Still Smilin'?

Part Disney, part Barnum, the man who saved comics is all Stan Lee

"If they were my children--if I owned Spider-Man or the others--of course I would be checking up," he says. "They would be very precious to me. But I don't own them. They belong to Marvel Comics, and I have absolutely nothing to say about them. So, to me, it might as well be Superman or Batman. They're not mine."

And neither are the comic books he once worked on: Last year he was contacted by Dallas-based Heritage Comics Auction house and began selling off his entire collection, including the issues he wrote from 1962 till the early '70s. Heritage's John Petty says a signed but "beat-to-hell" issue of Strange Tales No. 135, featuring the first appearance of Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., recently sold for $900, though it's worth no more than $20 in most comic price guides.

"I don't think Stan is nostalgic," Petty says. "One of the things that impressed me the first time I met him was he has scrapbooks full of letters people sent him and wrote to him. If you ever wrote him a fan letter, he's probably got it. He treasures and values and thinks highly of his fans, and that means more to him than the first appearance of Spider-Man."

Though Steve Ditko co-created Spider-Man, Stan Lee is generally recognized as his father, as Marvel illustrator John Romita made clear in this illustration.
Though Steve Ditko co-created Spider-Man, Stan Lee is generally recognized as his father, as Marvel illustrator John Romita made clear in this illustration.
Stan the Man, surrounded by his co-creations
Stan the Man, surrounded by his co-creations

But what of preserving his work for posterity? Lee answers this himself.

"Oh, let posterity worry about itself."

But Stan Lee has been a most protective guardian of history, which is why he's at once the most beloved figure in the history of comicdom and the most beleaguered, a man considered savior by most but unsavory by some within the industry.

To most folks, those who read the comics as kids or saw the movies as adults, Lee's the kind, charming patriarch--Smilin' Stan Lee, Stan the Man. But over the years, a portrait has emerged of someone who claimed for himself credit due others in order to propagate his own profitable mythology. As a result, the history books haven't been so kind to Lee, painting him as a "dazzling writer, a skilled editor, a prodigious talent, a relentless self-promoter, a credit hog and a hustler--a man equal parts P.T. Barnum and Walt Disney," as Raphael and Spurgeon write in their forthcoming biography.

There is no doubt Lee helped rescue the industry in the early '60s, just as there is no debate he reinvented the medium in his own image. He brought to comics superheroes who fought among each other, who often didn't even like being super, whose private lives smelled of soap opera, who sometimes looked more like villains than heroes. His heroes sounded like real people, suffered like real people, acted like real people; they were funny and familiar, unlike the stiff do-gooding dullards being cranked out at DC Comics.

But Lee did not do it alone: From the very beginning, Lee relied on artists and writers Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, whose contributions to the medium have gone little noticed outside the insular comic-book universe. Ask anyone who has seen the Marvel movies to name the creator of Spider-Man or Hulk or X-Men or Daredevil, and surely they will tell you, "Stan Lee." Lee has done much to make sure this is the case: His lawsuit against Marvel names him as "the creator and artistic force behind" those characters and more, not co-creator.

The late Kirby and the reclusive Ditko are superheroes who became known as little more than sidekicks. The reasons for this date back to 1940, when Kirby and partner Joe Simon, creators of Captain America, hired the 17-year-old Lee to dump their ashtrays. Back then they thought him a bit of a nuisance, and Kirby would come to resent this kid becoming his boss and collaborator years later. There was also a January 1966 article in the New York Herald Tribune that portrayed Lee as a "rangy Rex Harrison" who plotted every Marvel comic and made Kirby out as a nodding, cigar-chomping yes-man who looked like "the assistant foreman in a girdle factory," when in fact Kirby drew and plotted the comic pages and gave them to Lee to fill in the dialogue. By the 1970s, Lee would come to refer to Ditko not as collaborator but as "the man I chose to illustrate the web-spinner's adventures."

Things got worse between Kirby and Lee in the mid-'80s, when Marvel refused to return to Kirby his original artwork for the comics he illustrated during the '60s, which had become valuable in the collectors market and were considered by then important works of pop art. Marvel wanted Kirby to sign papers insisting he wouldn't reprint the works, while Kirby wanted Marvel to formally (and financially) acknowledge him as co-creator of the famous characters he worked on. Though Lee had moved to the West Coast in 1980 to work on turning Marvel's characters into film and TV properties, Kirby would hold him partially responsible for what became a legal mess and a PR nightmare for Marvel, which finally returned to Kirby much of his works. Kirby, who died in 1993, eventually came to resent Lee so much that in a vicious 1989 interview with The Comics Journal he insisted, "Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything!" and said Lee "took advantage of whoever was working for him."

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