cons looking tired, and taking photos with huge numbers of fans who paid for the privilege of meeting him. This prompted suspicions that those in charge of Lee’s business affairs didn’t always have his best interests at heart. Earlier this year, his lawyer brought a suit against his handlers accusing them of elder abuse.
A couple of years back, I had a chance to meet my hero at a New York Comic Con. I watched as others had their photos taken with this frail old man, and wondered how I’d condense all I wanted to say, about what he meant to me, what he’d contributed to the world. And to ask about his proudest moments, his deepest regrets. But all that was on offer were a few seconds of The Man’s time, and a weak smile.
So I decided not to get my photo with him. I don’t know if I made the right decision, but on hearing of Lee’s death I asked an artist friend, Elliot Balson, to draw a picture of me meeting him (below). I know it’s self-indulgent, but I’m finally meeting this man who gave me so much, where I’ve always met him – in the comics.
Christopher Murray, Professor of Comics Studies, University of Dundee.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.