How Stan Lee transformed the comics business

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STAN LEE, who died on November 12th aged 95, was the embodiment of an old-fashioned American archetype: the likeable, industrious hustler, whose enthusiasm for self-advancement was uncorrupted by callousness or cynicism. He was an entrepreneur and an opportunist, a showman, a creative dynamo, and a (sometimes inadvertent) visionary. More than any other individual, he was responsible for turning the comic book, a low-rent pulp art form, into a pop-culture powerhouse. His creations—Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man, Black Panther and Thor, to name a few of his most famous—dominate the film industry, having grossed more than $17bn worldwide.

Mr Lee began his career in the “Golden Age” of comic books. He was hired at 17 by Timely—the company he would later transform into Marvel in the “Silver Age”—to help capitalise on the demand created by DC Comics, the publishers of Superman and Batman. His boss, Martin Goodman, had two maxims on which he based his business operations. One was that if something sold, you should keep doing more of it until the market was saturated. The other: “Fans aren’t interested in quality.”

Mr Lee observed the first dictum, but not the second. In the 1960s, growing disenchanted with the comics business and fearing that Timely would fail, he took his wife Joan’s advice to write as he saw fit. He co-created new or revitalised characters to contribute to the ongoing revival of superhero comics. Until then he had devoted all his formidable energy to two principal objectives—selling more comic books, and selling Stan Lee—and never thought of himself as an auteur, but he somehow became the first of those in comic books. Unable to induce writers to work to his satisfaction, he found himself scripting all the company’s superhero titles.

He proclaimed that his characters were turning around the fortunes of the now-rebranded company, and that they were ushering in the “Marvel Age of Comics”. It was the sort of breathless rhetoric that Mr Lee had spent 20 years delivering in an equally breathless medium in the hope that something would stick. For once, it did; the hype proved true. Under Mr Lee’s editorial guidance the company would become a major rival to DC, and eventually overtake it in popularity.

It scarcely mattered that the narratives he devised were not subtle. He would physically act out his guide to the Marvel style to subordinates, a frenetic performance that became known in the office as “The Stan Lee show”. Yet in tandem with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (and later John Romita) he developed a breed of superhero very different to the austerely virtuous and one-dimensional type then favoured by DC and its followers. Mr Lee’s characters were just that: characters. They had flaws and foibles, vanities and neuroses, backstories and inner lives. They were ordinary people with extraordinary powers. Their double identities often reflected those of their makers: born Stanley Lieber, Mr Lee was one of many Jewish comics creators working under an anglicised name. Both by implication in his stories (in which the visibly different, the outsiders, were heroes), and directly in editorials, Mr Lee advocated for equality and spoke out against prejudice. When news broke of his death, a pro-civil rights column he wrote for Marvel in 1968 was widely circulated online.

Another Stan Lee innovation was to understand comics’ fandom as not merely a market, but a community. He added to his already frenzied schedule by trying to read and reply to all the letters sent by readers, and promoted himself as a friendly, accessible figurehead for Marvel long before creators routinely appeared at comics conventions. He appeared as a character in the strips, and took cameo roles in the many films for which he was an executive producer. After the two fell out, Kirby, his former chief collaborator and one of the great comics artists, viciously caricatured Mr Lee as Funky Flashman, a slick, mercenary charlatan whose sycophantic sidekick, Houseroy, was seemingly based on Roy Thomas, Mr Lee’s protégé and successor as Marvel editor-in-chief.

It is with Mr Thomas that Mr Lee wrote “The Stan Lee Story”, a new volume published by Taschen this month in a limited collector’s edition. The book, which will now serve as a valediction, not only narrates Mr Lee’s life in fascinating detail, but also functions as a lavishly illustrated and comprehensive guide to his medium, a union of popular newspaper strips and cheap pulp fiction. More than that, it is a visual history of the aspects of American life that comic books have reflected, though they have functioned less as a mirror than a prism, offering a strange and wonderful refraction of a nation’s concerns and mores. Mr Lee was at the heart of all this, an endearing, unlikely giant of post-war Americana.

The Stan Lee Story. By Stan Lee and Roy Thomas. Taschen; 444 pages; £1,100 

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