A True Believer Remembers Stan Lee

Nov 13, 2018
Originally published on November 15, 2018 11:54 am

"Stan Lee" was a pseudonym. Which is to say: an alter ego. A larger-than-life persona whose secret identity was that of not-particularly-mild-mannered writer Stanley Martin Lieber.

Stan Lee's origin story lacks the cataclysmic, life-altering trauma suffered by the many heroic characters he co-created. But it is just as relatable, as it is marked by the kind of dashed hopes and frustrated dreams so many of us experience. The son of a dress cutter, Lieber dreamed of becoming a novelist — but he had taken a job as an office boy at Timely Comics, which was owned by his cousin's husband. By age 18, he had been hired as an editor. And that was, essentially, that: The work was demanding, yet he clung to the notion that he would one day find the time to become Stanley Lieber, Great American Novelist, author of high-minded short stories, novels, essays, plays. To keep that possibility alive, he determined to churn out his comics work under the name Stan Lee.

Those novels? They never happened. Stanley Lieber never found the time to write them, because Stan Lee became too busy. The characters and stories he created instead — with a lot of help from artists and co-plotters like Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and others — have infiltrated the cultural ether, the very semiotic air all of us breathe. Around the planet, they are not merely recognized, they are embraced, imitated, argued over. Especially that last thing.

It'd be facile and fawning to call Stan Lee a superhero (a word best read in Lee's punchy Brooklynese: "SOO-puh-HEE-row!"). There's that mild, quiet-desperation origin story, for one thing. Plus he was a far more complicated character than even his most nuanced superhero creations. But you can't say the guy didn't come with a distinctive look, and a set of skills and abilities that set him apart.

So if not a superhero, then certainly something akin to one. Consider:

Name: Stan Lee

Secret identity: Stanley Lieber

Role: Co-creator of a vast, complex and oddly fractious universe of ideas, worlds and (oddly pugnacious) heroes.

Costume: Aviator sunglasses, leisure suit, gold chains, salt-and-pepper sideburns, mustache (note: This is his 1970s version, the most iconic).

Signature phrases: "Excelsior!" "Face front, True Believers!" "'Nuff said!"

Skills and abilities:

1. Mythologizing

Stan Lee, in most cases, came up with the bold strokes. He would invite an artist into his office and proceed to act out the story, hurling his body through the action. He would leave them to design the costumes, and backgrounds and panel-by-panel breakdowns. When they were done, he would take a look at what they had drawn (which, if the artist was Kirby or Ditko, often differed greatly from the outline Lee had provided) and fill in the dialogue.

He urged them to go bigger, in every panel. Why have characters talk when they could shout? Frown when they could cry? Argue when they could brawl? No story, no page, no panel would be wasted on the inessential, the mundane. He told his artists to infuse the stories with big emotions, with metaphors the size of giants who could eat planets. Timely/Marvel's competitors at DC Comics had their own superheroes, of course, but they were given to sitting around conference tables and cooperating with one another. As a result, their stories felt staid, tidy. Small.

Stan Lee made superhero comics big.

2. Marketing

But Lee was always a company guy — an executive. True, he often petitioned for his bosses to increase artists' rates, but when it came time to fire them, he dutifully played hatchet man.

His true talents — the secret to his uncanny success — were closely tied to his company-man understanding of what his audience wanted. In 1961, he noticed that the young children at whom comics had historically been aimed were now teens, even young adults. The superheroes of the 1940s had appealed to their childish hopes and whims — to fly! to be the strongest! to be the smartest! — but those were tropes, not conflicts. Not stories.

He knew that readers of superhero comics wanted — needed — to see themselves in their pages, and if said readers were now teenagers, that meant that superheroes now had to reflect — had to radiate — teenage emotions. In place of joy, anger, sadness (the emotions of the elementary school playground) he imbued his heroes with angst, jealousy, depression, feelings of inadequacy (the emotions of the high school lunchroom and gymnasium).

They bickered. They wept. They felt crushing guilt. They fought giant cosmic battles while worrying about paying their rent.

As a result, they became a sensation.

As did Marvel Comics itself, under Lee's stewardship. Ever the tireless marketer, he knew how to transform this new approach to superhero storytelling into something more than just a narrative style — he made it a brand.

3. Stylishness

He did so by placing himself — or at least a depiction of his own grinning face — atop editorials and letter columns in the comics themselves, and cultivating a garrulous prose style filled with cornball brio, punchy catchphrases, a penchant for nicknaming Marvel staffers ("Sparkling Solly Brodsky! Jolly Ol' Jack Kirby!") and winking disparagement of DC Comics (which he labeled "Brand Ecch").

The net effect was not simply to endear himself, and Marvel comics, to readers, but to induce a kind of papal schism of comics publishing. Suddenly, there were fans of DC (booooo!), and there were Members of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, who rallied under the banner "Make Mine Marvel."

He made readers want to be a part of the exciting, tight-knit world of Marvel Comics and helped accelerate a process that had already begun: the transformation of discrete readers into a linked network of devotees, of fans into fandom.

Plus, he looked great doing it: The leisure suit, the chains, the mustache, the shades, the California tan. The guy basked in his celebrity, and made sure we knew it.

