Stan Lee, the man who gave us Spider-Man, was a modern-day marvel
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Stan Lee died recently at the age of 95. For many he was king of the comic book. He not only gave the world Spider-Man and The Avengers, Arts editor Andrew Clarke maintains that he was responsible for encouraging young people to read.
For a backroom boy, Stan ‘The Man’ Lee was not backwards in coming forwards. Writer, publisher, editor and public face of Marvel Comics, he created some of the world’s greatest superheroes, but, more than that, he wanted to engage with his audience.
In the 1970s and 80s, when I was reading titles like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers, Stan’s Soapbox and the Bullpen page put readers in the heart of the comic book world. It made us feel included, part of a larger community of like-minded souls.
Through Stan’s editorials we learned what was on his mind and encountered the personalities who wrote, drew and inked the adventures we so enjoyed.
Stan’s drawn happy smiling face was the only picture byline in the books and the strapline on the title page proudly stated at the start of every issue “Stan Lee presents...” for much of his life Stan Lee was Marvel.
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He was creator, writer, publisher but at the end of the day he was still an employee. It was later in life, after Marvel was sold, when he was forced to defend his creative copyright in the courts, that we realised that Stan was just like us. He wasn’t the boss of a large global empire, he was, as he had always claimed, a jobbing writer who was lucky enough to be employed doing something he loved.
Stan Lee didn’t invent superheroes but he did give them personalities. Whereas Superman, over at rival DC Comics, was a square-jawed hero, a diamond-hard cut-out of the perfect American icon, Stan’s heroes were flawed, extraordinary people who had lives anchored in the real world.
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For the most part, they lived in a world not too dissimilar to that of their readers. Peter Parker aka Spider-Man seemed plagued with relationship problems lurching between Mary-Jane Watson and Gwen Stacey. He lived at home with his Aunt May and after college gained a job as a photographer on The Daily Bugle and was the whipping boy for the perpetually bad-tempered, cigar-chewing editor J Jonah Jameson.
Through the cast of the youthful cast of The X-Men, Lee explored themes of acceptance and of being different. The X-Men represented the next stage of human evolution, young people with mutant genes that gave them extraordinary gifts and skills and were taught to control their powers at a special school run by Professor Charles Xavier who was haunted by a former friend Magneto who wanted to punish ordinary people for their lack of compassion and understanding.
As Marvel was based in New York, it was unsurprising that a large proportion of the adventures took place there. Across town from Peter Parker, industrialist Tony Stark, was using his business empire to construct a battlesuit and become Iron Man while a team of superheroes called The Avengers thawed out World War II veteran Steve Rogers aka Captain America and made him their leader.
Stan Lee not only gave his creations a life away from fighting mad-men and super villains, he anchored his stories in real places and real US cities. It was a world where superheroes could bump into one another on a roof-top or in some dingy back alley, helping each other out or getting caught up in some petulant feud.
This was one of Stan Lee’s greatest story-telling legacies. He created a series of larger-than-life stories, featuring amazing characters with well-thought-out backgrounds and private lives but Stan Lee’s greatest contribution to the world was that he got young people – especially boys – reading.
Youngsters, who were dragged kicking and screaming and then brow-beaten into reading the classics at school, were not only voluntarily hoovering up these pulp fiction gems but they were anxiously awaiting the next issue and buying up several cross-referenced titles at the same time.
Occasionally Stan would arrange for stories to play out across multiple titles. Although, the older generation dismissed these pop-culture classics as worthless trash, today we recognise that Stan initiated some emotionally complex storytelling which dealt with important issues like death, grief and mourning as major supporting characters died and with difficult subjects like racism, the Vietnam War and the AIDS crisis.
Stan Lee was responsible for getting an awful lot of young people sitting down and reading – reading involved, inventive and, at times, quite complex tales which, for some, would open the gateway to a love of reading a wide-range of other works.
Stan Lee’s storytelling was so dramatic (and although highly moral never preachy) it was not a surprise that Hollywood came calling. As someone that protected his creations like a concerned mother hen and loved being the figurehead, it was only to be expected that Stan Lee would have a hands-on approach to Hollywood’s take on his creations.
Before a revamped Marvel Comics got into the film-making business themselves, they licenced two of their biggest creations Spider-Man to Sony and The X-Men to 20th Century Fox and Stan The Man was on hand to make sure that the characters stayed true to his template but also to make the first of what would become his trademark in later life, Hitchcock-style cameos which had fans looking out for his walk-ons.
Stan Lee’s life was remarkable. He worked for Marvel for 60 years joining straight from school in 1939 before finally retiring at the dawn of the internet age. In 1941, at the outbreak of war in the US, he was made a youthful editor-in-chief at the age of 19 and made such a good job of the role that he was not replaced when the troops returned home. He was eventually promoted to publisher in 1972 and remained in post until 1996 when Marvel was sold.
Afterwards he mainly worked in Hollywood on movies and TV series but although his public profile was higher, appearing at premieres and in on-screen cameos. His real contribution was in a dazzling 60 year writing career which elevated the much maligned comic book into the realms of pop-art.
Excelsior – as Stan signed off his Soapbox columns.
Stan Lee’s Greatest cameos
In Iron Man (2008), Lee, credited as “Himself”, appears at a gala cavorting with three blondes, where Tony Stark mistakes him for Hugh Hefner. Stark simply greets Lee as “Hef” before he realises his mistake, but Lee graciously responds, “That’s okay, I get this all the time.” Stan Lee named this as his favourite cameo appearance.
In The Avengers (2012), Lee’s character is interviewed about the Avengers saving Manhattan. Lee’s character responds, “Superheroes in New York? Give me a break”, and then returns to his game of chess.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), he appears as a World War II veteran who attends the Avengers’ victory party. He claims he fought at Omaha Beach and that it proves he can handle a shot of Asgardian liquor from Thor, but is then carried away drunk, muttering his catchphrase, “Excelsior.”
In Captain America: Civil War (2016), Lee appears as a FedEx postman, delivering a package from Steve Rogers to Tony Stark at the end of the film, mispronouncing Stark’s name as “Tony Stank”.
In Black Panther (2018), Lee appears as a patron of a casino in Busan, South Korea, and takes T’Challa’s won but unclaimed chips.
In Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Lee appears as the driver of Peter Parker’s school bus. When the students on the bus watch Ebony Maw’s ship arriving, the driver says, “What’s the matter with you kids? You never seen a spaceship before?”