Stan Lee, the creative dynamo who revolutionized the comic book and helped make billions for Hollywood by introducing human frailties in Marvel superheroes such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk, died Monday. He was 95. (Nov. 12)
Stan Lee had his own superpower: longevity.
Like Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, Black Panther, Iron Man and dozens of other comic book heroes he created, co-created or launched, he seemed, after 95 years, indestructible.
He got into the business in 1939, the year after Superman’s debut. By the 1970s, he was the business.
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Stanley Martin Lieber, age 95, died Monday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He leaves behind millions of mourning fans, and one of the richest bequests in the entertainment business. Marvel-based movies, as of 2017, have grossed $10,916,958,583 worldwide, according to Zacks.com
“Given his age, I shouldn’t be shocked by his passing, but Stan Lee was someone that I thought somehow, some way, would live forever,” said Joe Caramagna, formerly of Elmwood Park, an inker, letterer and colorist who worked on such Marvel titles as “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “New Avengers” and “Black Widow.”
“I guess in a way he will,” Caramagna said.
Over 80 years, Stan Lee saw his business grow from a shabby stepchild of newspaper supplements to a billion-dollar industry that spanned multiple media, from magazines to movies to TV to toys to clothing to video games.
Over 50 of those years, he became as well known to comics fans as any of his characters, thanks to editorial features like “Stan’s Soapbox.” Long before Twitter, he anticipated the new celebrity culture of the 21st century by interacting constantly with his fans.
“He definitely wanted to seem more accessible to fans, almost like a character himself,” said Reilly Brown, a West Orange artist who worked at Marvel intermittently between 2005 and 2016, on such titles as Spider-Man, “Hercules” and “Deadpool.”
“I was at the Baltimore Comic-Con, and there was some award ceremony, around 2011, 2012,” Brown recalled. “He walks up to the stage, with a cane, this little old man. Then he gave his cane to his handler, and he suddenly straightened up and he leaps onto the stage and gives this speech. It was very much a Willy Wonka thing. I didn’t know which was the act — whether it was the old man or the showman on stage.”
Into his 90s, Lee was still highly active and highly visible, dropping by for cameos in the various Marvel movie blockbusters: a Leonardo popping in to sign his canvas, in case we should forget who was the genius behind it.
“Stan Lee was the most iconic comic creator of all time,” said Ben Lichtenstein, owner of Zapp Comics in Wayne. “There would not be Marvel Comics without him.”
And there would not be a comics industry, as we know it today, without Marvel.
There might be comics, sure: some ghost of Superman and Batman at DC Comics, going through the crime-fighting motions for an audience of grade-schoolers.
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But superheroes as they are today — dead center of the pop culture world, the biggest tentpole in the Hollywood big top, an artistic medium that has attracted A-list talent like Neil Gaiman, John Cleese and Ta-Nehisi Coates — are inconceivable without the push that Stan Lee gave them, starting in the early 1960s.
Comics aren’t just for kids
Before Lee, comic books were for kids. Or for juvenile delinquents, if anti-comic crusaders like Dr. Fredric Wertham were to be believed.
“What DC was aiming for was the kiddie books at the five-and-dime,” said Leonia’s Anthony Snyder, owner-operator of Anthony’s Comic Book Art. “Stan Lee upgraded the whole market.”
After the initial burst of creativity that sparked Superman (1938) and Batman (1939) and Captain America (1941), and a brief moment of glory during World War II when they were let loose on Nazis, comic books had faltered, declined, become formulaic.
“When you look at comics before Marvel, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, they were very bland, very vanilla,” Lichtenstein said. “I like Superman. In his own way, he’s perfect. But he’s boring. You can only see him save the world so many times.”
Enter Stan Lieber.
Actually, he had entered much earlier. Born in Manhattan in 1922, and coming of age in the Bronx, Lee got into the comics business when he was only 17, working for a company then called Timely.