4. Self-mythologizing

It's the least surprising thing in the world that the men who gave the world so many modern myths would indulge a penchant for self-mythologizing their respective roles creating those myths.

Lee, as a Marvel executive, was well-compensated for his work — he made sure of that. But artists/co-plotters like Kirby and Ditko and others were essentially freelancers who were denied equitable monetary compensation for their contributions. Absent that compensation, or the ability to retain the rights to characters, comics creators prize the notion of legacy. But for the world to recognize their roles, they must be given credit, something Marvel and DC have been loath to share.

Lee's history with sharing credit was a spotty one. He would overstate; then, when challenged (often by Kirby), he would show contrition and correct the record. Yet his public reputation — cemented by his frequent Marvel-movie cameo appearances — is that of a man who single-handedly created a comic book universe.

He didn't. But having helped birth it, he assumed a role his co-creators shied away from. He became its tireless salesman, its cheerleader, its pusher, its benevolent god-king.

We probably won't be getting more Stan Lee cameos after next year, and that's terribly sad for those of us True Believers for whom the mere sight of the guy could trigger a wistful smile. It was complicated, that smile — it's an upwelling of fondness for the man himself, and for the kids we were, back when we'd be reading one of his Bullpen Bulletins and hear his voice — that performatively goofy, hipster-swinger Noo Yawk voice — inviting us into a world that he helped create, but that belonged to us.

We'll hear that voice forever, snapping us to attention with his omnipresent exclamation points:

Face front, True Believers!

Excelsior!

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Black Panther - the basis for those characters and many more came from the imagination of Stan Lee. He died Monday. He was 95 years old. Here he is in one of his many Marvel movie cameos talking to Chris Hemsworth's Thor in "Thor: Ragnarok."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THOR: RAGNAROK")

STAN LEE: (As character) And don't you move. My hands aren't as steady as they used to be.

CHRIS HEMSWORTH: (As Thor) By Odin's beard, you shall not cut my hair, lest you feel the wrath of the mighty Thor.

MARTIN: (Imitating Thor) The mighty Thor.

Glen Weldon of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour joins us to remember Stan Lee and his genius. Good morning, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we know Stan Lee is the public face of Marvel Comics. He was that for decades, but I didn't realize this until recently. He wasn't the only brain behind the Marvel Universe, was he?

WELDON: No, he was the co-creator of the Marvel Universe because here's how he worked in those early days. He came up with the broad strokes. He'd invite artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko into his office. He'd act out the story. Then they'd go away and design the characters, costumes, backgrounds. When they were done, he'd take a look at what they'd drawn, which if you're an artist like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, often differed a lot from what he told you to do, and fill in the dialogue. He wanted everything dynamic, larger than life. You know, why have characters talk when they could be shouting?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WELDON: Why have characters disagree when they could be brawling?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR")

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Tony Stark) Give me back my Rhodey.

TOM HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) I got him.

WELDON: Now, this clip is from "Captain America: Civil War," a movie that's all about heroes brawling with each other. It's just something he loved.

MARTIN: How did all this start because it's not like there weren't already other superheroes. Right? Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman - they all predated Stan Lee.

WELDON: Yeah. Well, I mean, they were - those were the DC heroes. But in 1961, when Stan Lee co-created the Fantastic Four with Jack Kirby, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were spending a lot of time sitting around conference tables agreeing with each other.

MARTIN: Boring (laughter).

WELDON: Yeah, their stories felt tidy. They felt small. Stan Lee made superheroes big, and he gave them distinct personalities because he knew that readers weren't kids anymore. They had become teenagers, and they wanted to see themselves in the comics. So he basically created Marvel - co-created Marvel characters that were teenagers, essentially. They bickered. They pouted. They felt guilty - big personalities.

MARTIN: He was a big personality himself, big enough to transform those early superhero comics into big money. Right? Forbes magazine now estimates that it's all a $12 billion business - TV shows, movie franchises, licensing deals.

WELDON: Yeah. He wasn't just a big personality. He was a born marketer. He created the Marvel brand. He cultivated this over-the-top persona that was always spouting catchphrases like, excelsior, face front, true believers, enough said.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WELDON: And that served to endear him and Marvel Comics to his readers. He did everything he could to create a sense that being a Marvel fan set you apart. He even created a theme song for fans to sing along to.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MERRY MARVEL MARCHING SOCIETY SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) You belong, you belong, you belong, you belong to the Merry Marvel Marching...

WELDON: So by making readers want to belong to the world of Marvel Comics, he accelerated a process that had already begun. He gave scattered readers across the country something that united them. So they went from being a bunch of individual fans to a collective fandom.

MARTIN: Which is interesting - right? - because so many of his characters were outside the mainstream. They were people who wanted to belong to something bigger.

WELDON: Exactly. That's the secret.

MARTIN: Glen Weldon, he is an editor at the NPR arts desk and a panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. We have been remembering Stan Lee.

Thanks so much, Glen.

WELDON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MERRY MARVEL MARCHING SOCIETY SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Be a good adviser. Never ever vicious. Where will you be then? Face front, lift your head, you're on the winning team - 'nuff said. You belong... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.