The man who created a universe

A tribute to Stan Lee, the man who made Marvel

02.2021 | Alistair Duff

I suppose many tributes begin with some background information on their early lives, their ancestry, possibly even make reference to the fact that they had a different name at birth. To be honest all of these things seem far too grounded in our universe. Faced with such a conundrum I took the decision to concentrate more on Stan’s universe and the major impact it would have on ours.

The world of comic books that Stan Lee entered would be unrecognisable to us nowadays. Merely being associated with the industry in those years was a cause for social embarrassment. There was a prevalent notion that to be writing comic books was a clear indication of failure in more meaningful and artistic endeavours. In truth the material produced would have done little to dissuade this conclusion. In its infancy the average comic book was nothing if not formulaic. There is hero and he has an evil nemesis they would have a monthly punch up and the hero would win. The end. They fell comfortably into the pulp category and were more widely referred to as funny books. By content as much by name these books belonged in the province of children. That early characteristic of being able to read or watch the same thing continuously without losing one iota of enjoyment.

This environment would make up the first decade of Stan’s career. He began with a publisher that was not a big even in a sea comprised of flotsam and jetsam. Lee would make use of this time to slowly move across from a production job to one far more involved in the creative process. Gradually he became one of the regular writers spending days varying between westerns and romance, horror and, science fiction. To many it may seem that Stan had succeeded in reaching his destination of choice. In reality Stan had done the complete opposite. If at one time he had idealised the writers and dreamed of seeing his own stories one day appear in ink he instead found mind-numbing repetition and mundanity. Despite consistently offering ideas and suggestions the company would inevitably settle on the tried and tested. He had become a writer only to find he had no story to tell. A growing sense of frustration and the limited wages available in the industry were enough to convince Stan to leave. During this period of retrospection, he was asked by the company to create a team of heroes in collaboration with an artist called Jack Kirby. Many a household name would feature these two signatures upon launch.

At first the writer was reticent believing his future lay elsewhere. It was the very fact that he seemed so determined that led his wife to intervene. As the outcome no longer mattered, Joan Lee dared her husband to make the type of comic that he so strongly believed in even if it simply served as a final chapter to his career. Lee enlisted the support of Kirby and they began to create the antidote to all they believed was wrong with the format. Lee had spent enough time in the industry to see the many shortcomings that were accepted as the norm. Realistically, it took a simple change to his first and most persistent gripe to change the course of the industry forever.

Lee had the strong belief that the entire industry lacked the elements of relevance and resonance which would remove any possible progress in the field. He wanted to write stories that were more relatable and based in reality as we know it. He wanted heroes who had actual lives and places to go home to. They could become angry or fall in love or make mistakes in the same way people do. All these ideas would be present in possibly the final story he would tell. The book that Lee and Kirby would propose was called “The Fantastic Four” and it was the story of four astronauts that unwittingly passed through energy waves in space causing them to crash upon re-entry. They all survive but have been individually transformed by this space phenomena. While three remain visually the same they are imbued with individual powers. Then there is the pilot Ben Grimm who emerges as physically transformed or as he comes to see it, grossly disfigured. He has gained super strength but at the cost of becoming a rock skinned monster. While for three of the team their old lives still exist but are enhanced but for the character who becomes known as the Thing his past life has been lost forever. Within a single book two previously inconceivable concepts were introduced; a hero who believes the mantle to be a curse and a leader who carries the guilt of responsibility. Within a single year, this foursome had become the bestselling comic book in the market.

Stan Lee was emboldened to create his opus. His story would contain a student that was far from the untouchable heroes of old. His name was Peter Parker and to be blunt he was afflicted with the worst student characteristics; crippling social awkwardness and the horror of being a nerd. At the time this was the stuff of adolescent nightmares. Peter is failing miserably with overcoming this when he is bitten by a radioactive spider and discovers he has acquired its powers. Sure, the wall climbing and swinging from place to place are good perks, but he also now has a secret that he cannot share. In his first fledgling steps as a hero, he chooses to avoid a confrontation with an armed robber only to discover that his failure to act has cost the life of his uncle.

Not only did Stan Lee give comic books a soul but he would later use the medium as a way to express social ills and attempt to change minds. The X-men were a clear analogy of the racial tension present at the time. You can also be sure that as heroes began to vary in colour, beliefs, and traditions they were probably inspired by an avid Stan Lee fan. He gave us stories to wonder at, stories that showed we were not alone, and stories that showed that with great power comes great responsibility.