kunc-header-1440x90.png
Our Story Happens Here
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Excelsior! How Stan Lee Remade American Myth

Stan Lee poses with Spider-Man during the Spider-Man 40th Birthday celebration in 2002 in Universal City, California.
Stan Lee poses with Spider-Man during the Spider-Man 40th Birthday celebration in 2002 in Universal City, California.

Born as Stanley Lieber to immigrants, he was an avid reader who dreamed of literary fame. He found his way into comics. First, he filled inkwells in the years when the medium was considered a public menace.

Soon, he was writing comics. He split his first name into two in the credits (he legally changed his name in the 1970s) of his earliest works, implying that his new comics imprint, Marvel, had more writers than it really did. And those credits appeared on stories about heroes who were a little more human than the caped crusaders that dominated the comic book shop shelves. Spider-Man might save the day, but he still has to do his homework. The Fantastic Four were a formidable fighting force that couldn’t stop bickering at times. And Wolverine … well, was Wolverine.

The characters also lived in the real world, and Marvel comics sometimes addressed social issues of the time.

From a 1968 column Lee wrote in Marvel comics:

Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately.

It wasn’t Lee’s political stances that earned him professional ire, though. From The New York Times:

Mr. Lee was often faulted for not adequately acknowledging the contributions of his illustrators, especially Mr. Kirby. Spider-Man became Marvel’s best-known property, but Mr. Ditko, its co-creator, quit Marvel in bitterness in 1966. Mr. Kirby, who visually designed countless characters, left in 1969. Though he reunited with Mr. Lee for a Silver Surfer graphic novel in 1978, their heyday had ended.

Many comic fans believe that Mr. Kirby was wrongly deprived of royalties and original artwork in his lifetime, and for years the Kirby estate sought to acquire rights to characters that Mr. Kirby and Mr. Lee had created together. Mr. Kirby’s heirs were long rebuffed in court on the grounds that he had done “work for hire” — in other words, that he had essentially sold his art without expecting royalties.

The Marvel characters didn’t stay in the comics forever. As we all know, the screen adaptations of Spider-Man and, later, the Avengers, found gigantic audiences on screen. Marvel now generates billions of dollars in ticket sales with each new blockbuster. The comic books that were once a menace are now a goldmine. And the characters that were once for kids are now for everyone.

Stan Lee may have lived an American story, but then he ended up creating them.

Show produced by Amanda Williams.

GUESTS

Evan Narcisse, Senior Staff Writer, io9/Gizmodo; co-author of “Rise of the Black Panther.” @EvNarc

Jessica Merriman, Founder and co-chairman of MomoCon and Director of Outside Events at Dragon Con.

Jennifer Brett, Multiplatform journalist and Digital Coach, Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Nick Spencer, Comic book writer currently writing “The Amazing Spider-Man” for Marvel Comics.

For more, visit https://the1a.org.

© 2018 WAMU 88.5 – American University Radio.

Copyright 2020 WAMU 88.5. To see more, visit WAMU 88.5.