Why Stan Lee's comic creations are more than just men in tightsby Sam Leith / July 16, 2020 / Leave a comment
There’s a paragraph, early on in Liel Leibovitz’s life of Stan Lee, that pretty much causes the jaw to hit the floor and the eyeballs to pop out. It was late 1961 and comics were in the doldrums: the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham’s attack on the industry as damaging to children had led it to adopt a prudish Comics Code to avoid government regulation. Seriously considering quitting Atlas Comics (later called Marvel) for good, Lee hunkered down with the artist Jack Kirby and created the Fantastic Four. As Leibovitz ably describes, the Four were like nothing that had come before: superpowered, yes, but bickering and uncertain—polyvalent. They were morally and personally complex and relatable in ways that the old superheroes in whose shadow they were born were not.
The main axis of internal friction mirrored the friction between their creators. Ben Grimm, “The Thing,” was Kirby: saturnine, street-smart and brawny. Reed Richards, “Mr Fantastic,” was Lee: clever but irritating, all long words and big ideas.
But it was what came next, and how fast, that astonishes. When the Fantastic Four became an instant hit, Lee’s Atlas boss told them to write some more super-heroes: “the Hulk arrived in May 1962, followed, in August, by both Spider-Man and Thor. Iron Man debuted the following March, and by the time 1963, the grievous year of the Kennedy assassination, slouched to an end, Lee, almost always working with Kirby, had delivered Doctor Strange, the X-Men and the Avengers.”
Those mere two years, then, gave us a constellation of characters and a fictional universe that has endured for seven decades, and by the end of the 1960s, “the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther, and the Guardians of the Galaxy had all joined the pantheon.” Since then the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) series of 23 films, beginning with Iron Man in 2008 and completed last year with Avengers: Endgame, has collectively grossed $22.5bn and brought the characters created by Lee, who died aged 95 in 2018, to a new global audience.
Back in the 1960s, Lee gave comics an idiom they had not possessed before. I don’t think it’s too…