Stan the Man and How He Transformed Comics

 

Comic books started out in the mid-twentieth century. Originally they were “kid stuff.” As the twentieth century ended they had become a major cultural influence. No man was more responsible for that transformation than Stan Lee. Stan Lee: A Life in Comics, by Liel Leibovitz explores Lee’s life in a biography revealing the man and his influence.

Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922, Lee grew up in New York City. Good with words, Lee grew up a reader, retreating into books and writing as his father’s career collapsed during the Depression. After high school, deciding to become a writer, he shortened his name to Stan Lee. Comics were not adolescent Lee’s main interest. He read and enjoyed the newspaper comics, but his real love was literature. Shakespeare and movies fascinated him.

Lee drifted into comics. After high school, following a series of unsuccessful jobs, he asked an uncle for help. His uncle sent Lee to Timely Publications, owned by another relative. Timely published pulp – anything that sold. The newest hot seller was comic books. Lee became the errand boy for comic book illustrators Jack Kirby and Joe Simon.

Leibovitz shows how in the 1930s comic book publishing was a Jewish ghetto. Antisemitism was accepted. WASPs dominated publishing’s prestigious niches. Jews were tolerated in popular yet seedier corners of publishing, like comics.

Comics remained low prestige for decades as Lee rose to an editor’s slot at Timely. Even during World War II, when Lee was in the Army, he worked on comics. Working with men like Charles Addams, Theodore Geisel, and William Saroyan, Lee churned out comic book training manuals.

By the early 1960s Lee wanted out. Comics were at a low point. Pornography was more respectable, especially after psychiatrist Frederic Wertham denounced comics as endangering the mental health of America’s youth – and was believed.

Then lightning struck. Lee’s boss asked him to create a comic around a superhero team. Lee’s creation was the Fantastic Four. Borrowing themes from Jewish myth and religion for the plotline, Lee gave them frailties and insecurities. It proved a massive hit.

Lee introduced new superheroes like Spiderman and the X-Men, and recast old one like Captain America in this new template. They struck a chord with America’s youth.

In Stan Lee, Leibovitz reveals Lee as a mythmaker. He shows how Lee created myths about himself and Marvel Comics (Timely’s new name), and eventually transformed American culture.

Stan Lee: A Life in Comics,” by Liel Leibovitz, Yale University Press, 2020, 192 pages, $26.00.

This review was written by Mark Lardas who writes at Ricochet as Seawriter. Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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  1. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Oh I was just bingeing all the movies a few weeks ago. It’s so fun the way he did his little cameos in them.

    • #1
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Oh I was just bingeing all the movies a few weeks ago. It’s so fun the way he did his little cameos in them.

    Sometimes after they ended, in the credits.

    • #2
  3. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a superhero movie.  I did see part of, I think, Wolverine, if he’s the one who has knife blades come out of the backs of his hands.  Meh.

    • #3
  4. Judge Mental Member
    Judge Mental
    @JudgeMental

    RightAngles (View Comment):

    Oh I was just bingeing all the movies a few weeks ago. It’s so fun the way he did his little cameos in them.

    I got tired of the cameos a long, long time ago.  Yeah, that’s right.  I said it.

    • #4
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    An article that I read once said that Kirby had more to do with the creation of the most popular Marvel characters, but that Lee provided the talent for promotion.

    Two big name from my childhood. I still have never won a No-prize. Thanks for the review.

    • #5
  6. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    • #6
  7. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Percival (View Comment):

    An article that I read once said that Kirby had more to do with the creation of the most popular Marvel characters, but that Lee provided the talent for promotion.

    Two big name from my childhood. I still have never won a No-prize. Thanks for the review.

    The book discusses that. I’d say both were indispensable, but Lee was better at grabbing credit. 

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter: Charles Addams Theodore Geisel

    Is there a comma missing here?

    • #8
  9. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Seawriter: Charles Addams Theodore Geisel

    Is there a comma missing here?

    Yes.

    • #9
  10. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    Yes.

    Too bad, with a name like that, I really wanted to find that guy’s work.

    • #10
  11. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    Stan Lee eventually became a comics executive, IIRC, making him different from other myth creators of the era.

    By contrast Gene Roddenberry never became a big shot at Paramount or other film companies. Same with Rod Serling. They will always be honored as the creators of major entertainment franchises, but only Stan got a piece of the real action. 

