There were the beginnings of tears in his eyes. He looked up at his mother. He tried not to fidget. Both of them were wearing their "nice clothes," neat and clean. They going back home in the late afternoon to somewhere on the West or South Side of Chicago.
Did this young child, five or six years old, do something wrong? "Backtalk," as some adults are wont to say? "Disrespectful," that horrible catchall phrase for a child who is too curious and asks too many questions?
She thumbed through the manila folder on her lap. He slid closer to her. She put her arm around his shoulder. Mom smiled, love mixed with concern. "The school psychologist says you are behind in your reading." He looked down at the floor of the bus in shame. She hugged him tighter. "But there are these exercises and maybe a special class the teacher said you can take. It will be OK. I love you." He smiled. In his face I saw a bit of myself. In his mother's words I heard those of my mother too.
I leaned across the aisle. Quiet-like, I said, "I had the same thing happen to me."
The city bus is a place where such conversations are more possible, if not necessarily welcome in a country sick with suspicion of strangers.
She looked at me, a mother's protective glance at a grown man talking to her child. He smiled. I decided to continue with my noble lie. "I was behind in my reading when I was in elementary school. Then I discovered comic books."
He smiled again. His mother asked, "That can help?"
"Yes" I said. "Pictures and words together. They actually use comic books now to help adults with their own reading too. Even to learn a second language."
"Comic books, mom!"
I asked him who were his favorite heroes. "Superman? Spider-Man? The X-Men? Iron Man?"
He smiled some more. "Spider-Man," she said. "He can't get enough of Spider-Man."
"No mom! Iron Man!" he said, poking her in the side.
"Well, they're easy to confuse with one another" I replied. We all laughed.
"Mom, can we get some today. Please!"
"Yes." She then leaned in closer to me, whispering, "Thank you, sir. Thank you."
I know Stan Lee would have approved.
Last Monday, writer, editor and publisher Stan Lee, most notably of Marvel Comics fame and one of the most influential voices in American and global popular culture, passed away in Los Angeles. He was 95 years old.
In his long career Stan Lee was either individually or in collaboration with others responsible for creating such iconic characters as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Daredevil and the X-Men. But Lee was more than a creator of comic books. He was also an evangelist for the power of the art form to speak to both children and adults. He was also a type of humanist philosopher.
In his "Stan's Soapbox" feature, included in the back of every Marvel comic published from 1965 to 2001 he offered his nuggets of wisdom. Here was one:
For many years we’ve been trying, in our own bumbling way, to illustrate that love is a far greater force, a far greater power than hate. Now we don’t mean you’re expected to go around like a pirouetting Pollyanna, tossing posies at everyone who passes by, but we do want to make a point. Let’s consider three men: Buddha, Christ, and Moses ... men of peace, whose thoughts and deeds have influenced countless millions throughout the ages -- and whose presence still is felt in every corner of the earth. Buddha, Christ, and Moses ... men of good will, men of tolerance, and especially men of love. Now, consider the practitioners of hate who have sullied the pages of history. Who still venerates their words? Where is homage still paid to their memory? What banners still are raised to their cause? The power of love -- and the power of hate. Which is most truly enduring? When you tend to despair ... let the answer sustain you.
Stan Lee's most widely cited directive and insight was this one:
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.
While Stan Lee may have died, the characters and stories he created will live on. In his own way, Lee achieved immortality. As I said on Twitter on the day of his passing: "Stan Lee is just living a life in another dimension that he created in his own imagination. Brother Lee has just decided that his role in this part of the multiverse is over. Never forget he is one of the Watchers."
How do we separate the myth of Stan Lee from the real person? What does his life reveal about evolution of comic books and graphic novels as a genre and cultural force in America and around the world? Who were Lee's friends and enemies? What is his ultimate legacy?
In an effort to answer these questions I spoke with Reed Tucker. He is an journalist and author whose writing on entertainment and popular culture has appeared in the New York Post, Esquire, Fortune, USA Today and elsewhere.
His most recent book is "Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-year Battle between Marvel and DC."
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How do we separate Stan Lee the man from "Stan Lee" the public figure?
The man we know as Stan Lee is really a character that he created as almost the ultimate public relations figure for Marvel. But I do think there was a lot of his own personality there. I also think Stan Lee was a natural showman and a natural hustler. He grew up during the Great Depression, and his family didn’t have a lot of money. This trained him to always be looking for that next job or opportunity. I think no matter how much success he had or how much money he banked, he was always willing to do the next thing.
I think that contributed a lot to Lee's public persona, which helped him to build up Marvel Comics and his own persona and reputation. I’ve interviewed Stan Lee on several occasions. Each time I got that character. As soon as he comes on the phone, he’s on and you get that guy that you know from seeing him on TV or reading the comics. I would have been really interested in seeing what he was like in private. That might really be him, but I don’t know.
Was he comfortable with fame? How did he adapt to it?
