If you were a boy child in America during the later half of the last century, you share a certain commonality. Trading cards with stale gum. The tantilizing promise of "X-Ray Spex" by the Johnson Smith Company. Skateboards.
And Stan Lee.
Born Stanley Lieber in good ol' NYC, he had the good fortune to be born into print. His cousin was the wife of Martin Goodman, owner of the fiesty "Timely Comics" publishing house. With connections like these, the precocious Stanley had no trouble grabbing a spot in the company business at the age of sixteen as a copy writer. Timely was easily the most nepotistic publishing house on the east coast; in three offices, Stanley shared space with Uncle Robby, Founder Martin Goodman, Abe and Dave.
At first, Stanley didn't have too much to do, so he sat in the bullpen and practiced his flute. And practiced and practiced and practiced. He was driving everybody crazy, so they made up some busywork for him. In those days, a periodical needed at least one page of solid text to qualify for second-class mailing privlege. The artists and writers didn't want to do it, there was (at that time) not enough interest to fill a "Letters" page on a steady basis, so they told Stanley to put away the damned flute and write the text page.
Stanley had literary aspirations, and took his newly-acquired position with great sincerity. He took the page about as seriously as I tend to take my columns... with the full knowledge that he'd actually be writing to an equally sparse readership. He was a writer - he wanted to write. Of course, he didn't use his real name; he planned on writing "The Great American Novel" one day, and didn't want anybody to know he actually worked on anything as frivolous as 4-color comic books. Instead, he used the name "Stan Lee," both a play on his first name and a contraction of his full name.
His first work was done with editor Joe Simon in tandem with artist Jack Kirby, the team that created Timely's flagship character, "Captain America." Lieber was fascinated by the pair, especially Kirby, and was crushed when the team pulled up stakes three years later to defect to the rival comic house, "DC Comics." In a three-room office, the loss of that kind of major talent leaves quite a vaccuum, and Timely owner Martin Goodman was skeptical that 20-year old Stan could pick up the reins left by Simon. Stan was sure he could do it, and Goodman gave him the go-ahead to take over as editor-in-chief.
But the comics were falling into a transition zone in the late forties. There were no more Nazis to fight, and the Superhero genre was growing cold. DC held crumbling ground by continuing their Batman/Superman titles; Timely abandoned the wartime "Captain America," and took to graphic horror comics, which was a prosperous move. At the time.
But in 1953, a wound-up psychologist by the name of Fredric Wertham published an inflamatory book called "Seduction of the Innocents," charging comics with turning cherubic tots into slathering perverts and delinquents. It was a tempest in a teapot that culminated in the formation of the Authoritarian "Comics Code Authority." The CCA practically outlawed the horror comic, removing in one fell swoop the majority of the product line of Timely comics. This marked a slow, sure decline that left Timely on the brink of bankrupcy seven years later.
In 1960, Timely renamed itself Marvel, with no noticible change in fortunes. It was going down, and DC seemed to deliver its death blow with a canny marketing ploy. Taking their three major superheroes (Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman) and teaming them with a host of all-new caped wonders, they struck a vein of gold. The Justice League of America enabled DC to spin characters off into new titles, to test market new ideas, and with the three of their top selling heroes in one magazine, managed to increase their sales by a good margin because of the interest in "team-ups." Martin Goodman dispaired, and pointed the finger at Lee.
Come up with a countermove. Or else.
There wasn't much Goodman could put in the threat; if Lee's next idea didn't work, the "or else" would probably be folding up the company.
Well, you could say that Lee had reached a nexus in his life on that day. He had been at Timely/Marvel for twenty years; he was 37 years old. The Great American Novel never arrived. It never even got started. He was a comic hack, and always would be.
Or he'd always be in comic books... but he didn't have to be a hack.
If Goodman wanted superheroes, he'd get superheroes. But these are going to be real guys, with anger and angst and bad days and set-backs. They'll even get their butts whipped a few times, because that's the way life is.
He started with a lady's man, strong and masculine; maybe a little crude and impatient, but basically a good Brooklyn boy. He gains great strength, and is practically invulnerable... but his body turns to a mass of living boulders. No woman would ever look at him again without recoiling in horror. He added a teen. A wise-ass, a hotrodder, a hothead. He didn't follow orders well, he was a maverick out for kicks. He gains the power to fly, to burn the very oxygen around him and focus it into a weapon. How did this happen? A genius of incredible intellect took his best friend, his fiancee and her little brother joyriding in an untested vehicle into an unsafe area of space, and turned them all into freaks. He feels every ounce of weight of his responsibility, and tries desperately to find some way to make them normal again.
And there are your heroes. The Fantastic Four.
The Fantastic Four didn't just reverse Marvel's fortunes - they re-invented the comic book. They never felt so relevent before; never so personal. Lee's superheroes were gods who bled. It goes without saying, sales went through the roof.
Lee's next creation was a monster from the Id. A combination of that unstoppable force that Shakespeare recognized in "The Tempest," and MGM unleashed in the film "Forbidden Planet" took physical form in The Hulk, a man who would morph into an unstoppable monster any time he felt anger or fear. Following shortly came "The X-Men," a group of human mutations with incredible powers that work to save humanity, even as humanity despises, fears and hunts them because of their abilities and difference from themselves. And next, of course, the boy who brought you here today, probably more neurotic and vexed than all the others combined: the nebbish, nerdy, broke loser Peter Parker. The Amazing Spider-Man.
More archetypes followed. The rebirth of Captain America as a lonely, friendless man out of time; The Silver Surfer, in a way an exiled angel doomed to Earth forever; Doctor Strange, the mystic with no sure morality. And with it all, one thing just kept on coming, issue after issue, title after title:
One page of text, and Stan's Soapbox. "Greetings, True Believers!"
He wrote his Great American Novel for us. In four colors and ten thousand chapters. Thanks, Stan. Excelsior!
Stan Lee is the co-creator of a huge number of Marvel's most enduringly popular super heroes and super villains. He joined Marvel as a teenager in 1940 and, except for a three-year stint writing training films and books for the army during World War II, has been head writer, editor-in-chief, art director and once-and-future publisher of Marvel ever since. He lives in Los Angeles where he super-vises the adaptation of Marvel characters into film, television and animation. In addition to launching various new comics projects, Lee continues to write the syndicated Spider-Man newspaper strip and, when fellow Marvelites twist his arm, he scripts an occasional super hero saga.