Still a Marvel!

The Hulk
Image credit: The Hulk: ILM

Stanley Martin Lieber was born in New York on Dec. 28, 1922, the first son of a Romanian immigrant couple, Jack, a dress cutter, and Celia, a homemaker. Initially, the family lived on Manhattan's tony West End Avenue, but once the Depression hit, economics forced Jack to move his brood (soon to include a second son, Larry, born in 1931) to more affordable digs in the far reaches of upper Manhattan.

As a means of escape, young Stanley became a rabid reader. Series like the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift were early favorites, as were the novels of Leo Edwards, an obscure writer of boys' adventure stories whose work Stan was partial to. In due course, Stan worked his way through Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, and H.G. Wells, before moving on to Poe, Dickens, and Shakespeare. Once the love of language was kindled in him, becoming a writer was the logical next step. He entered a writing contest for high school students sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune and won first prize three weeks in a row. At 16, he took a part-time gig penning obits for a wire service -- a job he eventually quit because the work depressed him.

After graduating from the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School in 1939, the 17-year-old Stan got a tip from a relative about a job opening at a midtown publishing company. The firm, Timely, happened to be owned by Stan's cousin-in-law Martin Goodman. Stan applied for a job and was hired as a gofer for eight dollars a week.

Timely published a variety of pulp magazines and, spurred on by the success of Superman, had recently started producing comic books, then still in their infancy. Stan found himself assigned to the comics division, running errands for the writer-artist team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, the creators of Captain America. As Timely began producing more and more comic books, Stan was given the chance to start writing some strips himself, largely because, as he put it, ''I knew the difference between a declarative sentence and a baseball bat.'' Convinced he would one day give birth to the Great American Novel, Stan signed his efforts with a series of amusingly transparent pseudonyms -- including Neel Nats and S.T. Anley -- of which ''Stan Lee'' would prove the most enduring (he would ultimately make it his legal name).

When Simon and Kirby left Timely in 1941, the 18-year-old Lee was named editor. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, but aside from a stint in the Army from 1942 to '45 (where he saw no action but was, naturally, given a writing gig), Lee would hold the position for more than three decades.

Curiously, few comics fans talk much about Lee's pre-'60s work, and Lee himself doesn't hold it in particularly high esteem. ''I was the ultimate hack,'' he says with a laugh. ''I was probably the hackiest hack that ever lived. I wrote whatever they told me to write the way they told me to write it. It didn't matter: War stories, crime, Westerns, horror, humor; I wrote everything.''

As the '60s dawned, Lee found himself staring a bona fide midlife crisis in the eye. What the hell kind of job was writing comics for a man pushing 40, anyway, he asked himself. Increasingly, he felt stifled by Goodman's insistence that comics be written as simply as possible for a juvenile audience, with words of more than two syllables all but banned.

Lee had already decided to quit when two things happened that would forever alter his destiny: Goodman played a game of golf with National Periodicals publisher Jack Liebowitz (who would change his company's name to DC in 1976), and Lee had a talk with his wife.

It was during that fateful 1961 golf game that Liebowitz let it slip that a new comic, ''Justice League of America,'' which featured a superteam consisting of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and others, was shaping up to be a strong seller. Always quick to hop on a trend, Goodman asked Lee to create a similar team.

Lee had already told Joan he was quitting, and he had her blessing. However, she asked him to do her -- and himself -- one final favor: Go out on a high note. ''She said, 'Why don't you just do one last book the way YOU want to do it?''' says Lee. '''You want to quit anyway, so if your publisher gets angry and fires you, what's the difference?'''

The idea appealed to Lee, who decided he would write a comic that wouldn't condescend to the reader. In 1961, he came up with The Fantastic Four, a team of astronauts who gained their superpowers after being bombarded by cosmic rays. He worked hard to render each character a distinct individual: Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), the brilliant, elastic scientist; Sue Storm (The Invisible Girl), Richards' feisty gal pal; Johnny Storm (The Human Torch), Sue's hotheaded younger brother; and the tragic Ben Grimm, the orange-skinned man-turned-gargoyle called The Thing. He enlisted his top artist, Jack ''King'' Kirby, who had returned to the company a few years prior. ''I figured 'The Fantastic Four' would be my swan song,'' says Lee. ''I had no idea it would catch on the way it did.''

As it turned out, the first issue of ''The Fantastic Four'' would change Lee's life -- and the comics industry -- forever. Enthusiastic fan mail began to pour in, and sales figures for that first issue exceeded all expectations. The book was such a hit that, beginning with ''The Fantastic Four'' No. 4, a rejuvenated Lee started plastering the tag line ''The World's Greatest Comic Magazine!'' on the cover of each issue. No one argued with him.

The success of ''The Fantastic Four'' opened a floodgate of creativity, and soon Lee's newly emancipated imagination was bubbling with fresh ideas for original titles. Joan Lee remembers that ''the characters just ran through Stan's mind like crazy, one after the other: The Hulk, Spider-Man, the X-Men, Thor, Daredevil, Sgt. Fury, Dr. Strange, and all the rest. It was a fantastic period.''

