As Norse Gods, American super soldiers and billionaire playboy philanthropist technocrats in multi-billion dollar battle suits launch into battle across cinema screens throughout the world to a hail of cheers and applause from fans of adventure of all ages does anyone wonder who decided to put these characters together? As the Silver Surfer CGI expands the limits of modern special effects technology on the silver screen while being pursued by a man on fire across the skyline of Manhattan does anyone notice the slightly built, silver haired gentleman in glasses being turned away from Sue and Reed Richard’s wedding? It’s the man who created the flaming figure and put him in Manhattan, who created the platform upon which the Silver Surfer sails, the Hulk smashes, Ghost Rider seeks vengeance and Spider-man spins his web. Let’s not beat around the bush. No Stan Lee, no Avengers, Spider-man, X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk. No Marvel comics. So no bringing Nick Fury, Namor and Captain America back from the dead. No Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Daredevil, Jack Flag. No Wolverine, Elektra, War Machine, Mary Jane. Definitely no Aunt May or J.Jonah Jameson.
Lee is a world class media operator before media operators were known to exist. Given opportunities many others had in the boom of comic books, Lee created something substantial, meaningful and powerful. He created a framework that would prove to be the single most well known and profitable set of franchises in history, revolutionise the way people read comics and bring a wry smile to many a fanboys face. He’s Stan Lee. There is no one like him. And this is his story…
Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in a tiny apartment at the corner of West 98th Street and West End Avenue, New York City on December 28, 1922. His father worked a dress cutter, working only sporadically after the Great Depression of the 1930s. Lee had one other sibling, his brother , Harry Lieber, 9 years Lee’s junior and described the one-bedroom apartment he and the rest of his family had lived in at 1720 University Avenue as “a third-floor apartment facing out back”, with him and his brother sharing a bedroom and his parents using a foldout couch.
As a child, Lee has recently revealed that he was fascinated and influenced by books and movies, in particular those of legendary swashbuckler, Errol Flynn. Attending DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Lee found entertainment and inspiration in his voracious reading habit. His penchant for writing was present early on, as a youth he worked such part time jobs as writing obituaries for a news service and press releases for the National Turberculosis Centre (where presumably he gained his chatty patter, while trying to alleviate the heavy language associated with such writing you can only imagine that writing anything lighter was a distinct joy), delivering sandwiches for the Jack May pharmacy to offices in Rockefeller Center, working as a trouser boy for a trouser manufacturer; ushering at the Rivoli Theater on Broadway; and selling subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. Graduating high school early at 16 and a half in 1939, Lee joined the arguably awkwardly titled WPA Federal Theatre Project.
At a young age, as other Practitioners such as Jack Kirby were roughing in the streets and studying to become artists, Lee had immersed himself in New York. He had mucked in and fronted life out on the island of Manhattan. He hadn’t leapt straight for his dream job with both hands but done something immeasurably more valuable perhaps as a writer. He’d experienced the corners and seen the offices and lives of the average joe of Manhattan. This is something that would undoubtedly inform his work later in his career. This, perhaps, is where Lee’s fascination with the struggle of the average guy formed. In the shadows of the heaven fingering ramparts of giant cathedrals to man’s development and upper limits, there was still the guy making his way from one building to the next bringing sandwiches. New York is perhaps greatest of all cities for this, elevating it’s environment to represent grandeur and greatness while presenting daily struggle and difficulty to the great majority of it’s inhabitants that fuel it. It’s not that no other major city such as London, Paris or Tokyo represented this with both squalor and riches, but nowhere else have they both been so obvious and pronounced and yet so mixed and reliant on the other or for so long than in New York. Without the lingering class systems of London and Tokyo or the leveled society of federal and social in Paris, a dress cutter’s son, educated in the Bronx can wander into the marble lined halls of the Rockefeller center. It blended the exceptional with the every day. New York allowed the average person to witness Marvels.
Sometimes it’s not what you know but who you know and Stan Lee’s first step into comic books was with Timely Comics, thanks to his uncle, Robbie Solomon. Now an assistant on Timely Comics’ division of Pulp magazine and comic book publisher Martin Goodman’s company. Lee’s cousin Jean was Goodman’s wife, which would put Lee in good stead by the time he was hired by the great, Capatain- America-creating Joe Simon. But it wasn’t an unstoppable climb to stardom for Stan Lee.
His duties were prosaic at first and much like that which he had had to do in previous work. “In those days [the artists] dipped the pen in ink, [so] I had to make sure the inkwells were filled”, Lee recalled in 2009. “I went down and got them their lunch, I did proofreading, I erased the pencils from the finished pages for them”. Marshaling his childhood ambition to be a writer, young Stanley Lieber made his comic-book debut with the text filler “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941), using the pseudonym “Stan Lee”, which years later he would adopt as his legal name. Lee later explained in his autobiography and numerous other sources that he had intended to save his given name for more literary work, something that never really surfaced. Lee began immediately to have a lasting effect on the characters that still continue today, with this initial story also introducing Captain America’s trademark ricocheting shield-toss, which immediately became one of the character’s signatures.
He graduated from writing filler to actual comics with a backup feature, “‘Headline’ Hunter, Foreign Correspondent”, two issues later. Lee’s first superhero co-creation was the Destroyer, in Mystic Comics #6 (Aug 1941). The Destroyer was a field journalist, Keen Marlow, captured behind enemy lines and experimented upon with a super hero serum similar to that used on Captain America. The Destroyer was Lee’s most popular character prior to the Fantastic Four and enjoyed a MAX imprint (Volume 4) through Lee’s company Marvel very recently. Other characters he created during this period fans and historians call the Golden Age of comics include Jack Frost, (an amnesiac character made entirely of ice who woke in the icy wastes of the antarctic and is reminiscent of latter day Ice man Bobby Drake) debuting in USA Comics #1 (Aug. 1941), and Father Time (an interesting character used as back up material for Captain America 6-12, involving a hooded figure with a scythe who turns time against crooks), debuting in Captain America Comics #6 (Aug. 1941).
When Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left late in 1941, following a dispute with Goodman, the 30-year-old publisher made a decision that frankly, would alter the face of comics. He installed Stan Lee, just under 19 years old, as interim editor. Unsurprisingly, given Lee’s capacity for operating seamlessly between mover and shaker in later years, Lee showed an ability for business that led him to remain as the comic-book division’s editor-in-chief, as well as art director for much of that time.
But many of Lee’s friends and colleagues of similar age had been called to war and in early 1942, Lee had his call to join the United States Army. He would serve stateside in the Signal Corps, the section of the army that provides communications, writing manuals, training films, slogans and occasionally cartooning. In true Stan Lee style, while Jack Kirby walked into enemy territory to draw maps, Lee’s military classification, he says, was ‘playwright’ adding that only 9 men in the U.S. Army were given that title. Vincent Fago, editor of Timely’s animation comics section, which put out humour and funny animal comics, filled in until Lee got back from his World War II military service in 1945. Danger of bad back from sitting in a chair too long seemingly averted, Lee returned and now lived in the the rented top floor of a Brownstone in the East 90s in Manhattan, much like a certain young man and his doting auntie managed to almost 50 years later….