Follow us on

|

Stan Lee

Excelsior, Stan

Print edition : Dec 07, 2018 T+T-
Stan Lee, founder of Marvel Entertainment Inc., poses with a life-size model of his superhero Spiderman in his office in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on December 18, 2008.

Stan Lee, founder of Marvel Entertainment Inc., poses with a life-size model of his superhero Spiderman in his office in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., on December 18, 2008.

At his office  in New York, on January 3, 1980.

At his office in New York, on January 3, 1980.

Stan Lee  (standing) discusses a Spiderman comic book cover with artist John Romita at Marvel headquarters in New York, in this January 1976 photograph.

Stan Lee (standing) discusses a Spiderman comic book cover with artist John Romita at Marvel headquarters in New York, in this January 1976 photograph.

Stan Lee (1922-2018) revolutionised the art of comic book writing with a completely new kind of superhero, which had a huge impact on popular culture.

STAN LEE, the creator of the Marvel universe inhabited by iconic figures such as Spiderman, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, X-Men, Daredevil, and those who made up the Fantastic Four, and Avengers, passed away on November 12, at the age of 95. Since 1961, when Fantastic Four burst through the pages created by Lee and the famed comic book artist and writer Jack Kirby, generations of children and youngsters (and adults too) have remained captivated by the strange, mesmerising and dangerous world that has been continually expanding and unfolding before them for nearly 60 years—a world simply known as the Marvel universe with its superheroes, flawed and reluctant saviours of humanity; its villains, enigmatic, terrifying and at the same time tremendously charismatic, and even a few perceived gods thrown in here and there.

Lee was the last surviving stalwart of the period known as the Silver Age of Comics (1954-70) and for long had been not only the spokesman for the world of Marvel created by him but also for the world of comics in its entirety. He revolutionised the art of comic book writing, with his completely new kind of superhero making a huge impact on popular culture, transcending the genre of comics and influencing the fields of literature, cinema and art.

Born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922, in Manhattan, to the Romanian immigrants Jack and Celia Lieber, he adopted the pen name Stan Lee in the hope of saving his original name for more serious literary work. Right from an early age, he had set his sights on becoming a writer. Soon after finishing high school, Lee started working for the comics section of Timely Publications, a publishing house run by his relative Martin Goodman, which also brought out pulp fiction, romances and Westerns. It was here that he met the legendary Jack Kirby, who would later be one of his most important collaborators. After a stint in the army during the Second World War, Lee went back to working for Timely.

Towards the end of the 1950s, with the comics business dwindling, Lee was toying with the idea of quitting when his wife, Joan, suggested that he start writing material he would like to read rather than what the publisher wanted him to write. The success of DC Comics’ Justice League of America was in bringing superheroes back in fashion. “And so Lee, with nothing to lose, gave it a go and in the process founded an empire,” wrote Grant Morrison in his seminal book Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero .

In 1961, Fantastic Four arrived on the scene. They were a family like any other, but with each member having incredible powers. They quarrelled constantly, they loved each other fiercely, and they stood together always as a family. “Fantastic Four rebuilt the superhero concept for the Silver Age and gave readers a monthly ticket to a world of planet-eating gods, undersea kingdoms, alternate dimensions and ever-changing, ever-returning family dynamics,” wrote Morrison.

What followed was a burst of creative energy that produced immortal characters in comic books such as The Incredible Hulk (1962); The Amazing Spider-Man (1962) created with Steve Ditko; Thor by Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby; Iron Man (1963); and X-Men (1964). By that time Timely comics had already come to be known as Marvel and, headed by the indefatigable Lee and his team of artists and writers, it was giving stiff competition to DC Comics. In fact, in the early 1960s, even Jerry Siegel, the man, who along with Joe Shuster, created Superman for DC Comics, was working for Lee in Marvel.

A universe of characters

Lee was prolific, practically creating a universe of characters, managing to keep several stories going at the same time, connecting them from time to time, weaving different strands of fiction, and causing the different worlds within this universe to constantly cross each other and influence and impact one another. There would be references to previous issues and even hints of events and developments in another series. In this ingenious way, he teased his readers into buying different series of comics to get the whole picture. In an interview to Rolling Stone magazine, he explained how it was possible for him to produce so much.

