When I started reading superhero comic books with a fierce devotion, nearly every issue I purchased had the same phrase on the opening page: “STAN LEE PRESENTS.” Stan Lee wasn’t writing many comics by the time I was plunking down my nickels to get the latest installments of altruistic Marvel Comics titans grappling with evildoers to serve and protect the citizenry, nor was he much involved with the day to day of the publishing, having long since ceded editorial responsibilities to eager creative professionals who grew up deeply enamored of the sprawling, interconnected story that truly got underway with Fantastic Four #1, in 1961. But I quickly learned to cherish that promise of distant authorship in the regular credit. The comics may not have held his words any longer, and there were some disputes about how many of the company’s many character could really be viewed as products of his personal invention. I don’t think there’s much doubt — or there wasn’t much for me — that his everlasting spirit defined these rocket blast stories that were colorful, bombastic, and yet grounded in immediately recognizable human behaviors.
Recruited into the company that would become the House of Ideas as a young man, the scribe born Stanley Martin Lieber was one of the rare people who genuinely changed everything about a form of media and, as the influence of the characters he co-created continues to spread, arguably at least a second. The lore holds that Lee was deep into his tenure as a comic book creator — in an era when that didn’t stir a whit of respect — and lamenting his frustrated ambitions, pining for dwindling dreams of typing out the Great American, when his wife, Joan, challenged him. If he was so unfulfilled, write the story he wanted to see in comic book form. The thrown gauntlet roughly converged with his boss’s instruction to take a stab at reviving the discarded superhero part of the line, inspired by the surprising success of DC Comics’ surprise hit Justice League of America.
Working with kingly artist Jack Kirby, Lee co-created The Fantastic Four, a squabbling family of pulchritudinously powered figures who broke all sorts of rules about how superhero character were supposed to work. The innovation the best represents Lee, though, arrived on the third issue, which boasted Fantastic Four was “THE GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE IN THE WORLD!” Revised one issue later to “THE WORLD’S GREATEST COMIC MAGAZINE!,” the howling hyperbole was emblazoned across the title with sincerity for decades to come. Lee was a writer, but he was mostly a showman, enthusing about the comics he created (or created under his imprimatur) with the breathless enthusiasm of the truest of believers. In his rendering, Marvel Comics itself was a character, populated by craftspeople with chummy nicknames and genially squabbling personalities. Every story was promised to be the most thrilling ever witness, every ending a jaw-dropper. The comics on which he was credited as a writer were terrific, but the parallel epic of artisans wrestling miracles out of their pencils were perhaps even more accomplished. To a degree, the comics were fun because Lee convinced us they were.
And Lee admirably used his prominence to advocate for causes on the correct side of history. There was a clear liberal mindset to Lee’s storytelling — exemplified by the civil rights corollary found in the pages of X-Men — but it was quite another think to devote a monthly column ostensibly meant for little more than brisk promotion to directly challenging bigotry and the erosion of respectful discourse.
Digging deep into Lee’s legacy unearths some controversy, particularly around creators’ rights, long a blemish on the comics industry. Although he advocated publicly and passionately for creators, Lee often didn’t do much for them in his many positions of power. It’s an open debate as to whether it’s better or worse that his inaction seemed motivated by obliviousness rather than malice. By most accounts of Marcel’s rise, Lee didn’t understand that his huckster charm had it’s limits, that those left out of the bounty he was raking in might be resentful about their emptier pockets.
Whatever his flaws, Lee was an effusive champion of the zippy comic stories that shaped me and helped define my sensibility as a cultural consumer. He didn’t just help concoct the worlds I loved, he told the world he loved them, too. Even when I saw that enthusiasm as pure salesmanship, it still made me feel validated, like it was a noble calling to be a true believer.