In response to the recent death of Stan Lee, I’d like to say some things about Stan, and superhero comic books in general.
I’m old enough to have started reading comic books pre-Marvel: back when Batman was lighthearted (but not as silly as the 1960s TV show), and when Lois Lane was Superman’s girlfriend even though I can’t remember a single romantic moment between them. (Occasional issues had them getting married, but it always turned out to be fake or imaginary. Back then, they never kissed or even went out on dates. Later, their relationship became much richer; these days, I like it a lot. But when I first started reading comics, Lois only existed to get Superman in trouble.)
Then Stan Lee started Marvel, and the industry changed. He injected two priceless innovations into superhero comics: soap opera, and the soapbox.
By modern standards, Stan moved comic book characterization from zero-dimensional to one-dimensional. There was nothing subtle about Ben Grimm agonizing over his hideousness or Peter Parker smacked down by yet another horrible piece of bad luck. Most villains were complete numskulls; so were most police, army officers, politicians, and religious leaders.
But still, Stan Lee’s characters were more complex than elsewhere in the industry. We’d never seen anything like them. Not in comic books.
Characters actually had emotions and relationships. Sometimes, they got mad; sometimes, they were depressed; sometimes, they fell in love and actually did something about it.
Ben Grimm went over to Alicia Masters’ place on a regular basis—they ate dinner together and talked. Peter Parker went out on honest-to-goodness dates with Gwen Stacey and Mary Jane Watson. Sue Storm got ticked off with Reed Richards because he took her for granted, so she nearly had a fling with Prince Namor. (Maybe eventually, she did have a fling with Namor. I can imagine her looking into the camera and saying, “Whether I did or didn’t, it’s none of your business.”)
The characterization wasn’t subtle, but it was more than punching out bad guys. And it set the stage for decades of further evolution, in which comics did get subtle, at least sometimes.
Stan’s other innovation was the soapbox. Starting early in Marvel’s history, every comic had a page giving news about Marvel, and that page included Stan’s Soapbox: basically a monthly editorial column. Some of those columns are now legendary, denouncing racism and sexism, or urging kids and parents to have conversations about drugs.
Those editorials were far from revolutionary by modern standards—today we realize that racism and sexism are deeply systemic problems, not just overt misbehavior by people who are clearly “bad”—but at the time, Stan was applauded for going out on a limb. And remember, at the time, comics were still regarded as books for children.
But to me, the soapbox page was important for another reason: the page talked about comic book creators. I was old enough to know that superheroes weren’t real, but I hadn’t quite realized that the stories were made up by people. The soapbox page talked about the writers and artists as actual human beings making a living by inventing everything on the page.
Comics didn’t just happen—people made them. Sometimes there’d be photos of Stan, or Jack Kirby, or Steve Ditko, or Marie Severin working away at their desks. People made these books. Stan just sat down and invented new stories about Spider-Man. In fact, he invented the characters themselves (in conjunction with the artists, of course, but that’s a whole other topic).
The point is I realized that making up a stories was a thing you could do. Wow! And for that amazing revelation, let me thank the one and only Stan Lee.
[The image at the top of this post is excelsior.]