Now face front, pilgrims and excelsior! (Or whatever.)
Stan Lee, or Stanley Martin Lieber, was
born in New York City in 1922. By the time he was 17, in 1940, he had entered
the comics field as an assistant to the famous comics team of Jack
Kirby and Joe Simon who were working at Timely
Comics (now Marvel), producing one of the greatest of all Golden age features, Captain America. The patriotic new character had boosted sales at Timely and Simon and Kirby were working furiously on the runaway hit. It was for this
reason that Stan's uncle, Timely publisher Martin Goodman, hired the young man to work as the team's assistant. It was hardly an unprecedented step; Goodman had staffed his small company with three of his brothers.
At first Lee worked as a "gofer," going
for coffee for the staff and performing other small chores, but he quickly
graduated to proofreading, erasing pages, and then--finally--to actual
writing duties. It seems strange now, considering his
contribution to the medium, but young Lee regarded his first job as merely a stepping stone to other goals; what he really wanted to do, he later recalled, was to write novels, not comic books. In those days (before televised wrestling became established!) comics were considered to be the absolute bottom of the cultural barrel.
Lee's first piece of professional comic
book writing was a text filler for Captain America
#3, "Captain America Foils The Traitor's Revenge," (May 1941). It was the
also the first time Stanley Martin Lieber signed his work "Stan Lee," a
pseudonym that would eventually become his legal name. His first actual comic book story was a back-up feature in Captain America #5, the first of a number of stories he wrote not only for Captain America, but for another Simon and
Kirby creation, The Young Allies, as well as for other super hero stories featuring The Destroyer, The Witness, Jack Frost, Black Marvel, and Whizzer.
Timely's expanding fortunes turned it from
a minor-league comics publisher into a major contender, publishing such
titles as U.S.A. Comics, Kid Comics, The
Human Torch, Select Comics, Marvel Comics, Mystic Comics,
Comics, in addition to Young Allies and Captain America. Despite the publishing bonanza, Simon and Kirby left the company in early 1942 over a royalty compensation dispute, leaving Lee as the sole member of the department that had
just lost its editor and art director.
Suddenly Timely had a new eighteen year old editor and his name was Stan Lee.
He was to hold that position as the company changed from Timely to Atlas and finally Marvel, ultimately leaving his editorship when he was promoted to editorial director and publisher in 1972. His Timely editorship didn't last all that long, however, thanks to the enemy Captain America was battling; Lee was drafted, replaced as editor by artist Vince Fago, who had worked producing Betty Boop cartoons for the Max Fleischer studio.
Timely discovered a new market during wartime:
teenage girls. Otto
Binder, a comics writer renowned for his work on Captain
Marvel, had created a back-up feature for Marvel Mystery Comics
in 1942, Miss America. The new female
character proved so popular that she got her own title in 1944, which immediately picked up 20,000 subscriptions in the space of two weeks. A second non-super hero title, Patsy Walker debuted in 1945, and when Uncle Sam let Lee return
to the Timely fold that fall, he helped boost sales further by creating Millie the Model, Nellie the Nurse, and Tessie the Typist. It was fortunate that the new audience had been discovered; when the war ended, super hero sales began to
In an attempt to stir interest in the fading genre, Lee created The All Winners Squad for All Winners Comics #19 in 1946, a book that featured Captain America, The Human Torch, the Sub-Mariner, Miss America, and The Whizzer.
To no avail; although the scarce collector's item is now valued at $3000, it created little stir then and the title was canceled after two issues.
Timely continued to place its hopes in its pool of female readers with other women's comics, like Otto Binder's creation Blonde Phantom Comics (winter 1946-1947), followed by three more titles of the same ilk: Namora, Sun Girl, and Venus (1948). Even Captain America's sidekick, Bucky, was dropped in favor of a Stan Lee creation, Golden Girl.
Lee's next efforts were in the western
arena with Kid Colt, Outlaw, Two-Gun Kid, Annie Oakley, Blaze Carson,
Tex Morgan, Tex Taylor and Outlaw (some of these characters
were resurrected in late 1999 in Blaze of Glory, the
final adventure of Marvel's western heroes, written by Leo Manco and John Ostrander). When Joe Simon and Jack Kirby invented the romance genre with Young Romance (Sept.-Oct. 1947), Timely and Lee were not slow to follow the
bandwagon with My Romance, the first of twenty heart-throb comics the company would publish.
By 1950, Timely Comics had become Atlas
Comics and the emphasis was now on war and horror comics (Battle Adventures,
War Adventures, Strange Tales, Journey Into Mystery). Lee made a brief
attempt to revive the super hero
genre with Marvel Boy (Dec. 1950), the adventures of an American boy raised on Uranus (!) and blessed with telepathy and super-strength.
The title, illustrated by Russ Heath and Bill Everett, lasted just two issues. Lee made another attempt in 1954, bringing back Sub-Mariner, Human Torch, and Captain America, but despite impressive art by John Romita and Bill Everett, the resurrection of Timely's past heroes and Marvel's future stars proved to be as unsuccessful as the All Winners Comic title.
By the late 1950s Stan Lee had been working as the editor for Atlas Comics for a good many years, but his was hardly a secure position. Atlas, like many a comics publisher, had fallen on hard times. This situation was not helped by the fact that Atlas' distributor, America News Co., had crashed and burned, leaving Atlas with a new distributor that limited the company to issuing just eight titles a month (an incredible drop from its former peak of 75).
Under those grim circumstances Lee was soldiering on in an almost-empty office, forced to eliminate almost his entire staff of freelancers --people who were friends as well as associates.
