In the summer of 1984, I lived on a military base in Honolulu, Hawaii with my parents and younger brother. We had a banana tree in our backyard, and a line of thin hedges separated us from a large field which was dominated by some crumbling stone structure. We never figured out what was, but the adults suspected it might have served as a lookout of some kind before the US government moved in and acquired that land. Needless to say, the kids in the neighborhood loved it.
We’d climb the structure and play He-Man for hours. The cartoon had debuted the previous fall and we were fanatics. We’d take turns playing the main characters, and then switch to Return Of The Jedi when we got bored. When we were worn out from swords clashes, lightsabers battles and arguments about the Force, we would find some shade and do the thing I had begun to enjoy the most: read comics.
My next door neighbor was my age and had a ton of toys and comics books. He was one of those kids whose parents bought him things which he promptly gave away to his friends. One of the comics he lent me was the first issue of a twelve part series called SECRET WARS. The story featured a cosmic entity called The Beyonder, who admired the superheroes of Earth and decided to teleport a group of them and their villainous counterparts to a place called Battleworld. The amount of characters and drama packed into the story melted my seven year old brain, and I was sold. I must have re-read the issue several times while waiting for the next part of the story. In the meantime, I borrowed copies of Amazing Spider-Man, the Uncanny X-Men, and old issues of Wolverine’s limited solo series. Needless to say, I very quickly became hooked on Marvel Comics and their “superheroes with problems.”
As I got older and learned a bit more about comics, I started to read the Bulletin Pages at the back of each issue. It reminded me of reading liner notes when you listened to albums. I began to be interested in the people who wrote the stories and crafted the images. People like Jim Shooter. Chris Claremont. John Byrne. Frank Miller. Walt Simonson. Bill Sienkiewicz. Mary Jo Duffy. Louise Simonson. Ann Nocenti. Todd McFarlane. David Mazzuchelli. John Romita Sr/Jr. Jim Starlin. Jim Lee. These people shaped the tone and feel of not just Marvel Comics, but the comic book industry as a whole. At the head of that table was the man who made “The House Of Ideas” possible: Stan Lee.
Much has been said about Lee, especially in the days since his passing. The characters he co-created with Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are some of the greatest and most impactful to ever hit the pop culture landscape: The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Invincible Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Avengers, The X-Men, Black Panther, Power Man, Daredevil, and many more. Lee’s concept that superheroes were not untouchable god-like figures but people with everyday problems and issues who just happen to be heroes was groundbreaking, changing the way comics were made and viewed ever since. Peter Parker was bullied, nerdy, orphaned, broke, and had no luck with girls. Tony Stark was a brilliant billionaire industrialist who was arrogant, a womanizer, and an alcoholic. The Hulk had serious identity issues. Thor had a horrible relationship with an overbearing father. Luke Cage was framed, wrongfully imprisoned, and became a scientific guinea pig in jail. The Avengers and The Fantastic Four were dysfunctional family units. The X-Men were outcasts who were hated and feared by a world that didn’t understand them.
Lee, Kirby, and Ditko created worlds that anyone can connect to. Under Lee’s leadership the creators behind the characters became a focal point. Readers began to have favorite artists, writers, and even inkers. Through the “Marvel Bullpen Bulletin” and “Stan’s Soapbox”, fans got to glimpse and connect to the editorial process behind their favorite comics. Phrases like “Make Mine Marvel”, “Nuff Said”, “True Believer”, and most famously “Excelsior!” were popularized there. The idea that all of the creative and editorial staff were in one big room cranking out your favorite comic books was intriguing and entertaining.
Stan Lee was Marvel’s All Father. He was the P.T. Barnum of comics. He came from creative humble beginnings to become the face of Marvel as well as it’s media liaison to the world. Stan connected to the readership in a way that made them feel like friends and family, cementing a sense of community between the creators and the fandom. He was the face and voice we all recognized from the back of comics books, the openings of many cartoon shows, and later the “Where’s Waldo” like cameos we all looked for in MCU films. But all of that would have never happened with Lee’s wife Joan.
In 1960, Lee was burned out from twenty years in comics. Post WW II America didn’t want superheroes, despite their recent revival at DC Comics. He planned to quit the industry and move on. His wife Joan offered an idea: Stan should at least make a comic the way he wanted to do it. If it didn’t work, he could leave comics behind with no regrets. The comic he and Jack Kirby created was The Fantastic Four. It’s immediate success gave birth to an avalanche of titles that became the Marvel Universe. He was thirty-eight years old.
To say that Stan Lee’s legacy looms large and that he’s an icon in the industry is a gross understatement. Lee co-created the wave that not only saved the industry, but changed it forever. In doing so, Stan Lee changed the world. Comics are a literary art form that have found fertile ground in films, television, fashion, video games, and hip hop music. Marvel has influenced and inspired generations of future creatives, myself included. “Superheroes with problems” have allowed characters and their adventures to not only continue, but be passed down from generation to generation across the globe.
I became an avid reader thanks to Marvel Comics. I might not have become a writer without them, and my childhood imagination might have been little less expansive. In some form or fashion, rappers, writers, fashion designers, filmmakers, soldiers, teachers, and comedians all have threads that connect to some of Lee’s iconic characters. Comic books can be taken seriously. We all owe Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for that, True Believers.