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Stan Lee. Photo: Reuters
Stan Lee. Photo: Reuters

The Marvel of Stan Lee

The co-creator of popular superheroes like The Spider-Man and Iron Man re-wrote the rules of superhero comics fifty years ago.

Stan Lee, who passed away today at the age of 95 in Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, California, was a late bloomer. Although he joined the publishing business at Timely Comics at the age of 17, in 1939, and was editor-in-chief within a couple of years, it wasn’t until 1961 that he would hit his stride. Timely Comics would be re-named Marvel Comics that year, and in association with the legendary comics writer-artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee would go on to revolutionize superhero comics.

Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Leiber, in Depression-era New York in 1922. He wanted to be a novelist, but by sheer chance began working at Timely, first as an office assistant, and then as a writer. In a market then dominated by Superman and Batman, some of Timely’s creations, like Captain America, became quite popular. Following a spell in the US Army during World War II, Lee would return to Timely, and as editor-in-chief, push the publishing house in new directions. The post-war period, especially the 50s, was marked by a decline in interest in superhero yarns and a rise in other kinds of pulp fiction, like monster stories and westerns. Under Lee, Timely, now known as Atlas Comics, ventured into these stories as well, while dialing back on superhero stories.

This was to change with rivals DC Comics coming up with the concept of the superhero team-up, with the launch of the first Justice League of America comics in 1960. The thrill of seeing standalone stars like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and others come together sparked Lee and his crack creative team of Kirby and Ditko to create the landmark The Fantastic Four series in 1961. This ushered in what is now called the Silver Age of comics in the US, with Lee and Kirby at the forefront.

This was Lee’s legacy period, as he helped co-create heroes like Spider-Man, The Silver Surfer, Iron Man, The Hulk, Black Panther, The X-Men and Doctor Strange, among many others. In what was groundbreaking at the time, Lee and Kirby’s superheroes weren’t infallible, had complex personal issues to work through, apart from saving the world, and, as Lee would put it, had feet of clay.

In appearance and function too, these new heroes were non-normative, like the rage-filled Hulk, who would’ve been a villain in other people’s hands. One of the reasons that the Spider-Man became such a hit was that he possessed the anxieties and self-doubt of just about every teenager. It was easy for readers to relate. And it was also more adult. Indian speculative fiction writer Samit Basu feels that Lee had an enormous influence on the tone of popular culture in the 60s. “You must understand that at the time, the comics audience was predominantly white and conservative. Lee was a trendsetter in terms of the principles of entertainment, and his championing of progressive, cosmopolitan and anti-bigotry ideas through the comics had a big effect," he says.

Bengaluru-based comics writer George Mathen, who writes as Appupen, likes to deconstruct standard superhero tropes in his books. So although in his view, the superhero preoccupation with war and violence is a turnoff, Mathen acknowledges Lee and Marvel’s importance. “You see, until superheroes came by, America, unlike say, India, had no mythology. In that sense, Marvel and Lee contributed to creating a new mythology for the US," he says.

If DC Comics invented the superhero team-up, Marvel, under Lee’s stewardship, took it to more complex territories with The Avengers series. Between 1961 and 1970, when Kirby quit Marvel, Lee and Kirby’s work re-wrote the rules. There were Afro-futuristic kingdoms in Wakanda, a reality-bending sorcerer in Doctor Strange, the intergalactic Silver Surfer. The X-Men were heroes who were persecuted as rank outsiders. There were alternative universes, interlinked storylines. Unlike with DC, for Marvel, the universe itself was one massive stage for storytelling. Mathen, who’s a fan of Kirby’s work from the period, says that compared to the adventures of the Silver Surfer, DC’s stories were quite humdrum. “I’ve read some Hulk and X-Men comics from that era, and I thought they were really good, as a kid. All the space stuff, and this interest in probing the unknown was very cool," he says.

From the seventies onwards, Lee’s writing became less prolific, although as the publisher of Marvel Comics, he helped facilitate great stories. “He was one of the great sales-people in entertainment, in terms of taking interesting stuff mainstream," says Basu. Since Spider-Man (2002), Lee has been better known for his cameos in Marvel Universe films, and, according to Basu, this was the world giving thanks for his earlier pioneering work. “Lee was the hustler, and Kirby was the creative guy. Such combinations are rare and it’s taken 50 years for technology to scale up to the point that now Marvel is the ultimate word in global entertainment," he says.

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