Stan Lee was probably the first writer I remember knowing by name as a kid. Even in the late 1970s, when he wasn’t writing Marvel Comics any more, his name was a talisman on everything they published. “STAN LEE PRESENTS” felt like a stamp of Mighty Marvel authenticity, like a key to a secret clubhouse.
If Stan was presenting it, it had to be fun, right?
He was 95, he was in ill health, but still, it’s hard to believe Stan Lee is gone now. He’s been there for my entire reading lifetime. With the death of Steve Ditko earlier this year, it feels like a curtain has been drawn over Marvel Comics’ greatest age.
My first real deep dive into Stan Lee’s own writing came when Marvel Tales, a reprint mag, began running the original Lee/Steve Ditko issues of Amazing Spider-Man from the beginning in 1982. I’d never read them before, and while my pre-teen eyes took a while to get used to Ditko’s more primitive-feeling artwork, I was sucked in to the stories as Spider-Man fought Dr. Doom! Met the Lizard! Battled Doctor Octopus and the Living Brain! Reading these marvellous tales, I realised what all the fuss about “Stan Lee Presents” was really about.
There’ll be a lot of hot takes about Stan’s legacy in coming days, some of which will probably write him off as an overrated wordsmith. But as much as I love Jack Kirby and Ditko, all you have to do is consider their later work without Stan’s touch added – Kirby, fantastic and imaginative yet rarely tethered to earth, or Ditko, surreal and stark yet emotionally ice cold. Combined together, Lee and his collaborators during Marvel’s golden age of the 1960s launched entire cosmologies and a million dreams.
If you want to really examine the seismic effect Stan Lee had on comic book storytelling, read one of DC Comics’ musty early Justice League of America issues from around the same time the Fantastic Four launched. While they’re charming enough, the stiff, military-precise characters are interchangeable and conflict is nonexistent. They fight crime with a smile and brisk efficiency.
Compare that to the Fantastic Four, who in their very first issue are transformed by cosmic rays into superheroes – and immediately start brawling and beating the heck out of each other. They felt alive, in a way that the smiling Justice League didn’t quite seem to be in those days.
Each of the Marvel heroes was flawed in some crucial way – Spider-Man, hobbled by guilt; Hulk, a man turned monster; Iron Man, literally heart-broken thanks to an injury; Captain America, trapped out of time; the mutant X-Men, hunted by humanity.
Lee had already spent decades working in comics before the great creative flowering of 1961 led to the Fantastic Four and so many others. He often said he felt this was his last chance in comics, and so he wrote the stories he wanted to see. He loosened up something crucial in comics storytelling that was rapidly aped by everyone else in the industry.
He was also a huckster, a pitchman PT Barnum would be proud of, a grinning mustached ambassador for comics right till the end, appearing in cheeseball cameos in multimillion-dollar movies forged out of his works. That alchemy propelled Marvel to dominate the comics world starting in the 1970s and really, right until this day – Lee sold himself shamelessly, sometimes embarrassingly, and his final days were marked by an unpleasant feeling that he was being sorely taken advantage of.
But a salesman can still be an artist. Thanks Stan, for everything.