By January 1959 Lee was left with a large inventory and a small core group of freelancers (Don Heck, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby) that would later help launch the Marvel Age of Comics. But in the meantime the comics they worked on were a rather vapid mix of romance, war, and western titles, as well as a few oddball books like Amazing Adventures, Tales to Astonish, and Strange Tales,comics that featured gigantic aliens with ridiculous names like Googam, Zzutar, and (greatest of all!) the infamous Fin Fang Foom-- a gigantic dragon in purple boxer shorts! This was hardly the kind of inspiring material with which to build a comics empire.
By 1961, Lee was discouraged enough to want to throw in the towel. And then (as the legendary story goes) Atlas publisher Martin Goodman got a tip on the golf links from DC's publisher Jack Liebowitz, who bragged about the high sales of his new superhero group title, Justice League of America. (Oct.-Nov. 1960). Never a man to ignore a good sales trend, Goodman suggested to his nephew that he come up with a superhero team of his own.
As Lee recounted in a later interview with Roy Thomas, "My wife Joan said to me, 'you know, Stan, if they asked you to do a new book about a new group of super-heroes, why don't you do 'em the way that you feel you'd like to do a book? If you want to quit anyway, the worst that could happen is that he'll fire you, and so what? You want to quit.'I figured, hey, maybe she's right. I wanted to create a new group and do them the way I had always wanted to do a comic book."
And so the beginning of a new comic book renaissance was launched with The Fantastic Four #1, debuting in November 1961. (I wish I had taken better care of my FF# 1: mint icopies are now worth $19,000.)
Jack Kirby has said that his Challengers of the Unknown was a precursor and inspiration for The Fantastic Four, and there are similarities, but whatever the case, his claim illustrates the problem of assigning proper credit to whoever was the primary force behind the birth of "The House of Ideas." Kirby had considerable input on all of Marvel's new titles and designed many of the new characters and their costumes and attributes.
On the other hand, the new Marvel technique of working up a story originated with Stan Lee, a process that involved Lee coming up with a characterization and rough plot and then turning over the concept to the artist who would take it from there. His method of eliminating the initial script freed artists from the old restrictions that might have otherwise hampered their creativity. But there was more to it than that.
The key ingredient to Marvel's success lay in the fact of life that, in Lee's own words, "There's nobody who doesn't have a hard time. I mean, when we were doing those books, Kennedy seemed to have a perfect life, and he got shot. Everybody has problems and everybody has secret sorrows." Lee had created the concept of the flawed super hero. The hero who, like us, had problems, and whose super powers not only didn't eliminate life's hassles, but actually sometimes complicated them. Lee and Kirby established a series of groundbreaking innovations with The Fantastic Four.
The introduction of the flawed hero (Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm were always at each other's throats and Reed and Sue Richards had their flare-ups as well) marked a new era for the comics field, as well as reviving Marvel's fortunes. Lee soon added other troubled heroes to his new stable of characters. First with The Hulk, a classic tragic figure, who debuted in an initially short-lived series in 1962, then followed by the quintessential example of the new breed, Spider-Man. Poor Peter Parker struggled through difficulties at work and at school, with friends, relatives, and girl friends --all complicated by his secret web-slinging activities. Spidey became Lee's most enduring character, and his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 made that title a collector's item that now commands up to $27,500 (my own copy of that comic was stolen at a comics convention by an evil swine).
With higher sales figures, Marvel was able to renegotiate a better deal with Independent News, their distributor. With no more limitation to the amount of titles that could be published, there followed an avalanche of characters and books. After his earlier abortive attempt in 1954, Lee finally successfully resurrected Captain America in The Avengers #4, 1964, and by 1968 the Golden Age great had his title once again (fittingly illustrated by Jack Kirby).Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil, The Avengers, The X-Men were all part of Lee's superhero-creating rampage. Doctor Strange, introduced in 1963, presented just the right blend of mysticism and adventure to capture the interest of the growing counterculture, who enjoyed the psychedelic, hallucinogenic aspects of The Sorcerer Supreme.
Lee also initiated a wave of black superheroes, including The Black Panther, the Falcon, and Luke Cage. By the 1970s Lee had raised the Marvel line to pop-culture status. A cultural icon in his own right, he's lectured at colleges, made media appearances, and held forth from his column "Stan's Soapbox" in the pages of his comics. In 1972 he even appeared at Carnegie Hall in "An Evening with Stan Lee," the same year he became Marvel's publisher.
Six years later, no longer in control of Marvel, Lee moved to California to supervise Marvel's television and film interests, and, by age 77, became Marvel's chairman emeritus, branching out into cyberspace in late 1999 with a new internet-based marketing and licensing company, Stan Lee Media. At that point Marvel itself was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Lee's new venture soon followed suit: the dot-com bubble burst, and by 2001 Stan Lee Media's stock took a nosedive. While taking in just over $1 million in revenue in its short history, the company tore through over $20 million in cash. When Stan Lee Media's stock price made its final plunge to 13 cents on December 18, NASDAQ halted trading of the company's shares. (For a further look at this story, check out Stan Lee Media.)
Lee is not without his detractors and has frequently been accused of claiming too much credit for Marvel's success at Steve Ditko's and Jack Kirby's expense. A great deal of sympathy was rightfully generated for Kirby when Marvel refused to return his original artwork, and Lee has been lambasted for that as well. (There was an attempted face to face reconciliation between Stan and Jack at San Diego Comic-Con in 1986, but the opportunity was derailed when Lee accidentally cut his hand and had to be rushed to the hospital.)
Bearing all that in mind, it still can't be denied that Stan Lee's comic book style of mock irreverence and formulation of the Marvel stable of characters is responsible for not only rescuing the comics field from possible extinction, but for the revitalization of the comics field for the next three decades up until its crash in October 1995!
Hey, and those comics of his were fun to read! 'Nuff said, pilgrims!