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Avengers assembling: Stan Lee was responsible for some of Marvel’s most iconic characters. Photo: Evans/Alamy Stock Photo

Stan Lee’s American pantheon

Why Stan Lee's comic creations are more than just men in tights

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…

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