1922 – 2018
To those who know him purely from his now famous cameos, it seems almost like Stan Lee did everything, he was comics. And that’s just the way Stan wanted it. The reality is that there are many of us (and many before my own time), who have known Stan from his storied (and imperfect) comic book publishing career and know he is much more (and much more complex) than that.
I took a while before I started writing whatever this is because Bill Maher opened his mouth. I love some of Bill’s thoughtful work. But it seems more and more often, his unplanned, off-the-cuff comments miss the mark. From his broad, sweeping view of anybody who doesn’t align with him politically (keep in mind I’m a raging liberal), to his less than nuanced views on Islam (like all or nothing points of view, that I -as a non-religious secular humanist – can’t even stomach) and now he’s decided to dip his toes into blaming comic book fans, or comic book material-fond fandom, for Donald Trump. Beyond the inherent pedantic and unreasonable nature of taking such a position, he demonstrates a particular type of ignorance that talking heads (which he has been for a while now) often partake in.
Stan is but one of the many sons of Jewish immigrants who built the comics industry. One that was shaped around their very experiences as first and second generation Americans, struggling with a world that for a long time, was unsympathetic to the plight of European Jews and what was happening in Germany. Before Stan Lee, enter Jack Kirby and Joe Simon:
When looking to Stan Lee’s success, you cannot avoid Jacob Kurtzberg, known to all of us as Jack Kirby. Along with Joe Simon, they revolutionized the early comic book industry. “Inspired by Superman” (Martin Goodman, publisher of Timely Comics wanted a hit when Supes came out swinging), they created a little fella called Steve Rogers back in 1941.
Captain America went on to not only be a huge success, but he eventually was also directly associated with the American war effort and helped boost war bond sales with ads on the comic book itself.
It’s important to highlight this particular moment in not only the comic book industry but in American politics and the national sentiment. It came down to the generally popular position of isolationism. Even when Hitler was obviously becoming a larger looming threat to the world. Racism in the United States was definitely one of the motivators behind the indifference. Jack and Joe answered by making the bold move of having their inaugural issue of Captain America, one boasting a cover with Cap punching Hitler right in the face. This wasn’t just about smacking Hitler in a comic, it was smacking the indifference of the American mainstream that was still ambivalent to the disaster developing in Europe. Many Jewish immigrants arriving in the States knew the reality of the Nazi mobilization.
While comics were built to entertain, this placed Cap firmly in a reality where it made an undeniable statement. And it didn’t land on deaf ears. Cap’s popularity soared, but so did fringe hate toward his creators. The Washington Post’s Michael Cavna wrote a piece on the illogical paradigm of white supremacists in Charlottesville wearing a Captain America helmet in his piece:
To illuminate just what Simon and Kirby were attempting, Brevoort uses a contemporary parallel:
“Today, this would be like putting Vladimir Putin or somebody on a comic-book cover and vilifying him,” the editor says. “Hitler was then a standing world leader with an impressive military machine behind him and a number of sympathizers in the U.S. So make no mistake about it: Had this been something that genuinely angered the real Hitler, he most likely possessed some apparatus to strike back against Simon and Kirby, and even Timely as a whole.”
I’m not equating that lack of logic to Maher, but I’m saying it is dangerously ignorant to associate love for these characters and their creators, to somehow creating a Donald Trump (vomit) presidency. Joe and Jack received death threats, some of it right in front of the Timely offices. There’s a story (one I don’t know to be 100% correct, but would like to believe) that Fiorello LaGuardia himself contacted Jack and Joe to tell them how much he enjoyed the book and even offered to send cops down to Timely, just in case.
Jack and Joe eventually leave Timely (it is said due to being exposed as working for National Comics – DC – and in part due to Lee letting Martin Goodman, the publisher know as much). But very soon after, Jack Kirby goes to war, the beaches of Normandy no less. Jack was a war hero. And his artistic energy only grew with the perspective he gained seeing action in some of the toughest theaters of the war.
Meanwhile, Stan grew to lead Timely, called Atlas at this time. Kirby started to freelance for Atlas and toward the early 1960’s when as Marvel Comics proper, the Marvel Silver Age (largely considered to be 1955-1970) hit its full stride with Jack Kirby solidly becoming Marvel’s driving force and house style. Lee, now editor-in-chief as well as the principal writer, partnered with Kirby (and Ditko) and they co-created some of the most enduring and memorable characters and stories to this day. Beyond just creating popular new characters, they began a sort of world-building that had not been seen in that scale and scope ever before. The Marvel Universe is the universe Jack and Stan built. Other great talents like Ditko, Colan, Steranko, and others lived in it, but it was built by Stan and Jack. Kirby’s production volume is still unmatched and led some of Marvel’s most popular books while having a hand in layouts, plotting and even character design for some of the others.