He came from Romanian-Jewish stock, which is significant. Many of the early comics pioneers were Jewish, as author Michael Chabon pointed out in his 2000 novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier Clay.” The super-savior — call him Samson or Golem — was a familiar figure in Jewish lore. He also had a new urgency in the era of the Nazis.
In May 1941, Lieber made his first editorial contribution, to a story called “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge.” He signed himself “Stan Lee.”
But it wasn’t until Timely, having briefly become Atlas in 1951, turned into Marvel in 1961 that Lee came into his own.
His big breakthrough in 1961 was the Fantastic Four, created with artist Jack Kirby. Some credit is apparently due to Lee’s wife, Joan Clayton Boocock (she died in 2017; the couple had two children).
“His story is, he was going to quit,” Snyder said. “And his wife said: Why don’t you do a book the way you want, before you quit. That was when he did FF1.”
Superheroes, before this, had mostly been white-bread: Boy Scouts in capes, with movie-star profiles, who went around righting wrongs. The Fantastic Four were a quartet of reluctant superheroes who had very human frailties. They fought. They bickered. They had doubts and anxieties. And one of them looked like a big pile of rubble.
“He introduced a completely new dimension to superheroes,” Lichtenstein said. “They weren’t perfect. They weren’t supermen.”
Lee followed that up, in 1962, with three even more unlikely heroes.
Spider-Man, created with Steve Ditko, was a teenage nerd whose accidental acquisition of superpowers from the bite of a “radioactive spider” didn’t make him any more popular with his boss, with the girls, or with the public-at large. The Hulk, created with Kirby, was a Frankenstein monster with muscles. Thor, created with Kirby and Larry Lieber, was a Norse god who spoke in thee’s and thou’s. Four years later, in 1966, Lee and Kirby created comicdom’s first black superhero: Black Panther.
Comics hit the campus
Lee’s characters were aimed at older, more sophisticated readers than those of earlier comic books. In fact, they found their widest readership, as the 1960s went its chaotic way, with college students.
“The characters he developed, like Fantastic Four and the Hulk and even Thor, were definitely geared for a higher intellect,” said Tony DeMarco, owner of AS Comics in Teaneck and North Bergen. “Smaller kids might not have had the maturity to understand them.”
And Lee reached out to these new readers in a new way. He made sure that they knew who was writing, drawing, inking all of the panels they read. And he made sure they knew him.
“He was the first one to give a lot of credit to the creators,” Lichtenstein said.
If news from the Marvel “bullpen” was thrilling to the casual reader, how much more did it inspire young, would-be comic book artists and writers who rifled through the pages of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “Avengers,” and “The Incredible Hulk”? Brown was one of the lucky ones who actually got to work there.
“I was an intern at college then,” said Brown, who is currently working on a new title, “Outrage,” with “Deadpool’s” Fabian Nicieza, for LINE Webtoon. “I did work in those offices. It was cool. It was kind of laid out like a regular office with cubicles, but each worker’s cubicle was like a fortress, or a clubhouse. It was a lot of fun.”
If Stan Lee jump-started the comics industry, comics jump-started the movie industry.
Superheroes had been seen on the screen as early as the 1940s, but the early “Batman” and “Superman” serials had been poky, and even the successful “Superman” series, beginning in 1978, didn’t change the whole industry
But by the 2000s, digital special effects had evolved to the point where Hollywood could make Iron Man convincingly fly, Mr. Fantastic convincingly stretch like a rubber band, and Spider-Man convincingly career from building to building. When Marvel characters met Hollywood know-how, starting with “Spider-Man” in 2002, it became a game-changer for the movie industry. What was Marvel Comics became Marvel Entertainment — and its tentacles, like Doc Ock’s, reached everywhere.
“Comic books were the medium of limitless imagination,” Snyder said. “Now technology has caught up with comic books, and they’re able to put it out there.”
Through it all, Lee was always there: doing cameos in movies, appearing at conventions, Quite literally, a legend in his own lifetime. And now, Brown says, beyond it.
“For so long, it was so cool to think this guy who created my favorite characters was still alive,” Brown said. “Now he just feels more like a legend than he ever was.”
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