I wrote this on November 12th, 2018 for my now-defunct newsletter, and I’m posting it here in honor of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Stan Lee.
Stan Lee died today, aged 95, outlasting just about anyone who thought of him as anything besides the lovable grandfather of Marvel Comics. Oh, there were always mutterings, of money gone missing, of companies mismanaged, of credit stolen. But c’mon! How could you hate that tremulous twinkle in his eye, that signature ‘stache, the surprisingly strong voice still shouting out lines in blockbuster movie after movie.
I’m thinking about two significant factors in Lee’s own accounts of his work on the Marvel universe, specifically it’s early successes with the Fantastic Four. One, is that he thought the material beneath him. Famously, that’s why he’s Stan Lee, not Stanley Lieber. He was holding onto his given name for his career as a novelist, which he assumed would be where real fame, fortune and glory awaited him. Two, is that he created the characters which are his enduring legacy because he thought no one was paying attention. Marvel Comics-heck, superhero comics in general in the late 50s-was a failing proposition. Lee claimed that it was because his publisher Martin Goodman didn’t think they were gonna make it another month, that he, Lee, was given free reign to create something that nobody had ever seen before.
As usual, it’s not the truth value of these claims that interest me, but what they say about Lee as he created himself, and was in turn created by a comic history that grew up around him. Lee positioned himself, and alternative retellings do the same for his colleagues and compatriots – Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Steve Ditko, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bob Kane- as the ur-superhero creator. That image was of a scrappy child of immigrants, a New York City street urchin who became a WW2 vet who fought Nazis with a grim smile, and was unmistakably, without exception, Jewish. But where Kirby and Simon took on the gravitas of elder statesmen, Ditko the solemn and mysterious air of a devoted philosopher, and Siegel and Shuster the tragic role of victims of rich men’s machinations, Lee never seemed to lose that sparkle of disrespect, of untrustworthiness, of street-smarts and guile that was the early 20th century Jew’s inheritance from 19th century anti-Semitic characterizations of the Jew as criminal and mastermind. Lee’s public persona is in some ways a defanged Fagin.
So of course Stan Lee was bored and broke and nearly out of a job when he created the characters that have stayed with us this last half-century. Of course no one was looking. When else do scoundrels do their best work? And relatedly, of course Stan Lee is something of a trickster, a thief and a cad. This is not to minimize the extent to which some of his actions caused real pain and damage in his life. Especially notable is the way he and other men of the Marvel Bullpen took credit for hours of work by female artists and writers. It is just to say that as comic history moves on, as we memorialize and eulogize this man, as we come to terms with a complicated legacy, let us remember Stan Lee yes, as a real person with real flaws, but also as a character, a creation of himself, as masterful and complicated and collaborative as any of his others. There is after all, no better tribute to a writer. Excelsior, true believers.