Ultimately, it was Lee’s intuitive branding, his direct, mature engagement of the reader and his brilliance in themes he connected to popular society and what was happening in the country at the time, that made Marvel successful on the newsstands and drugstore magazine racks. As a comic fan – as a Marvel comic fan, I could not imagine that degree of success without that collaboration taking place. That is the impact in the industry, but Marvel’s impact was a social one as well. The Black Panther, Falcon, Black Widow, Professor X. From leading heroes who were African American, Women who were strong and at the same level of boldness and risk as their male counterparts, a disabled man being highlighted as the most powerful mind in the Marvel universe, this was a new method of characterization, of addressing social imbalance, and way to teach about real-world kindness in a fantastic but not unrelatable context. That’s serious, heavy lifting. Stan’s writing (as well as his editing) was unique, mature and contemporary.
Famously Paul McCartney, George RR Martin, and many other celebrities were huge fans of the medium and of Marvel specifically. While DC’s Superman and Batman are super-heroic and perfect, Marvel’s heroes are flawed, human and relatable, usually victims of their own power.
With Great Power,
Comes Great Responsibility.
These are lessons of ENORMOUS weight and moral value. It made a significant and long-lasting connection with us, many generations of us. And this is why we mourn Stan’s death. It wasn’t just Stan that left us, it marks the end of an era. Stan was an imperfect business partner, a flawed creator and many have gripes about him (I’m not exempt), but as lovers of this great world of visual fiction and storytelling, it would not be the same without Stan. But there’s also a real connection to the time: JFK, MLK, RFK, Vietnam… all of it addressed and explored through the books in a way that touched kids, teens and young adults alike. All built by the sons of immigrants, Americans of the truest kind.
We were all Stan’s most appreciated fan.
We were all special.
But Stan was also a career-builder. He was generous to many, kind to all. He jumpstarted many careers in the business. Directly and indirectly employed many more. He was always kind to upcoming artists and writers. Stan’s ability to connect with this readership, through his “Soap Box” where he engaged, addressed and developed the “Merry Marvel Marching Society”, the loyal following he was always kind enough to “turn it on” for, anywhere he met us. We were all Stan’s most appreciated fan. We were all special. Never above a smile, never above an embrace, never above cheering us on, while we cheered him right back. I truly believe this is why Stan lived as long as he did, with as much energy as he did. He enjoyed being the ringleader and the showman, but in an honest way – he fed off of that energy and we were happy to give it.
At the end of the day, Stan Lee represented more than just his own career. He was to us, his fans and those who love Marvel and the Silver Age, the very last living link to a time of struggle but also of promise. Stan was there guiding us through narrative when some of the most pivotal events of the 1960’s were happening. We as a nation came of age through the words of Walter Cronkite, the music of the Beatles and the books that Stan and Jack (and the rest of that incredibly talented lot) gave us. And that’s what we lost now. Our cheering, loving embassador to that time is now gone.
This world of comics was built by immigrants, Jewish ones at that. Our love of this medium is inevitably tied to the risks and challenges they faced building it for us. Comics -and fiction for that matter- is a way for us as a collective (and individually) to look to the very best of ourselves, a modern mythology of the characteristics that make us who we are. But we also need an escape -if for but a few moments- from the insanity of our current reality. One that talking heads like Maher does not fix but instead make a living off of. For such a person to open his mouth and say something as profoundly ignorant as equating this low-point in American leadership to our love of this medium, is demoralizing. It is our love of the principals that actually make America wonderful, the heart and soul of what people like Stan Lee and Jack Kirby drew, wrote – and fought for (in the case of Jack and his heroic service in WWII) -, that keeps us coming back. Even as adults, we long to revisit that time and feel that connection. I reckon it is a deep longing for a more meaningful time. A time of challenges but also of great leadership and a stage where our values were ratified in the societal progress achieved. It’s a concept that ironically, people like both Maher and Trump fail to understand with equally cold disregard for what is important to others.
Stan, you were one in a million, you really were. You will be missed.