The genius of Stan Lee

Looking back at the incredible life of Marvel’s creative mastermind, Stan Lee...

It’s hard to imagine a world without the characters, stories and comics created by Stan Lee. When he passed away last year at the age of 95, the world lost a creative genius.

In celebration of the posthumous release of one of his last projects, Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick Of Light – which in true Stan Lee style captures the cultural zeitgeist with tales of a world dominated by technology – we’re taking a look back at the life of the visionary comic book maestro and how the stories he created transformed pop culture.

First, a bit of background. Lee started his career as Stanley Martin Lieber, an assistant at a small American comic book publisher, Timely Comics. Undeniably talented, he quickly rose through the ranks to become editor at the tender age of 18.

In his first 20 odd years at Timely, Lieber kept the status quo, churning out the kinds of stories popular at the time, from science fiction and horror to westerns and romance, to give Timely’s young audience their regular comics fix.

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For someone with such creativity and lofty ambitions – Lee dreamed of writing the ‘Great American Novel’ – he was unsatisfied with much of his early work. Too ashamed to go by his real name when publishing his work, he came up with the pseudonym ‘Stan Lee’ to distance himself from the stories and characters he created.

The real turning point for Stan was when DC Comics’ Justice League Of America arrived in 1961. Timely needed to respond, well… in timely fashion. The company founder, Martin Goodman, asked Lee to come up with a superhero team to rival the Justice League’s great success.

In Lee’s version of events, this request came at a time when he was pretty much ready to throw in the towel. Unhappy about the endless churn of his work up to that point, he was going to quit the comic book world for good – we think we speak for everyone when we say we’re so glad he didn’t!

With nothing to lose, Lee’s wife, Joan, encouraged him to throw caution to the wind and create something he could be proud of, and so the Fantastic Four began to take shape – a shape far more three-dimensional than anything the comic book world had seen before. Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm were unconventional heroes whose superhuman powers were offset by very real human flaws.

With that shift, ‘Stan Lee’ was no longer a name to hide behind, as readers lapped up the trials, tribulations and family drama of The Fantastic Four. This was just what the comic book world needed, and began Lee’s legacy as the man who made heroes.

With the success of The Fantastic Four and the creation of the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man following soon after, Lee had well and truly left his mark on the Silver Age of comic books.

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If the Golden Age was the birth of the comic book, the Silver era was its coming of age. Gone were the ridiculously perfect, indestructible characters with their rote good-conquers-evil stories. Superheroes now had real, gritty issues your average reader could relate to – their problems ranged from Peter Parker’s relationship troubles to Tony Stark’s serious alcohol addiction in Iron Man. In Stan the Man’s words, “Just because you have superpowers, that doesn’t mean your love life would be perfect.”

Timely was rebranded ‘Marvel’, in honour of Lee’s new Marvel Universe, and the company went from strength to strength. Thanks to the strong creative wavelength between Lee and his collaborators, including the great Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, they kept up with demand by creating stories through the ‘Marvel Method’.

Bypassing the traditional lengthy process of creating comic books – where writers perfected scripts before commissioning any artwork – Lee would share an outline of his new character ideas with his collaborators. They would then expertly bring the characters to life on the page before going back to Lee to fill in the dialogue. This made comic book creation much more efficient, and the team knocked out an astounding number of characters we still love today, including the Hulk, Iron Man and the X-Men, in just a few short years. To date, Marvel boasts a library of over 8,000 unique characters!

Each character had a complex personality and dealt with relatable issues. The X-Men were ostracised by society for being different, Black Panther brought an African superhero to prominence at the height of the civil rights movement and the Hulk battled with inner demons and a rage that literally turned him mean and green.

Lee also had a genius for promotion. He turned himself into a friendly, approachable figurehead for Marvel – something never seen before in comics – and built a sense of community among fans with the help of letter pages and his ‘Bullpen Bulletins’ updates. Even today, his editor’s letters are remarkable for the strong stance he took against racism and other forms of prejudice, putting him well ahead of the societal curve.

Not many great artists are lucky enough to enjoy their legacy in their own lifetime, but Stan Lee got to watch his brilliant characters go from humble pencil outlines to Hollywood stars. By the time of his death in 2018, he had seen his characters turned into multiple Marvel blockbuster movies and boasted a cameo appearance in almost all of them. From a Hugh Hefner look-alike in Iron Man to an oblivious librarian in The Amazing Spider-Man, he became Marvel’s most treasured movie Easter egg.

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Although Lee’s creative input at Marvel diminished as he moved on to new ventures – his larger than life personality, cameos and active role as a Marvel ambassador meant his presence was always felt. In his later years, he became everyone’s favourite comic book grandpa.

Lee’s cultural influence didn’t stop with Marvel. The cameo king began to pop up in surprising places – from brief appearances in Heroes, Kick-Ass and even The Princess Diaries 2 to a small role playing himself in The Big Bang Theory. He also successfully experimented with his own projects outside of the comic world, including co-creating the crime drama, Lucky Man. Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick Of Light marks another exciting offering from an icon who was never afraid to try out new ideas and new mediums.

In his 95 years, he transformed a small comic book publishing house into the mighty Marvel, invented the modern-day superhero and created some of the most iconic characters in pop culture. His impact on the superhero genre and the world simply can’t be overstated, and it seems like he had a pretty cracking ride along the way. Excelsior!

Stan Lee’s Alliances: A Trick Of Light is available on Audible now.