Frazer Harrison / NPR
"Stan Lee" was a pseudonym. Which is to say: an alter ego. A larger-than-life persona whose identity was that of not-particularly-mild-mannered writer Stanley Martin Lieber.
Stan Lee's origin story lacks the cataclysmic, life-altering trauma suffered by the many heroic characters he co-created. But it's just as relatable, as it's marked by the kind of dashed hopes and frustrated dreams so many of us experience. Lieber dreamed of becoming a novelist – but he took a job as an office boy at Timely Comics, which was owned by his cousin's husband. By the age of 18, he'd been hired as an editor. No matter how he works, he can not find the time to become a member of Stanley Lieber, Great American Novelist, author of high-minded short stories, novels, essays, plays. To keep that possibility alive, he decided to churn out his comics work under the name Stan Lee.
Those novels? They never happened. Stanley Lieber never found the time to write them, because Stan Lee became too busy. The characters and stories he created created – with a lot Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and others – have infiltrated the cultural ether, the very semiotic air of all of us breathe. Around the planet, they are not merely recognized, they are embraced, imitated, argued over. Especially that last thing.
Stan Lee a superhero (a word best read in Lee's punchy Brooklynese: "SOO-puh-HEE-row!"). There's that mild, quiet-desperation origin story, one thing. Plus he was a far more complicated character than even his most nuanced superhero creations. You can not say the guy did not come with a distinctive look, and a set of skills and abilities that he set apart.
So if not a superhero, then surely something akin to one. Consider:
Name: Stan Lee
Secret Identity: Stanley Lieber
Role: Co-creator of a vast, complex and oddly fractious universe of ideas, worlds and (oddly pugnacious) heroes.
Costume: Aviator sunglasses, leisure suit, gold chains, salt-and-pepper sideburns, mustache (Note: This is his 1970s version, the most iconic).
Signature Phrases: "Excelsior!" "Face front, True Believers!" "'Nuff said!"
Skills and Abilities:
Stan Lee, in most cases, came up with the bold strokes. He invited an artist into his office and proceeded to act out the story, hurling his body through the action. He'd leave them to design costumes, and backgrounds and panel-by-panel breakdowns. When they were done, he'd take a look at what they'd drawn (Kirby or Ditko, which differed greatly from the outline) and fill in the dialogue.
He urged them to go bigger, in every panel. Why do they talk when they could shout? Frown when they could cry? Argue when they could brawl? No story, no page, no panel would be wasted on the inessential, the mundane. He told his artists to infuse the stories with big emotions, with metaphors of the size of giants who could eat planets. Timely / Marvel's competitors at DC Comics had their own superheroes, of course, but they were given a sitting around the conference tables and cooperating with one another. As a result, their stories felt staid, tidy. Small.
Stan Lee made superhero comics big.
But Lee was always a company guy – an executive. True, he often petitioned for his bosses to increase artists' rates, but when he came to fire them, he dutifully played hatchet man.
His true talents – the secret to his uncanny success – were closely tied to his company-man understanding of what his audience wanted. In 1961, he did not know that the young children at whom comics had historically been aimed at teens, even young adults. The superheroes of the 1940s were appealed to their childish hopes and whims – to fly! to be the strongest! to be the smartest! – but those were tropes, not conflicts. Note stories.
He knew that readers of superhero comics wanted – needed – to see themselves in their pages, and said readers were now teenagers, that meant that superheroes had to reflect – had to radiate – teenage emotions. In the place of joy, anger, sadness (the emotions of the elementary school playground) he imbued his heroes with angst, jealousy, depression, feelings of inadequacy (the emotions of the high school lunchroom and gymnasium).
They bickered. They wept. They felt crushing guilt. They fought giant cosmic battles.
As a result, they became a sensation.
As did Marvel Comics itself, under Lee's stewardship. He was a tireless marketer, he knew how to transform this new approach to superhero storytelling into something more than just a narrative style – he made it a brand.
He was so very impressed by the fact that he was not a member of the Marvel staffs (" Sparkling Solly Brodsky! Jolly Ol 'Jack Kirby! ") And winking disparagement of DC Comics (which he labeled" Brand Ecch ").
The net effect was not simply to endear himself, and Marvel comics, to readers, but to induce a kind of papal schism of comics publishing. "Make Mine Marvel." It was the first time in the year that we had a chance to make a comeback.
He made readers want to be part of the exciting, tight-knit world of Marvel Comics, and helped accelerate a process that had already begun: the transformation of discrete readers into a network of devotees, of fans into fandom.
Plus, he looked great doing it: The leisure suite, the chains, the mustache, the shades, the California tan. The guy basked in his celebrity, and made sure we knew it.
It's the least surprising thing in the world that gave the world so many modern myths would indulge a penchant for self-mythologizing their respective roles creating those myths.
Lee, as a Marvel executive, was well-compensated for his work. But artists / co-plotters like Kirby and Ditko and others were essentially freelancers who were denied equitable monetary compensation for their contributions. Absence that compensation, or the ability to retain the rights to characters, comics creators prize the notion of legacy. Marvel and DC have been loathe to share.
Lee's history with sharing credit was a spotty one. He'd overstate, then, when challenged (often by Kirby), he'd show contrition and correct the record. He has a public reputation – cemented by his frequent marvel-movie cameo appearances – which is a man who single-handedly created a comic book universe.
He did not. It's a shame that you can not have a birthday party. He became his tireless salesman, its cheerleader, its pusher, its benevolent god-king.
It was not until the next year, and it was terribly sad for us to be true to the mere sight of the guy who could trigger a wistful smile. It was complicated, that smile – it's an upwelling of the man himself, and for the boys we were, back when we'd be reading one of his Bullpen Bulletins and hear his voice – that performatively goofy, hipster-swinger Noo Yawk voice – inviting us into a world that he helped create, but that belonged to us.
We'll hear that voice forever, snapping us to attention with his omnipresent exclamation points:
Face front, True Believers!