For many comic fans, Stan Lee is a larger than life figure. For most of us, he has always been there: writing and promoting comics, providing narration for Marvel cartoons, answering questions via ‘Stan’s soapbox’ and, since the dawn of the Marvel movie age, becoming almost as well known to the general public as are the most popular Marvel heroes. At 91 years of age he remains a fascinating character, a wealthy nonagenarian who has convinced countless generations of comic fans that he is Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy all rolled into one. Yet for all of Stan’s friendly demeanour and self-effacing manner, dissenting voices continue to suggest that there is another, less salubrious side to his personality. The recent settlement between Marvel and the estate of Jack Kirby – one effect of which has been to have Kirby granted prominent co-creator recognition in current Marvel titles – seemed an appropriate time to examine ‘Stan the Man’ and dig a little deeper into the man behind the myth.
Firstly, it can’t be denied that Stan’s achievements in the comic industry are almost unparalleled. In terms of his longevity, in terms of the body of work he has produced, in terms of his role in taking comics out of the ghetto and into the mainstream, there’s undoubtedly a lot to give him credit for. While arguments continue about the extent to which he can take credit for the content of Marvel’s titles during the 1960s, his unique brand of promotion and hucksterism made Marvel impossible to ignore and was a crucial part in the company usurping DC as the number one comics publisher. (You can find more information about Stan’s role in 1960s Marvel here)
While it is easy to list Stan’s achievements, it’s perhaps telling that providing an honest appraisal of his successes and failures feels almost like an act of betrayal. It’s so easy to mock his cornball style of communication, filled with catchphrases, alliteration and hysterical hyperbole, but in addressing his comments directly to the reader he made me – and doubtless many other readers – feel like they had some form of connection with him, privy to a shared knowledge of the glory and wonder of Marvel comics. Indeed, as I compose this article I note with wry amusement that I am genuinely unable to address Stan by anything other than his first name. While my normal practice is to refer to creators by their surnames, my fingers refuse to type anything other than ‘Stan’ to describe him, obviously confident that our ‘relationship’ transcends such formalities.
The elephant in the room that can’t be avoided, however, is a perhaps unavoidable by-product of Stan’s skill at self-promotion, and that is the extent to which he deserves credit for many of the characters, titles and concepts that he is so associated with. The success of 1960s Marvel was built upon the shoulders of Stan, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, yet the latter two still have little name recognition outside comic aficionados. Kirby and Ditko were not shy in expressing their views about Stan after they left Marvel, claiming that he took credit for many of their ideas, happy to perpetuate the idea that he was the sole creator of titles such as The Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man. Stan, for his part, invariably responded that as he was doing so much publicity for Marvel he was frequently identified as the characters’ creator, regardless of what he said. He also reiterated his belief that the person that comes up with the idea for the character is the creator.
This is the contentious point, particularly in a visual medium such as comics. Some years ago, Jonathan Ross produced an entertaining documentary called In search of Steve Ditko, and as part of this he interviewed Stan about the origin of Spider-Man and exactly why he considered himself to be the sole creator. In a sequence that makes uncomfortable viewing, Stan sets out his belief that the creator of a character is the one that had the initial idea as without that idea, that spark, there would be nothing to build upon. The sequence where Ross repeatedly asks Lee to give a straight answer about whether he believes Ditko should be credited as Spider-Man’s co-creator is compelling viewing, notable for the way in which it humanises Stan and chips away at his typical exaggerated persona. Watch it here.
Of course, the creation of characters is only part of the debate. The ‘Marvel method’ of scripting, giving artists a plot or synopsis as opposed to a detailed script, may have arisen due to deadline pressures but as it continued – and as Stan’s faith in his artists grew and the demands on his time increased – plots were occasionally reduced to suggestions (e.g. let’s feature Sandman in this issue), or the artists – particularly Kirby and Ditko – took an increasingly hands-on role in the plotting of their titles. By the time Ditko left Amazing Spider-Man he was receiving a plotting credit in each issue as he became the driving force in directing the stories of the book. Similarly, while evidence clearly show that Stan came up with the concept of the Fantastic Four and initially provided detailed plot summaries, after a few years it was evident that Kirby played an equal, or perhaps even greater part, in shaping the direction of the stories. Famously, Stan has admitted that the first time he saw the Silver Surfer was when he received Kirby’s pencils to dialogue.
There’s little doubt that the quality and invention of the Fantastic Four title dipped after Kirby’s departure, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that Stan was second best in the ideas department. This coincided with a time when Stan was slowly disentangling himself from his comics writing duties as his other duties as executive and PR for Marvel began to become ever more time consuming. Also, it has to be admitted that the last portion of Stan and Jack’s collaboration on the FF felt rather tired, even if only in comparison to the breathless invention of their early years on the title.
After his departure from Marvel, Kirby gave an interview where he famously claimed that he “never saw Stan Lee write anything in his life.” While this is undoubtedly overstated, it doesn’t reflect the fact that Stan’s great strength was his use of dialogue and mood. There’s no denying that from a modern perspective some of the 1960s Marvel comics read as terribly dated and rather corny. However, it’s undeniable that each character had a distinct voice, with the whole package – from dialogue to caption boxes – fizzing with energy.
When it comes down to it, it’s unlikely that any of us will ever discover who deserves credit for what in 1960s Marvel. Jack Kirby has been dead for two decades, Steve Ditko is a recluse and Stan, while still in the public eye, recycles the same old anecdotes with constant reference to his famously bad memory. Even his 2002 autobiography, Excelsior!, revealed little of note. In some ways, perhaps this is for the best. Over the past two years a whole cavalcade of celebrities have been charged with serious offences or linked with unsavoury practices, leaving their fans shocked and bewildered, and it’s likely that any serious challenge to Stan’s integrity would be a bruising revelation for Marvelites everywhere. Hopefully, such concerns are hypothetical. Barring any revelatory new evidence emerging about the creative process in 1960s Marvel, Stan will still maintain a great amount of credit for the creativity and innovation linked with this period. The myth, the legend, The Man lives on.