How Much Of The Marvel Universe Did Stan Lee Really Create? Stan Lee (@Therealstanlee) · Twitter

     

Stan Lee presided over a world of superheroes, but his collaborators and readers sustained his vision—& his characters outlasted it.

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Like Cyclops fighting Magnelớn, or the Thing taking on Galactus, Lee needed a team: he couldn’t vị much by himself.Illustration by Zohar Lazar
In the early nineteen-forties, decades before he was Srã the Man, the impresario of the Marvel Universe, Stanley Martin Lieber fetched coffee, took notes, and sat on desks playing the piccolo—or perhaps the ocarina—in the offices of his uncle’s comic-book company. There, before và after his Army service, và inkhổng lồ the decade that followed, Stanley became one of many typists và scribblers providing copy for word balloons và prose for the books’ filler pages. He was as efficient as his older colleagues at churning out scripts, and already distinguished himself in one way: he put his pen name, Srã Lee, on all his work. He said that he was saving his birth name for a more respectable project, like a novel. Still, if he was going lớn make comics, he wanted credit.

That desire served hlặng well. It also raised big questions about—to lớn use two of Lee’s favorite nouns—power và responsibility, since Lee never created a comic alone. Novelists have editors & publishers. Live-action films require directors and actors. And company-owned superanh hùng comics are plotted, drawn, scripted, và lettered by different people, with creative sầu teams that change over time. To give sầu a full account of Schảy Lee, as Abramê say Riesman sets out to lớn vì in a new biography, “True Believer” (Crown), is khổng lồ contkết thúc not just with his presence in popular culture (the smiling oldster in sunglasses, with a cameo in each Marvel film) but with the fluid nature of artistic collaboration, và so with endless debates over which parts of the comics are his.


And then there’s the cultural dominance that superheroes, especially Marvel ones, have attained. Figures that Lee co-created, or said he created, revived a genre that had been on its last legs, helping khổng lồ launch them from drugstore spinner racks to lớn the screen. Americans who can’t identify Achilles or Botswana know Wakanda as a high-tech nation in Africa, Loki as a Norse god who’s up to lớn no good, & Peter Parker as the original Spider-Man. Even as they dominate popular culture, superheroes—the flawed kind, the weird kind, the kind Marvel pioneered—can stvà for exclusion, for queerness, for disability, for all manner of real or perceived oppression, marshalling enough power khổng lồ blast their enemies inlớn the sun. For decades, the title page of every Marvel superhero comic said “Srã Lee Presents”—no wonder we want khổng lồ know who he really was.

Named for one of Lee’s catchphrases, “True Believer” isn’t the first serious biography of Lee, though it is the first completed since his death, in 2018. It cannot settle every question about what, exactly, Lee did. What it does best is unfurl a Künstlerroman, a story about the growth of an art khung & an artist who was also a director & a leading man, unable to lớn admit that the show could go on without hlặng.

Stanley Martin Lieber was born in 1922, the first child of Romanian Jewish immigrants in Manhattan; his father was a garment cutter & his mother was a department-store saleswoman. His younger brother, Larry, arrived nine years later. As unassuming as Schảy was self-promoting, Larry worked with—or, really, worked for—Stan in comics, off và on, for most of the century. At DeWitt Clinton High School, in the Bronx (a few years ahead of James Baldwin), Stanley showed verbal skill và a performer’s ambition. When he noticed a classmate with a knachồng for extempore speaking, he was inspired. “I decided that I wanted lớn be able to speak that way, to lớn be able to hold the attention of an audience,” he recalled years later.