    • #11
  12. Danny Alexander Member
    Danny Alexander
    @DannyAlexander

    Per the imaginings of Key & Peele:  Stan Lee — The Declining But Still Majority Shareholder Years…

    https://youtu.be/j9Uh_RucKz8

    • #12
  13. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    I am personally glad that Stan Lee was born in America. If his family stayed in Romania, I don’t think he could have done what he did. Wrote a whole post about it. 

    • #13
  14. James Lileks Contributor
    James Lileks
    @jameslileks

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    I’d say both were indispensable, but Lee was better at grabbing credit. 

    Same with Ditko. Stan was the secret blend of herbs and spices, and you only have to look at Kitby’s DC work and Ditko’s Charlton stints – to say nothing of his independently produced Objectivist comics – to realize that Lee brought wit and brio to the partnerships. You can read the worst accounts of him and still come away liking him, or at least liking his persona.

    • #14
  15. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge
    Gazpacho Grande'
    @ChrisCampion

    Percival (View Comment):

    An article that I read once said that Kirby had more to do with the creation of the most popular Marvel characters, but that Lee provided the talent for promotion.

    Two big name from my childhood. I still have never won a No-prize. Thanks for the review.

    I used to read that part of the comics, too – every issue.  I had a subscription at one point, getting the 3 main SpiderMan comics delivered, after the local store I used to buy them in closed.  Stan’s stuff in the back made me feel like, I don’t know, part of it, in some way.  He was talking to the readers directly.  

    Used to love going to that local store when I had a few bucks and buying up the newest issues.  Had stacks of those things in my room.  I’d read and re-read them, again and again.

     

    • #15
  16. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Gazpacho Grande' (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    An article that I read once said that Kirby had more to do with the creation of the most popular Marvel characters, but that Lee provided the talent for promotion.

    Two big name from my childhood. I still have never won a No-prize. Thanks for the review.

    I used to read that part of the comics, too – every issue. I had a subscription at one point, getting the 3 main SpiderMan comics delivered, after the local store I used to buy them in closed. Stan’s stuff in the back made me feel like, I don’t know, part of it, in some way. He was talking to the readers directly.

    Used to love going to that local store when I had a few bucks and buying up the newest issues. Had stacks of those things in my room. I’d read and re-read them, again and again.

     

    It was the first thing I can think of where the customers’ viewpoints were taken seriously. The No-prize as I recall was awarded for not only pointing out an inconsistency and then proposing a solution that reestablished the status quo. The letter pages weren’t only congenial, they almost seemed collegial

    I suppose Mr. Lee could teach Lucasfilm a thing or two.

    • #16
  17. Al Sparks Thatcher
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    I first was a Superman fan and by extension a DC Comics fan in the 1960’s.

    But I later converted to Marvel, though I was reading both brands.  The Fantastic Four was my first Marvel comic I glombed onto, primarily because there was a Saturday morning cartoon of them.  I eventually started reading all the Marvel mags.

    I didn’t stop buying comic books until I joined the Coast Guard.  Reading comics was out of the question during boot camp.  But when I was stationed on my first cutter (or ship, for you Navy swabs out there) I tried resuming my habit, but found that I didn’t have the space to store them.  And I didn’t like throwing them away.

    • #17
  18. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    I met Stan Lee in college in the late sixties when he hosted an informal question and answer session on campus. He was hugely popular and seemed quite humble in that setting. It was a largely male audience of course. The most popular off campus pizza parlor was named Anna Maria’s but called Bat’s because the owner had at one time, looked like Bat Masterson. Its’ appeal was cheap authentic NY style pizza, one dollar beer that you grabbed from a cooler and a huge stack of Marvel comics.

    Good times.

    • #18
  19. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Southern Pessimist (View Comment):
    I met Stan Lee in college in the late sixties when he hosted an informal question and answer session on campus. He was hugely popular and seemed quite humble in that setting.

    Lee grew up a poor kid in New York City, and skipped college before World War II because he could not afford it. After World War II he already had a career, so he never took advantage of the GI Bill to go back. He was in awe of those who did go, and remained amazed that college students were actually interested in what he had to say.

    • #19
  20. Al Sparks Thatcher
    Al Sparks
    @AlSparks

    Back when Dick Cavett had a daytime show, he had Stan Lee on.  It must of been during the summer, because I was able to watch it since school was out.  I don’t remember the year, but the daytime show ran from ’68 to ’69.

    It was a big letdown.  I think that it was a 90 minute show, he was the last guest, and it was a very short segment.  I waited and waited for him to come on.

    It might have been Stan the Man’s first network show appearance.

    I can’t find that segment.  Cavett’s nighttime shows are online, not his older daytime shows.

    • #20