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The Man Behind Spider-Man?

Stan Lee is a legend. But not for the reasons you think.

Cover detail of "Stan Lee's How to Write Comics" (Watson-Guptill)

Stanley Martin Lieber, known to generations of Marvel Comics readers as Stan Lee, last weekend launched yet another creation: a line of comics for young kids. But he hasn’t actually written a comic in decades. Even when he did, his definition of “writing” probably wouldn’t have lined up with yours. Lee’s work, for the most part, involved unleashing a torrent of plot points at one of his artists and acting out fight scenes. The artist would then repair to his drafting table to attend to the work of shaping a given story’s layout, pacing, tone and—in many cases—even its characters and dialogue.

It’s largely because of this division of labor—which has since come to be called “The Marvel Method”—that Lee’s status as the Beloved All-Father of Modern Comics discomfits fans and comics historians like me. Lee’s grinning, mustachioed mug should, by all rights, share the Mount Rushmore of Comicdom with the aggrieved, scowling visages of artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. It was Kirby and Ditko who established the trippy visual language that drove the “Marvel Revolution” of the early 1960s and the creative ascendancy that followed.

Marel Comics/Jack Kirby
The 1961 debut of the legendary Fantastic Four series.

And as that decade wore on, Lee devoted less and less time to plotting comics, eagerly transforming himself from Marvel’s head spitballer to a role that can only be described as Flack-in-Chief. Ditko (who co-created Spider-Man and Dr. Strange), Kirby (who co-created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and many of the other classic Marvel characters familiar to non-fans) shouldered more and more of the narrative load, alongside scripters and “co-plotters”—an ambiguous role that is to comics what  “associate producer” is to film.

In comics, credit—the proper apportioning of it—matters hugely. That’s partly about remuneration: Many writers and artists who’ve created iconic characters have argued, correctly, that their work makes Marvel and archrival DC Comics millions in licensing alone. But they rarely see that money: Both publishers keep vast legal departments leashed like hounds, and set them loose with nigh-limitless resources to argue that any such creations represent work-for-hire. Despite temporary victories for the little guy, pretty much every battle between a beleaguered creator and a megacorporation like Marvel or Warner Bros (DC’s owner) ends the same way.

These legal wranglings are about rights and recompense, yes. But more deeply they are about reputation, about having your name forever attached to a character who will, thanks to fan devotion (and, in no small measure, to licensing deals and cross-platform synergy) outlive you. For the most part, today’s generation of mainstream comics writers and artists acknowledge this state of affairs with a resigned shrug. A lucky few, like The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman, can swear off working for The Big Two at all and still make money. Many others alternate between creator-owned projects at publishers like Image and work for DC or Marvel.

Getty/Kevin Winter
Lee at the 2011 premiere of "Thor," based on the Marvel Comics series he co-created.

But when it comes to a character’s conceptual roots, old-school comics pros like Lee are unreliable narrators. These men, who churned out our contemporary myths like their Madison Avenue peers churned out floorwax slogans, are notoriously given to self-mythology. Over the years, for example, many of the particulars in Lee’s accounts of how he dreamed up the flagship characters of the Marvel Revolution have changed. Of late, he’s much more prone to acknowledge the prodigious conceptual and narrative contributions of his artists, but this has not always been the case.

The picture of Lee that emerges from Sean Howe’s hugely entertaining Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, published last fall, is that of an inveterate company man who grew besotted with his role as a hip, “with-it” spokespimp; a three-piece-suit executive who came to revel in his polyester-leisure-suit drag. Howe sifts through Lee’s conflicting accounts of, say, Spider-Man’s provenance with admirable skill. In the process, something else becomes quite clear: Despite what ardent fans will tell you, what made readers rabid for Marvel’s ham-fisted stories had less to do with how they were told, and much more to do with how they were sold. 

Lee did what any skilled executive does when ordered to move more product: identify a new market—in this case, adolescents who’d previously dismissed comics as “kids stuff” once they turned 12—and devise a ruthlessly effective method for selling to them. Lee oversaw an initiative that took the childlike, often Freudian emotionalism that had been a staple of comics for decades (“B—Batman is kissing Batwoman! I g-guess he doesn’t need me anymore (*CHOKE*)!”) and dipped it in a pungent bath of adolescent hormones.

Marvel/Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Stan Goldberg
Spider-Man debuted in "Amazing Fantasy" #15 (1962).

Before Lee stepped into the executive suite, strong emotions cropped up in comics all the time, but only as a function of plot (“*SOB*! My beloved Super-Horse is flying away!”). Lee and his artists, meanwhile, created characters who came factory-installed with enough behavioral disorders to fill the DSM-I. The Human Torch was pathologically touchy. The Hulk literally personified pure rage. Spider-Man wallowed in guilt and sulked around like a moody, self-obsessed teen—who just so happened to look, and act, and think, a hell of a lot like his readers. This wasn’t coincidence. It was marketing. 

Lee dosed every page of the comics with his propriety brand of sizzle, especially in the column “Bullpen Bulletins,” which introduced readers to Lee’s comic avatar “Smilin’ Stan Lee.” In his trademark tinted aviators, medallions, and a pinkie ring, Smilin’ Stan stoked fierce brand loyalty by exhorting his readers to “Keep readin’!” and to “Make Mine Marvel!” This cornball brio of Lee’s became the Marvel brand, more than Spidey’s mask or The Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Thing’s ever-lovin’ blue eyes. He soaked up the resulting attention like a sponge in bell bottoms and a bad toupee, happily granting interviews, lecturing on the college circuit and, before long, moving out to the coast for a life of L.A. power lunches. Excelsior, indeed.

He’s still out there, going strong. Last December, Stanley Martin Lieber celebrated his 90th birthday. The old guy’s settlin’ happily into his golden years, thank you very much, engagin’ in some pulse-poundin’ legal tussles of his own, lendin’ his name to various projects, including the new Stan Lee’s Kid’s Universe—a venture which, let’s note, effectively reverses the formula that originally brought him fame and fortune. 

And in between meetings, he continues to regale rapt interviewers with terrifyin’ true tales of the Marvel Revolution.

Well. “True.” ‘Nuff said.

Glen Weldon is a freelance writer and panelist on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour. His book, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, will be published in April.