Had he grown up elsewhere, Lee might have sầu fled to lớn Hollywood. Instead, as a teen-ager, he took an entry-level job at Timely, his uncle Martin Goodman’s firm, where Jack Kirby, Joe Sitháng, Bill Everett, & Carl Burgos were assembling stories about a cantankerous Prince of Atlantis named Namor; his android nemesis, the original Human Torch; & a blond, Nazi-punching guy called Captain America. Lee started out “erasing the pencils off the inked artwork,” as Simon recalled, but soon he was writing, too, not least because postal regulations made comics cheaper khổng lồ mail if they contained prose, any prose. The 1941 story “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” was the first lớn bear the name Stung Lee. Sitháng, who assigned the story, later remarked, “I made his life.”


The Timely business mã sản phẩm emphasized quantity over unique, trkết thúc chasing over trend creating, and Lee quickly proved that he could serve the mã sản phẩm. He displayed a spectacular ability lớn meet deadlines, scripting comics for Timely artists—Kirby aước ao them—khổng lồ draw. Goodman soon named hyên ổn editor of the comics operation. The Second World War might have sầu derailed hyên, except that when Lee enlisted he was assigned to the so-called playwriting division at Fort Monmouth, in New Jersey, where he wrote training films for soldiers & kept writing comics for Timely. After the war, he returned lớn the company, & to lớn self-promotion. In 1947, he self-published a short, hype-filled book called “Secrets Behind the Comics.” That year, he met the English model Joan Boocochồng, who divorced her husb& to lớn marry Srã. The pair—by all accounts happy & well matched—settled cozily in Long Island suburbia, where they had a daughter, Joan Celia, known as J.C. Local newspaper accounts of their swank pool parties vày not mention Stan’s comics at all.

Comic books lượt thích the ones Goodman published didn’t amount to much in nineteen-fifties America. Some newspaper comic strips, such as Walternative text Kelly’s “Pogo,” enjoyed highbrow followings, but staple-bound serials were for children, or those clinging lớn childhood. (In Phyllis McGinley’s perfect 1952 poem, “Portrait of Girl with Comic Book,” the comic book becomes a talisman of that painful age, thirteen.) When more ambitious but sometimes violent stories entered the market, a moral panic—spurred, in part, by the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s jeremiad “Seduction of the Innocent”—prompted congressional hearings, and the comic-book industry turned khổng lồ self-policing. At Timely, Lee cranked out scripts for the genres allowed under the 1954 Comics Code: romances & Westerns and, especially, science fiction. Lee did not, in those years, write superheroes: much reduced from their wartime prime, they earned little money for anyone except DC Comics, the trang chủ of Superman. By the end of the decade, DC had found success in rebooting old heroes, lượt thích the Flash, & combining them inkhổng lồ new teams, like the Justice League of America.

Lee became the editor-in-chief of a company—now called Atlas—that was going nowhere fast. In a humiliating giảm giá in 1957, DC, the company’s rival, had become its de-facto distributor, và Goodman and Lee were confined khổng lồ eight newsstvà titles a month. Flooding the zone would no longer work. Instead, they cut expenses & experimented with new stories that might hook readers. The answer turned out lớn be superheroes with, as Lee liked to lớn say later, “feet of clay”: squabbling families, lượt thích the Fantastic Four (1961); teens animated by angst, regret, và rotten luchồng, lượt thích Spider-Man (1962); delightfully pretentious renovations of ancient myth, like the mighty Thor (1962). Before long, Lee and Goodman branded the comics line with a new name: Marvel.


In what became known as the Marvel Method—not because Lee invented it (he did not) but because he preferred it—he and an artist would start out by chatting, perhaps making notes. The artist would draw the story và flesh out the plot, & Lee would add captions & dialogue. The method suited artists like the energetic veteran Kirby, known for his dynamic action và far-out costumes, và the moody Steve Ditko, who cooked up sullen characters và mysterious semi-Expressionist backgrounds. Kirby originated the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, và the X-Men. Ditko drew Spider-Man and Dr. Strange. Other early pencillers were asked lớn imitate Kirby’s style, while Kirby himself worked at a Stakhanovite pace: almost twelve hundred pages in one year. (As Kirby’s biographer put it, Kirby was “very, very good at creating comic book art & very, very bad at getting paid for it.”)