I think he loved the fame. It was something that Stan Lee probably didn’t know he was looking for. But when fame came, I think he couldn’t get enough of it. There’s been a whole lot written about how he gave short shrift to the artists that he worked with, the co-creators and some of the other people at Marvel who were incredibly influential in creating these characters and building the Marvel Universe. So that’s always been one of the knocks on him, that he was a credit hog. Certainly, that was worse in the 1970s and 1980s. But towards the end of his life, Stan Lee softened a little and did, I think, try to acknowledge creators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and some of the other people he worked with.
I think that’s why he got out of bed every day. The fame was what drove him. I saw him at a couple conventions walking across the floor and people treated him like a god. He also loved the movie cameos. That meant the general public knew who he was.
If you go back to the 1960s and read a lot of the interviews that he gave, or heard Lee when he was on his college speaking tours, one of the things he always said was that comics are not just for a niche audience. They’re not just for kids. They could be "bigger." We need to have a bigger vision for what comics and superheroes could be. To see Stan Lee realize that vision through movies must have been incredibly satisfying for him. I believe that he probably fulfilled all his dreams for Marvel Comics.
Stan Lee was 95 years old. He was one of the last of a generation, those old soldiers who saw the beginning, the middle and the end -- or perhaps the future -- of comic books.
There’s maybe one or two other artists who were around in the heyday of Marvel in the 1960s or worked at DC in the 1950s and 1960s, but most of them have died off. As far as the major figures, he really is the last one. Steve Ditko died earlier this year. Jack Kirby died in the 1990s. The publisher of Marvel at the time, Martin Goodman, has died. All of these people have passed away. There are very few people who were there at the beginning to tell the tales anymore.
What has been lost with that generation of creators no longer being with us?
A more human take. These people were human beings. They had families. They had friends. I think what gets built up is a cardboard cutout of these people where so much of the bad gets stripped away and maybe a lot of the good gets built up and the myth-making takes hold. It is really hard to burrow down and figure out who these people were just as human beings. But it was sometimes very difficult because Stan Lee was somebody who admitted, quite famously, that he did not have a good memory. Stan Lee would just kind of fall back on all these stories he’s been telling for 40 or 50 years. I don’t know if Lee even knew if they were true anymore.
What do we know about Stan Lee's enemies and friends?
A lot of the people he worked with over the years became enemies, including Jack Kirby. Kirby was the artist thatLee basically worked with in the 1960s, and had a huge hand in co-creating almost everything we know about Marvel. That includes Spider-Man, the X-Men, Incredible Hulk, the Avengers and the like, what are now billion-dollar properties.
Jack Kirby felt like he made a contribution to Marvel and he got upset when Stan Lee started hogging all the credit. Kirby felt like Marvel did not pay him enough or give him a good enough contract. Kirby left for DC in 1970. He was very bitter about what had transpired. He eventually came back to Marvel but apparently Kirby always hated Stan Lee. That was one enemy. Steve Ditko was probably another. Those two, even up to their deaths, were still fighting over who did what when it came to Spider-Man.
In the 1990s Steve Ditko said, “Look, I did almost everything that we know and love about Spider-Man and Stan Lee’s hogging all the credit.” Stan Lee then wrote this open letter that said "I consider Steve Ditko to be the co-creator of Spider-Man." That did not really placate Steve Ditko, who said he took issue with the word "consider."
Who were his friends, the people who loved him, his allies?
He had one daughter, J.C., who was with him up until the end. She lives out in Los Angeles and judging from the news articles that have come out in recent months, J.C. doesn’t do much beyond spending his money. Stan Lee always said in his interviews that this was why he worked, he would do anything to make her happy. I can’t judge, but the whole end of Lee's life was a little sad with business managers and lawyers and his daughter all pulling in different directions and apparently getting themselves in position so that when he died they could take his money.
His wife Joan had already passed away, and they were married for almost 70 years. She was probably his biggest ally. Besides his family and some close friends, I am not sure who Lee was close to at Marvel towards the end of his life. There were some writers and some artists who kept in touch with him. Peter David, who wrote the Incredible Hulk for Marvel for years, was a good friend of his.
Are there any stories about Stan Lee giving a break to young creators and other talent?
Much more so in the 1960s and maybe the early 1970s when he was involved with Marvel. But in the 1970s and onward he became less and less involved with Marvel on a day to day basis.
One of the best stories about Lee helping someone to get work at Marvel is Roy Thomas, who took over as editor from Lee when he stepped back in the 1970s. Roy Thomas was a teacher and a huge comic book fan, and he was working at DC in the mid-1960s under an editor named Mort Weisinger. This editor was a notoriously unpleasant person. Roy Thomas absolutely hated working for him and he would go back to his apartment every night and just cry.
