Stan Lee. Where do you even start? Seriously.
Growing up as a kid in the 1970s, Stan Lee’s name was in every Marvel comic book I pulled off the Spinner Rack. “Stan Lee Presents…” was at the forefront of every dynamic splash page that opened any Marvel publication. He was a larger-than-life presence, his image drawn into the actual comics, and at times, as a caricature illustrated atop the masthead of his popular “Stan’s Soapbox,” where he wrote about a wide variety of topics outside of comics. Regularly featured in the back pages, Stan’s Soapbox exposed us to his unique voice and personality, inviting us into his personal views on everything from bigotry to racial division. Simply put, he was the personality behind it all. Stan Lee was Marvel Comics. Period.
The comics Stan created with Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby were my favorites and they are the twin pillars that Marvel was built upon. Stan’s tenures on “Spider-Man” and “The Fantastic Four” are two of the greatest, most legendary and most influential in the history of the art form. No matter how big and cosmic the threat our heroes faced, the personal matters were what drove our interest in these characters. Ben Grimm’s torment over his personal appearance as the Thing, or Peter Parker’s concern over the health of his Aunt May, were the aspects of Stan’s characters that made them so relatable. This was what set Stan Lee and Marvel apart from everything else. The industry has been playing catch-up ever since.
I’ll get this out of the way up front: Spider-Man is, for me, Stan Lee’s greatest creation. It’s his most signature achievement. Alongside Mr. Ditko and later John Romita, what they created was pure magic. Peter Parker was the Harry Potter of my generation. We cared about what food he ate, the clothes he wore and whether he could pay the rent as much as we cared about whether he would survive the latest encounter with Dr. Octopus or Green Goblin. The fact that I’m still torn, some 40 years after the fact, between who was the true love of Peter’s life, Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy — that should tell you how resonant Stan’s work was.
Stan would often talk of Shakespeare and explain how comics represented a form of literature equally important to kids as classic plays and sonnets. How many of us found our vocabulary expanded as a result of Stan’s scripts and dialogue? In school, I got my highest marks in English, and I knew it was a direct result of Stan’s writing. How many others can say the same? I repeatedly investigated what a “Hoary Host” could be, or what exactly an “Insolent Mortal” consisted of. Don’t even get me started on the Ultimate Nullifier. Thank you for pushing the boundaries of my youthful learning, Stan. Those hard-fought battles with educators and libraries to carry the Marvel collections yielded countless dividends.
As a child obsessed with all things Marvel, I sat on the edge of my seat as the cartoons and live-action television series started to dominate the air waves. Saturday mornings were filled with Marvel superheroes: Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Woman — even the Thing received his own animated show. On the live-action front, “Spider-Man” on CBS was a big deal if you were a 10-year-old. To my young eyes, it was an absolute thrill seeing my favorite character leap from page to screen. Then “The Incredible Hulk” launched on Friday nights, also on CBS. It was appointment television for everyone my age. Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno were immortalized by that show. I see it on the convention circuit as men my age melt over Lou and pour out their affections over their childhood memories of the series.
This was all by Stan’s brilliant design. You see, having conquered the world of publishing, he was not content to simply tower over the comic book industry from his office high above Manhattan. He felt that Marvel’s characters would best be served on stage and screen, so he headed west to start that process. He even informed us of this fact via Stan’s Soapbox, including us, the readers, in his quest. Within a relatively short period of time, those fruits came to bear. “The Incredible Hulk” was the most successful of those early Hollywood attempts, and Stan would continue to work tirelessly to bring the Marvel universe to life in film throughout the following decades. No matter the benchmark, Stan was never satisfied. It’s what pushed him and it was absolutely infectious. There was always another mountain to scale, another territory to conquer. He was tireless in his efforts.