Lee’s dialogue revealed his need for attention, which some of his superheroes shared. In one sequence, Captain America, after a long absence, is discovered by a teary police officer: “All these years—all of us—your fans—all your admirers—we thought you were dead! But you’ve come back—just when the world has need of such a man—just like fate planned it this way! Forgive me, Cap, willya? I—I seem lớn have something in my eye!” Tearjerkers, love sầu triangles, & money troubles sustained one Marvel plot after another, in between all the clobberings. In Fantastic Four No. 45 (“Among muốn Us Hide . . . the Inhumans!”), Sue Storm pulls a blanket tenderly over an unconscious humanoid whose huge gray head resembles a dinosaur’s. “Despite his great strength,” Sue tells her husbvà, “he seems khổng lồ need kindness & protection!” Ben Grimm, a pilot turned by cosmic radiation inkhổng lồ the Thing, sees the tableau & frowns: “That’s the way Alicia”—his girlfriend—“must feel about me, too! It can’t be love! It’s just pity! The pity of beauty . . . for a beast!” The monstrous visages were Kirby’s doing.

The comics became hits—with kids, & then with older teens & college students, too. They had no highbrow baggage, no Great Tradition that a counterculture would feel any need lớn repudiate. They tried, if awkwardly, lớn reflect generational conflict, giving power lớn young people (lượt thích Spider-Man và the X-Men) & “ugly” outsiders (like Ben Grimm). They were cheap và easy to nói qua, but without the square everywhereness of TV & radio: you could flaunt your devotion lớn comic books, or conceal it. And they didn’t take long to lớn read.

Comics of the Silver Age—as collectors Gọi this era—could never be described as realistic, but they did take place in a world more lượt thích ours than the universe of older cape comics. Ben Grimm hated his rocklượt thích toàn thân. Bruce Banner feared the Hulk’s rage. Spider-Man could not have come to such vivid life without the iconic buildings of Thành Phố New York to lớn climb. The original X-Men, advertised as “the most unusual teenagers of all time,” may not have been fashion forward, but they did bring youth culture lớn their punch-ups. Before they’re attacked by the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in issue No. 6, they hang “at a Greenwich Village coffee siêu thị,” where the unsophisticated Iceman says lớn the intellectual Beast, “How about that jazz full bộ, Hank? It’s so far out that they’ll be fired if anyone can underst& the melody!”


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“I can never tell if I’m allowing independent play or just ignoring her.”
To live in the world of the X-Men, moreover, was to lớn live in the larger Marvel Universe: footnotes in Uncanny X-Men No. 6, “Sub-Mariner Joins the Evil Mutants!,” directed readers to lớn Fantastic Four No. 27 & Avengers No. 3. Lee and Kirby và their co-workers devised what Riesman calls “a massive latticework of stories,” in which any character could meet any other; fans could project themselves into it, too.

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In 1965, the Village Voice published a rapturous piece about Marvel. “College students interpret Marvel Comics. . . . Beatniks read them,” Sally Kempton wrote. “I myself was deeply in love sầu with a Marvel hero-villain for two whole weeks. The fact is that Marvel Comics are the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved.” As more coverage followed Kempton’s swoon, Lee became the face of the company. No one could stop him: he had some say over who got credit and who got paid. Most creators in the industry—including Kirby & Ditko—were freelancers, doing what the law calls “work for hire.” It’s clear that Kirby drew the pictures và Lee wrote the words. What they later disputed, in decades of interviews and litigation, was who came up with characters và plot. Cognoscenti give sầu Kirby more kudos than casual fans vì, và more than they give sầu Lee, especially after a vitriolic custody fight, in the nineteen-eighties, between Marvel và Kirby over his original art. As the sixties wore on, Riesman summarizes, “Schảy went out of his way to praise Kirby,” but not to raise his rates. Kirby later concocted, for his DC series Mister Miracle, a harshly satirical picture of Lee as the ever-smiling, sleazy entrepreneur Funky Flashman, prone to grandiloquent pronouncements (“I know my words drive people into lớn a frenzy of adoration!”).

