I was saddened to read of the death of Stan Lee yesterday. Lee, who died at the ripe old age of 95, was the driving force behind Marvel Comics and the creator of countless characters — good guys and bad guys both.
During my teenage years I was a huge fan of superhero comics. (They weren’t called “graphic novels” back in those days.) There were DC Comics — home to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — and Marvel Comics. DC was the established brand, with by-the-book heroes who were red, white and blue, fought the bad guys, and won; Marvel was the feisty challenger that featured characters who struggled and at least seemed aware of some of the challenges of real life. Most comics readers of that day stayed true to one brand or another. I was a Marvel guy, and ate up the characters created by Stan Lee — with the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the X-Men being my favorites. I read the new issues as they came out and hunted around Columbus trying to find old issues so I could read through the back stories and fill out my collection. Eventually I had a decent collection, but as I got older and we started a family I found that I had less time for old friends like Reed Richards and Peter Parker, and the collection got sold.
The interesting thing about Lee is the astonishing amount of his output, and his genius at coming up with new superheroes and supervillains. For a time during the ’60s, he was the principal writer for multiple titles for Marvel, including flagship vehicles like The Fantastic Four and The Avengers. He came up with dozens and dozens of great hero characters like The Thing, great villains like Dr. Octopus, and — even more interesting — other characters like Galactus who were neither good nor bad in their intentions to humanity, but just living their lives in the cosmos, even if it meant that they needed to devour worlds to keep going. Lee and his artists — Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who had dramatically different styles, were my favorites — had an assembly-line approach that required them to write and draw on a virtual around-the-clock basis to bring out new comics every month. Somehow they did it, and it is astonishing that they were able to avoid schlock and produce high-quality issues month after month. Lee’s work during the ’60s was one of those periods of great artistic outburst that become the stuff of legend.
Stan Lee later became known for self-promotion and cheesy cameos in the countless Marvel movies, and he ended up fighting with his fellow creator Jack Kirby about who was responsible for creating what back in those early, glory days of Marvel Comics. His story confirms, once again, that creative people aren’t perfect — they’re people. But his later actions can’t take away what he did during the ’60s, and what the characters he created meant for comic book readers like me. RIP, Stan Lee.