Roy loved Marvel and so he wrote Stan Lee a letter that just said, “Hey, I really admire what you do. I’m working over at DC. It’s miserable.” Stan Lee called him up the next day and said, "Come on over to the office. I’ll give you the writer’s test and we’ll see what happens." That was how small the industry was back then. Stan Lee was so desperate for bodies that if somebody just wrote him a letter, he would call the person up and maybe give him a job. That’s how it happened with Roy Thomas, who was soon put in charge.
How should we assess Stan Lee as a businessman?
He was a terrible businessman. I think he admits that in his own autobiography. He says he was always bad with money. As I said earlier, Stan Lee was always desperate for any kind of job and to always have a way to make money, which meant he was prone to saying "yes" to everything. I don’t think it served his legacy particularly well. When he started to get less involved with Marvel in the 1970s, at some point he went out to Los Angeles in the 1980s, where his main job was to try to get movies and TV projects set up for Marvel. He wasn’t particularly successful with that either. Later in his life, Lee started partnering with internet startups and also had his own company. None of them led to anything except lawsuits in most cases.
As a comic book creator, I really don’t know what you do to try to make money beyond creating comics. I tip my hat to Stan Lee for his gifts and success there, but he never really launched anything successful after he left Marvel.
Why is Stan Lee such a legend?
I think one of the things Stan Lee was very good at was public relations. Lee spoke with a voice to fans that was very down to earth and very relatable. At that time this was the exact opposite of what was happening in comics and especially with DC. If you read the DC letters pages from the 1950s and 1960s, it is all very dry. It is very professional. There’s no real attitude or personality that comes through. DC just felt like they were speaking to the fans in the way that guys in suits in a corporate skyscraper in Manhattan would -- which is what they were.
Stan Lee had this real knack of making a brand. He really built what we know as Marvel. Everything we think about Marvel being "hip," "counterculture," friendly and innovative came from Stan Lee.
I don’t think he gets enough credit for that. I think it’s become fashionable -- especially in his death -- to knock him and claim that the artists did everything and he did nothing. I do not think that is true at all.
So much of what we love about Marvel and what makes it worth so much money came from Stan Lee. For example, the idea of a shared universe where all these characters live together, most definitely come from him. That’s one of the things that makes the Marvel movies work so well right now. He was a great idea person. I think he was also really good with dialogue. He’s great at building characters.
What are some of your favorite myths and stories about Stan Lee?
He never owned any of the characters, full stop. He was paid very well for his contributions. Towards the end of his life, Stan Lee became the equivalent of editor emeritus, and from what I was told he was being paid at least a million dollars a year -- and this was back in the 1990s and 2000s. Basically, Marvel was paying Stan Lee not to sue them by trying to take back the characters he created. It was hush money in a way. I’m sure he was happy with the arrangement, as was Marvel Comics.
Considering the narrative of his life. Stan Lee personally experienced and was part of the long arc of American comic book history from the "10-cent plague" of the 1950s to the way superhero comic-book movies dominate popular culture at present. How can we use his life as a bellwether for comics as a business and an art form?
In the 1930s and 1940s, comic books were read by millions of people in America. "Captain Marvel" or "Shazam!" would sell a million. "Batman" would sell a million. "Superman" was the top selling title. These comic books were read by boys, girls and many adults. But distribution of comic books began to shrink. They lost newsstand sales; grocery stores and the like didn’t want to carry comic books anymore. So sales really began to tail off in the 1960s and certainly into the 1970s.
At that point comic books were really in trouble, and so the way that the industry tried to save comics was to make them more mature and adult-friendly. This was really doubling down on the things that Stan Lee did so well, along with Jack Kirby and the other people at Marvel. They took a kid's medium and made it more sophisticated, more mature and more immersive with the Marvel Universe. Whereas, in the 1950s, you could pick up an issue of Batman, read it, and then the next issue of "Batman" would not really continue the story.
What Marvel did was to make more complex and sophisticated stories, which meant you had to buy every issue. As the 1970s went on and certainly when the 1980s came around, that’s really what DC and Marvel did. They aimed at a niche audience who collected comic books and knew 20 years of history. This is the approach which is being taken with the Marvel Universe movies as well.
Thinking about Stan Lee’s life and his career: Did he win?
I think there’s no question that Stan Lee won. I think he was probably flabbergasted at what comic books and superheroes became -- especially the Marvel characters, because back in the 1960s when he and Jack Kirby and these other guys were creating these characters they were considered trash. They were throwaways. A lot of these now iconic and great characters were created to meet a deadline, which is why nobody really knows who should get credit, the creators didn't bother to remember who did what. Then you add in how these characters were created 40 or 50 years ago, and matters become even more confusing.
To see these characters and comic books that were just dashed off on cheap newsprint become billion-dollar global properties, I can’t imagine any way that Stan Lee didn't win. He must have surpassed his wildest dreams. Good for him. I’m sure Stan Lee was incredibly happy and satisfied with what he did with his life.