There is no single word for the role that Lee played in building Marvel’s “massive sầu latticework,” nor is there, even now, consensus about how he played it. Chris Claremont started working at Marvel as a teen-ager, in the late sixties, then wrote Uncanny X-Men continuously from 1975 to 1991. He recalls a figure “good as an editor, equally good as a manager, equally good as inspiration.” Artists and writers whom Lee would have sầu regarded as his juniors generally paint hyên ổn in the sixties as bombastic but kind, reliable, fun to work with.


Auteur models of artistic creation—Emily Dickinson alone at her desk—have sầu little room for such an encourager & organizer. Perhaps above sầu all, Lee was a grvà self-mythologizer. As Riesman writes, one of his canniest bursts of creativity was inventing “a character khổng lồ play named Stan Lee.” His ability to impress strangers, and khổng lồ believe sầu his own tall tales, suggests comparisons khổng lồ Ronald Reagan. He claimed to lớn have won public debates with Fredric Wertham mê baông xã when Lee was too obscure lớn have sầu merited Wertham’s attention; Riesman concludes that they never happened.

More generous observers might compare Lee khổng lồ an orchestra conductor, coaxing talent from others. Toward the over of the so-called Silver Age, Lee was less writer than coördinator & door-opener, allowing an artist like Jim Steranko, whose panels recalled psychedelic roông chồng posters and Op art, lớn conquer the once boxy visual medium. Like Cyclops fighting Magnekhổng lồ, or the Thing taking on Galactus, Lee needed a team: he couldn’t vị much by himself.

The team, of course, wasn’t the same without hlặng. In 1972, Lee left the day-to-day supervision of Marvel Comics, facilitating his own promotion to lớn “president và publisher.” As Sean Howe showed in “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” (2012), the company in the early seventies was delightful, idiosyncratic, creatively fertile, but internally disorganized & economically shaky, running through five editors-in-chief in the five years after Lee left. Only lucky breaks from licensed properties (the rock b& Kiss, and “Star Wars”) kept Marvel afloat until another editor-in-chief, the widely despised Jyên Shooter, stabilized the ship.

The industry that Lee had left behind was always changing. In the eighties & nineties, comic books were moving from drugstores lớn specialty shops, a shift that encouraged creators to lớn write for what the comics critic Douglas Wolk calls “super-readers,” devoted fans who knew the decades-long backstories. Fans like that could impede change, seeking out only what they already knew they loved; as collectors, they could also generate boom-and-bust cycles, lượt thích the one that almost crushed Marvel again, in the mid-nineties. On the other hand, creators working in these later years could count on long-term emotional investment in changing characters, rounding out figures in what once seemed the flatdemo of truyền thông. These characters, such as Ben Grimilimet and Sue Storm, lasted beyond the generation of artists who produced them & readers who consumed them: they had room and time khổng lồ grow.

Few will read Riesman’s biography principally for its account of Lee’s last decades, but no responsible narrative sầu could sklặng over them. After 1972, Lee spent the rest of his life as the ebullient face of a medium to which he had nearly stopped contributing. He tried repeatedly lớn succeed in Hollywood, with Marvel properties or with his own new ideas. Producers took meetings—who wouldn’t meet Stan Lee?—but few live-action films, and no hits, got made. The TV show “The Incredible Hulk,” with Lou Ferrigno, ran from 1977 lớn 1982, and there were several bursts of Saturday-morning cartoons (lucrative sầu, though unsatisfying to Lee), but that was as good as it got. In 1998, at seventy-five sầu, Lee gave sầu up his remaining rights in Marvel properties in exchange for a high-six-figure retainer and a cut of film & TV profits. But he might have felt that he missed out. In 2000, “X-Men” became the first global hit film from a Marvel franchise (though the X-characters had been licensed khổng lồ Fox to lớn raise cash in Marvel’s lean years). The Marvel Cinematic Universe took off with “Iron Man” (2008), spawning a succession of blockbusters. Lee’s own later pitches were less Peter Parker & more cut-rate Hugh Hefner: a superheroine called the Femizon, và one named Stripperella; “A One Hour Erotic kích hoạt Series” for TV.

