Still Smilin'?

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

The argument over who created what might never be solved, though academics and comic fetishists have tried. Comic books weren't taken seriously till fact and fiction blurred into this mishmash of history in which everyone did everything and no one did anything. Says Spurgeon, "Stan and Jack are fighting over phantoms--inspiration." Suffice it to say Lee needed Kirby and Ditko just as they needed him: They were never so good as when they worked together.

"Steve feels he co-created Spider-Man with me because he drew it, and as far as I'm concerned, maybe he's right and I have no problem with that, but he did not come up with the idea for Spider-Man," Lee says. "Deep down in the inner recesses of my soul, I feel the guy who had the idea was the guy who created it. But Steve says, and maybe rightly so, all I had was an idea, and until he put it on paper it was just an idea, so I'm very happy to say he was the co-creator. But he resents me saying that. He says, 'It's not for you to say you're happy to say,' so, I don't know, there's nothing I can say that will satisfy these people. And as far as Jack goes, the one thing that bothered him the most, that I know of, was the company didn't give him his artwork back. Nobody understands I had nothing to do with that. I was out here in L.A. doing whatever the hell I do out here...The other day I read somebody had written, 'Why didn't Stan step in and help him?!' For all I knew Marvel was right, and if Jack was right, let him work it out. I don't get involved in things like that."

I tell Lee that when you're reading those books as a child, you have no idea there's bad blood mixed in with the ink, but as an adult it's heartbreaking to find out so legendary a collaboration ended so acrimoniously. He agrees.

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

"It's a shame, because Jack and Steve were really the only two guys that I ever had a falling-out with," he says. "There may have been other dissatisfied people, but they didn't say anything to my face. But it's a shame, because I'm their biggest fan. I mean, both of these guys are brilliant. And I never denied that after the first few things we had done, I let them do a lot of the plotting, I didn't care. And I would let them do a lot of the plotting, and I would just put in the dialogue and the captions and would change a lot of things when I didn't like them, but I had other things on my mind. It was a funny situation."

Whether Stan Lee was the John Lennon or Paul McCartney--or Ringo Starr--of Marvel Comics is meaningless to most, an argument left to the fanboys and, now, the lawyers. At the end of the day, he still brought millions of readers--kids, college students, even counterculture filmmakers and musicians who for years would reference Marvel's heroes--to a medium thought dead and buried by the late 1950s. Whether he was writing dialogue or winking asides in the margins or penning "Stan Lee's Soapbox" at the end of each issue, Lee came off as your best friend, an accomplice, a grown-up who preferred to spend his time entertaining kids (and the stoners getting a buzz off Dr. Strange's psychedelic adventures) than socializing with the middle-aged.

"You could wanna be Spider-Man, yes, but you also wanted to be Stan Lee or Jack Kirby when you grew up," Spurgeon says. "He presented the creator as hero and had winking conversations with fans, and that delighted younger fans. Here was a guy who would say in an aside, 'We know this is a comic story and we're having a good time.'"

David Goyer was one of those kids. Today, he's a comic-book author and a screenwriter; he just turned in his script for the next Batman film, to be directed by Memento's Christopher Nolan. It was Goyer who, in 1998, proved Marvel could make profitable films from its back catalog. He convinced New Line to make three films based on a little-known Marvel character named Blade, a vampire killer; the first film made more than $100 million, a sequel was released last year and the third installment is due next year.

Lee will often thank Goyer for getting Marvel in the movie business, after so many years of aborted projects and amateurish productions in the '70s and '80s. Goyer returns the favor tenfold, insisting that Lee is the very reason he and so many other writers got into the entertainment business--not just because he made his heroes accessible, but because they were infused with their co-creator's affable, larger-than-life personality. Lee, he says, created superheroes who "cared about you and what you were interested in," much more than those being cranked out by the competition.

"The fact he was so visible and so much a self-promoter benefited comics as a whole, in particular Marvel," Goyer says. "And you can't put a negative public-relations spin on it. I am where I am today because of it, because of my perceived relationship with Stan. As a man who revolutionized the comic industry, his importance cannot be understated."

Especially by Stan Lee.

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