To signal the new aesthetic direction, Lee talked Goodman into renaming the company Marvel Comics. He started a fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society, and came up with a marketing slogan: ''Make Mine Marvel!'' But Lee's real secret weapon may have been his colloquial, jokey editorial voice, which was evident on every page of a Marvel book. ''We might have a sound effect like 'SHA-BOOM,' and I'd put an asterisk next to it and write a caption saying 'The second 'o' is silent, of course,''' says Lee. ''I wanted the reader to feel that we were all friends, that we were sharing some private fun that the outside world wasn't aware of.... There must have been something in the air at that time. It was like I couldn't do anything wrong.''

''Stan is up there with Walt Disney and George Lucas,'' says writer-director Kevin Smith (''Dogma''), who has worked for both Marvel and DC. ''The man's created -- or cocreated, as he's always quick to point out -- so many characters that have defined superheroics and comics over the last 50-plus years, he should be ensconced in that pantheon of great American creators whose art has left an indelible mark on not just our culture but the world.''

By 1966, Marvel was receiving between 200 and 500 fan letters a day; by '68 it was selling some 50 million comics a year. Marvelmania was rampant. Yet there were some dramatic plot twists still to come in the life of Stan the Man.

The first sign of trouble had come when Steve Ditko, the artist who drew Spider-Man and Dr. Strange (and cocreated Spider-Man with Lee), abruptly quit in 1966. Relations between Lee and Ditko had deteriorated to the point where they weren't speaking to one another; art and editorial changes were handled through intermediaries. Thirty-seven years later, Lee professes that he still doesn't understand why the rift between them sprang up, or why Ditko left. ''I never really knew Steve on a personal level,'' says Lee. For his part, the reclusive Ditko, who still lives and works in New York, continues to maintain a monklike silence, shunning the press. Says his nephew, an artist also named Steve Ditko: ''My uncle prefers to let his work speak for him.''

Spider-Man, then Marvel's flagship character, survived Ditko's departure (artist John Romita took over the book), but Marveldom was shaken to the core when Jack Kirby defected to DC in 1970. Kirby, who died in 1994, was -- and is -- widely considered the most important comic-book artist of all time, and his larger-than-life style had been an integral part of Marvel's success. To the faithful, the dissolution of the Lee/Kirby partnership was a cataclysmic event, akin to the breakup of the Beatles.

Kirby eventually returned to Marvel in 1975, but things were never quite the same. In 1979, he left for good, and became embroiled in a protracted battle with Marvel for the return of his original artwork, which was worth a pretty penny in collectors' circles. In later years, an embittered Kirby began claiming to have singlehandedly created practically every major Marvel character from The Fantastic Four to Spider-Man: ''...it was I who brought the ideas to Stan,'' he told The Comics Journal in 1990.

Lee has always admitted that the system he developed for producing comics -- dubbed the Marvel Method -- gave his artists a great deal of creative latitude. Because of the number of books he was writing -- at least 12 monthly titles, by his estimation -- to save time Lee began giving illustrators a rough verbal outline of each story instead of a complete typed-out script. After the pages were drawn, he would write the text. Often an artist might introduce new ideas or even characters that Lee would flesh out. ''It worked beautifully,'' says Lee of the method, various permutations of which are still employed by Marvel and its competitors today.

But as for Kirby's contention that he dreamed up the entire Marvel universe, Lee says, ''It's simply not true. Jack was a brilliant conceptualizer and the most talented guy I've ever worked with in the business, but he wasn't a writer.''

An extensive essay by Earl Wells, ''Once and for All, Who Was the Author of Marvel?,'' published in The Comics Journal in 1995, examines the working relationship between Lee and Kirby, as well as the fundamental differences between the Lee-scripted stories Kirby drew for Marvel and the work the artist later did for DC (where Kirby handled both story and art). In the essay, Wells concludes that ''Kirby is not the author of Marvel.''

It's a view that Kirby fan Michael Chabon, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning comic-book-themed novel ''The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,'' agrees with. ''The nature of the stories changed so drastically once Stan wasn't telling them and Jack was doing them on his own, that it's clear that Jack was exaggerating [his creative role] with his rhetoric in those interviews,'' says Chabon. ''The sad thing is that those guys had an amazing partnership. When they were at their peak, something really magical was happening.''

Toward the end, Smilin' Stan and Jolly Jack reached a fragile accord. ''Jack and I became friendly again before he died,'' says Lee. ''I met him at [the 1992 San Diego Comic-Con]. He was pretty ill at the time, but he walked over to me and said, 'Stan, you have nothing to reproach yourself about.' Then he walked away. It was an odd thing to say, but I was glad he said it.''

It's late in the afternoon of my visit to the Lee home, and Stan is confronting his memory problem again. Our interview concluded, he has offered to drive me back to my hotel in downtown L.A. But first he wants to call Joan, who is visiting a nearby girlfriend. Trouble is, he can't remember the woman's name.

''I don't want her to worry should she come back and not find me here,'' he says, flipping through the pages of Joan's address book for a name that might ring a bell, but none of them do. Lee calls his daughter, hoping she might provide a clue, but alas, she's not home.

Finally, after 15 minutes of fruitless effort, Lee leaps up and dashes into another room. He returns with pencil and paper, and scrawls a hasty note that he pins to the garage door. He regards it happily. He didn't even need a superpower -- as always, for this comic-book titan, the written word proves the best solution.

Originally posted Jun 20, 2003 Published in issue #715 Jun 20, 2003 Order article reprints
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