The twenty-first-century Lee could have simply retired. Instead, he seems to lớn have sầu wanted to lớn stay relevant, even though he no longer had the team or the skills. Srã và Joan Lee grew cchiến bại to lớn a serial bé man named Peter Paul, who orchestrated an Internet-boom-era fraud around a new venture, Schảy Lee Media, fronted by Lee. It launched a few clunky Web series—one starred the Backstreet Boys—and then effectively morphed into a multimillion-dollar self-dealing và check-kiting scheme before folding. In 2001, Interpol arrested Paul in Brazil. And then Lee did it again, or let it be done lớn him. As Riesman recounts, the successor to Stung Lee Media, POW! Entertainment, was “a largely criminal enterprise,” promising Lee-based works that never appeared. Schảy the Man was never charged with a crime.

To justify his get-rich-quichồng efforts, Lee cited Joan’s luxurious tastes & J.C.’s needs. Riesman describes a volatile relationship between father & daughter, with ugly fights recurring in Lee’s final years. A knot of new caretakers và hangers-on formed around him, including the collectibles entrepreneur Keya Morgan. After Lee died, at ninety-five, the disputes continued: over the estate, which J.C. inherited; over alleged elder abuse by Morgan (he pleaded not guilty); and, less credibly, over alleged sexual abuse by Lee. No one comes off well, & J.C. và Morgan worst of all. “He knew that people depended on hyên ổn for a living,” one late-life associate said of Lee. “He was a generous, trusting man.” Even in his last months, he could be the center of attention, a well-meaning spider in his unlucky website.

If Lee’s life deteriorated into lớn fraud và feud, his legacy has come lớn seem only more enduring. The cast of characters that Lee và a clique of almost entirely white guys created has gained cultural và commercial superpower, animating stories và authors and fans in ways that they could never have sầu foreseen.

In Lee’s X-Men, Jean Grey was The Girl, the fairer sex, the weakest link (many of the women in Lee’s books were, alas, The Girl); but in Chris Claremont’s X-books she became the cosmic center of the Dark Phoenix saga, burning down a patriarchal world. Kirby and Lee introduced Blaông chồng Panther in Fantastic Four, in 1966, but he could not come cthảm bại lớn the T’Challa of Chadwichồng Boseman’s screen portrayal until others (especially Ta-Nehimê mẩn Coates and Brian Stelfreeze, beginning in 2016) wrote & drew hyên ổn. Peter Parker’s teen angst laid the groundwork for the internal divisions of such later young heroes as Kamala Khan, the current Ms. Marvel, defender of Jersey City, committed both khổng lồ her Musllặng faith and khổng lồ the role models that older heroes provide (she writes fan fiction about the Avengers). Notably, neither the Blaông chồng Panther nor the Ms. Marvel character was reinvented by white men. The writer G. Willow Wilson, the artist Adrian Alphomãng cầu, and the editor Samãng cầu Amanat modelled Kamala partly on Amanat’s immigrant childhood.

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These figures, too, live sầu in the latticework that Lee & Kirby và the rest began, seesawing between personal dramas and cosmic dilemmas. Something big và scary is always on the horizon in a well-made Marvel comic, new or old. If the power fantasies, the high stakes, & the uncertainty about what comes next brand superanh hùng plots as quintessentially adolescent, perhaps—with our tenuous futures, our need for new forms of community, our day-to-day fears about climate và justice & medicine—we are all adolescent now.