My first encounter with Stan came at a convention in Los Angeles in the late-1980s. I was a young up-and-comer just starting to work on the line of “X-Men” books that he was also responsible for. Stan was firmly rooted in Los Angeles by now, pursuing his agenda of expanding Marvel’s library into feature films. He was more generous and kind than anyone in his position had any reason to be. We did a panel together and he welcomed me as a peer. I was overwhelmed by his charisma and charm. It was the highlight of my career at that point. A few years later I shared three days filming what would amount to three separate videos for a series focusing on comic book personalities called “The Comic Book Greats.” My peers and I spent long hours with Stan, in front of the camera and behind the scenes. We watched him cut loose sharing tales of his storied career in publishing and entertainment. We even watched as Batman creator Bob Kane ribbed Stan about his own success with Batman as a movie. “You know you’re jealous, Stan,” Bob would say. “You wish you had a character as successful as Batman.” Stan was polite and charming throughout Bob’s insufferable taunting. If only we realized then how fortune would more than favor Stan down the line. It would take only a decade or so to pull even and, some would say, surpass Mr. Kane’s threshold.
My three children have grown up in a world of Stan Lee’s making. As teenagers, they have never known anything other than a culture dominated by Marvel Comics. “Dad, we don’t read as many comics as you, but me and my friends, we’re Marvel movie fans.” My son informed me of this fact as I dropped him off at his 16th birthday celebration where he saw “Captain America: Civil War” with 10 of his friends at our local Imax theater. A Marvel fan has grown up watching the stories I grew up with, transformed and enhanced with technological storytelling my generation could only have dreamed of. Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics have roared to spectacular life on screen for over a decade, dominating the box office and altering Hollywood’s definition of blockbuster filmmaking in the process. As my wife and I were seated at the world premiere of “Black Panther,” she turned and asked me, “Who created Black Panther?” I answered: “We’re still deeply ensconced in Stan Lee and Jack Kirby lore, honey.” Stan had his eye on diversity as much as anyone among his peers, always evolving, changing with the times.
The films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are indeed spectacular, but they come from a very specific playbook written and orchestrated by Stan Lee. The comic books are the road map for the unique superhero pop culture that my son and his friends have adopted as their own. I am so happy that Stan watched it all come to life over the past 10 years. Sometimes I would be fortunate to find myself standing right next to him as he walked the red carpet for one of his latest releases, beaming with pride. His creative spark coupled with his business savvy propelled the Marvel universe far beyond its newsprint origins, and we are all the richer as a result.
Having traveled with Stan extensively these past several years, riding the same convention show circuit and dates, I can tell you from personal experience how much he was energized by the love and affection of the fans. I shared a fairly aggressive series of shows with him, traveling to Cincinnati, New York, L.A., Rhode Island and Boston in successive weeks. I sat with him on long six-hour flights to and from the east coast. I was never more inspired by him than during this period. I gave up my seats to Stan as he didn’t much care for the bulkhead, or swapped meals as I learned we shared a mutual distaste for sour cream. I came to view him as the grandfather we all cherish more than any comic book mega-star. And traveling to meet his fans meant the world to him. As long as he was physically capable, he truly loved bouncing from city to city to do so, no matter the distance. The fans gave him an energy that provided a powerful charge for him, an energy that kept him going deep into his later years. You could watch it carry him and provide an extra skip in his step. That in turn inspired me. How could I not be similarly energized by the enthusiasm and eager spirit put forth by this amazing specimen, some 44 years older than me? I gained newfound respect for Stan at every new port, watching all new generations of fans greet the Walt Disney of their age. He loved every one of you. We should all be so thrilled by what we do.
The mind boggles at all the achievements and work Stan put into his 95 Years. The books will come. Films commemorating his life are probably being greenlit as I write this. I’d suggest a 10-hour maxi-series, and that still might not cover all the ground he did.
Stan, you are legend. You are immortal. Your works will live for ages to come. Thank you for being a genuine “True Believer” and sharing your passion with us all.
Rob Liefeld has been a comic book writer and illustrator for more than 30 years. He is the co-creator of the characters Deadpool and Cable.
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