“Once I knew who the villain was, and if I had already established the main characters, which you only had to do once, then writing the story didn’t take that long. It took a little less than a day. You know, I’d wake up in the morning, I’d talk to my wife for a while, and read the paper, and then I’d start writing, and by dinner time it was over, and I had done the book.”

He had a unique narrative style which would draw in readers as though the narrator in the comic book was speaking exclusively to them. “I wanted the reader to feel we were all friends, that we were sharing some private fun that the outside world wasn’t aware of,” he had said in an interview.

But his biggest impact on the comic book genre was that he transformed what was essentially an art form meant for children into a mainstream pop phenomenon dealing with more social and darker issues. Lee’s creations are not cardboard-cutout heroes existing in a black-and-white world. They are complex, often misunderstood beings, whose powers are more often than not their curse.

Morrison’s description of the Silver Surfer, who first made his appearance in a comic book in 1966, is an example of the kind of hero a reader is most likely to meet in Lee’s Marvel universe. Morrison sees Silver Surfer as “the first emo superhero, shackled to earth by a celestial curse. Forbidden to roam his beloved spaceways, he sulked around the world, a gleaming target of mankind’s hatred and ignorance.”

“Lee’s characters have to be seen from the historical perspective of the time in which he created them. It must be remembered that almost all of Lee’s immortal characters came into being soon after the repressive McCarthy era. So, unlike DC characters who are more the archetype for the American project of democracy and fighting fascism, Marvel characters articulate a certain alienation. For example, X-Men are seen as symbols of aberration from what is normal; the Silver Surfer is another such character who is radically different from earthlings. In a society stifled under repression and facing immigrant crises in a post-World War scenario, Marvel became the spokesman for the marginalised people,” Sudipto Sanyal, a professor of literature and popular culture, told Frontline .

Lee’s characters themselves are more personal and intimate than other comic book superheroes, Sanyal pointed out. “In the DC universe, the superheroes are obsessed with the bigger picture of saving the universe; that is not necessarily so in the Marvel universe. In the early comics of Spiderman, the hero may be fighting against a supervillain, but his immediate concern is also passing in the upcoming test in high school. For Lee’s creations, dealing with everyday life is also a part of their struggle,” said Sanyal.

For the brooding Bruce Banner, the brilliant scientist who, when angered, would turn into the green monster known as The Incredible Hulk, a creature arguably as powerful as Superman himself, the struggle was to remain human and control the monster that was forever struggling to come out. Lee once said that a character should be written in such a way that “you wish he was a friend of mine”. It is this human aspect of the superheroes that transcends all age barriers and makes them identifiable with not just youngsters but also adults. “A hero like Spiderman resonates with me. Essentially he is a nerd who loves nerdy things even though he has these enormous powers. Spiderman is like us, unlike a Superman or a Batman. That is what distinguished Lee’s work from other comic book creators,” said Arjun Sengupta, a teacher and a comic book aficionado.

Cameo appearances

Lee himself was an integral part of the Marvel universe he had created. In his years as Marvel’s publisher and chairman, he was the face, the voice and the soul of the company. In the Marvel films, fans would wait for his cameo appearances, the way Alfred Hitchcock’s fans did when watching Hitchcock’s movies. Apparently he has already shot his cameo appearances in the upcoming Marvel movies, including those at the conceptual stage, so fans can continue to wait for him to suddenly appear on screen. Lee always gave the impression of being a larger-than-life figure, with his gruff voice and his deliberate, over-the-top rodomontade, but it was all tongue-in-cheek and very evidently he directed the laughter at himself. “I found you can’t write anything that people won’t read things into that you didn’t even think of. One of the nice things about being a writer is you can often be thought of as being much deeper than you really are,” he had once said jokingly when asked about the deep philosophical content in his comic books.

As tributes flowed in from all across the world at the news of Stan Lee’s death, perhaps the most significant one was by DC Comics: “He changed the way we look at heroes and modern comics will always bear his indelible mark. His infectious enthusiasm reminded us why we fell in love with these stories in the first place. Excelsior, Stan.” Lee had made Excelsior his catchword in the 1960s, when he would sign off his monthly column in Marvel with the word.