‘Smilin’ Stan’ was more than just an artist and comic superhero creator—he’s a larger-than-life piece of iconic art himself
From a cluttered office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan in the 1960s, Stan Lee helped conjure a lineup of pulp-fiction heroes that have come to define much of popular culture in the early 21st century. Think of “Spider-Man,” the blockbuster movie franchise and Broadway spectacle. Think of “Iron Man,” another Hollywood gold-mine series personified by its star, Robert Downey Jr. Think of “Black Panther,” the box-office superhero smash that shattered big screen racial barriers in the process. Under ‘Stan the Man’, Marvel transformed the comic book world by imbuing these characters with the self-doubts and neuroses of average people, as well an awareness of trends and social causes (whether it be Vietnam, civil rights or the threat of nuclear annihilation) and, often, a sense of humour. In humanising his heroes, giving them character flaws and insecurities that belied their supernatural strengths, Lee tried “to make them real flesh-and-blood characters with personality,” he told The Washington Post in 1992. Therefore, crucially, it always felt as if these costumed titans were not so very different from the humble readers and watchers who loved them. It tells them that, yes, they possess super-powers but that their increased speed and strength will throw up a whole new set of problems and that gaining great power brings great responsibility.
Though he initially became famous as a comics writer, Lee’s writing is perhaps the least-celebrated aspect of his career and legacy. He’s mostly known as the co-creator of hugely successful characters even though he probably had less input into them than his collaborating artists, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby. Lee was also known for acting as the publisher and public face of Marvel after 1971, a role that led naturally to his numerous cameos in the gigantically successful Marvel films. But he was a remarkable artist, too. Whereas Ditko and Kirby reveled in larger-than-life images, Lee’s dialogue let readers know he was eager to astound them, that he loved astounding them, that he was right there in ALL CAPS—consumed by his capacity to wow, astonish, and entertain readers and, later, audiences. Lee’s unwavering energy suggested that he possessed superpowers himself but, alas, like his superheroes, he, too, had one arch nemesis—time. “The only problem is time. I just wish there were more time”, he said in “With Great Power …: The Stan Lee Story”, a 2010 television documentary. His creations, though, will survive the test of time. Excelsior!