A marvel of the ages

Lee's comicbook revolution still resonates in print and on screen

The term “revolutionary” gets thrown around too cavalierly in cultural discussions. Yet despite Stan Lee’s renowned fondness for hyperbole, that’s precisely what Marvel Comics achieved in the 1960s, inaugurating a brand of four-color storytelling that leapt off comicbook pages and eventually onto movie and TV screens.

In those years, Lee and the Marvel bullpen invited a generation of kids, teens and young men to feel as if they belonged to what he cheekily dubbed “the Merry Marvel Marching Society,” establishing a rapport with readers who somehow came to feel they were part of the gang.

Director Reginald Hudlin, one of many current filmmakers weaned on the Marvel universe, likens Lee’s achievement as the company’s editor and writer — teaming with artists such as “Spider-Man’s” Steve Ditko and particularly Jack Kirby — to the Beatles’ impact on popular music.

“Look, how long was the Beatles’ career really?” Hudlin says. “A group of people gets together, and they bang out a body of work that resonates for decades.”

From 1961-65, within the era known as the Silver Age of comics, Marvel delivered a dazzling assortment of characters that would pass into the cultural lexicon: Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Avengers, Iron Man, the X-Men, Thor and, first and foremost, the Fantastic Four.

As Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon note in the book “Stan Lee, and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book,” during that window “a universe of pop culture was brought to life on Jack Kirby’s drawing table,” sparking nothing less than a comicbook revolution.

Recalling that period, Lee says, “It was like we couldn’t do anything wrong. We just made comics different than they had always been,” juxtaposing wild fantasy elements with “as much reality as I could put in the stories. Nobody had treated superheroes that way before.”

Part of the shift was logistical. Under a system born largely out of necessity due to Lee’s workload, he dispensed with the standard detailed scripts and presented illustrators a synopsis that allowed them to construct pages — and fully bring their storytelling skills to bear — with Lee adding dialogue later. This afforded Kirby and Ditko what Spurgeon and Raphael describe as “incredibly wide latitude” by changing the way writers and artists collaborated.

The more significant innovation, however, was stylistic, as Marvel characters grappled with personal foibles that related to the comics audience in a different way, attracting more sophisticated readers. The Fantastic Four bickered, the Hulk was tormented, and Spider-Man and the mutant X-Men constantly wrestled with teen angst, including feelings of being different — a highly identifiable problem, as anyone visiting a comicbook convention can attest.

“Marvel took what the standard superhero concept was and put it on its head,” says Sam Register, senior VP of original animation at Cartoon Network. “Marvel took comics out of the hands of just kids and started putting them in the hands of older kids and young adults. … When the guys in the ties step back and let creators be creative, wonderful things happen.”

Lee thus instilled Marvel with a cool factor that made kids feel smart while enticing young adults. He resisted the temptation to talk down to readers and evoked the sense of a fun-loving Marvel gang (down to nicknames like Smilin’ Stan and Jolly Jack) — an affable extended fraternity, in stark contrast to DC Comics’ more staid stable of heroes.

“Stan’s revolutionary breakthrough was to introduce complex psychology to comics,” Hudlin says. “If Superman was our ideal, Spider-Man was all of our neuroses.”

Long treated shabbily by Hollywood, the superhero genre changed significantly with Tim Burton’s 1989 adaptation of DC Comics’ “Batman,” departing from the campy TV version that defined the character in the 1960s. Technological advances have since offered the ability to bring what were once cost-prohibitive concepts to the screen, though computer wizardry hasn’t always solved the matter of breathing life into characters in a manner that pleases the masses without alienating the faithful.

A less tangible aspect of Marvel’s matriculation beyond the printed page involves its influence on filmmakers and studio execs that feel an abiding passion for comics, causing them to seep into other popular entertainment beyond the direct adaptations. In addition to Hudlin, directors such as Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino and Chris Columbus have cited Marvel as a source of creative inspiration, as has “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon.

Lee’s own personality, too, is a central part of this legacy. Even after his hands-on role diminished, he remained an ambassador for the comics industry, touring college campuses and carrying the message that reading them needn’t be a closeted pastime.

Having seen Marvel titles mangled in the past, the success of “Spider-Man” and its sequel represent perhaps the ultimate validation of Marvel as cultural touchstone. Aficionados, in fact, will notice various images transplanted almost directly from the comics into the latest film — including Peter Parker walking away from his discarded costume, approximating issue No. 50 of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” published in 1967. Director Sam Raimi was 7 years old.

“You can imagine how gratifying that is,” says Lee, adding in regard to being compared to the Beatles, “They were pretty good, too.”

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