“I resented the fact that some people thought comics were just for kids. I wanted comics to be for everybody, including people who’d read the Harvard classics, people who would read Shakespeare, Dickens. To me, comics were reading matter, like anything else.”
– Stan Lee
In the spring of 1962, about six months and five-plus miles from where I would be born that September, the nearly 30-year-old Stanley Martin Lieber, better known by his goyish nom de plume, Stan Lee, was pacing the empty Madison Avenue offices of Marvel Comics deep into the night. He was trying to make a very important decision. Should Marvel’s head writer spring his idea of a superhero called Spider-Man on the world or go in another, perhaps safer direction? He had slyly convinced skeptical Marvel publisher Martin Goodman that it could work, despite Goodman’s hatred of spiders. He thought the idea repugnant and hardly heroic. Lee, already riding the crest of his Fantastic Four, which would greatly assist in taking comic books into what would be the golden age of superheroes, went with his gut. Spider-man was good. He was mysterious, menacing and intense. His partner, artist Steve Ditko had brought him to life — thin, wiry, all blues and blacks and reds, a mask with intimidating white eyes. And Lee had duly structured who Spider-Man really was, a scrawny, insecure and luckless boy genius Queens high school kid named Peter Parker, who would learn the tough lesson that “With great power comes great responsibility” and carry its burden forward into the unknown. Hardly wowed, Goodman reluctantly allowed them to dump the character into the fifteenth and final issue of a dying title called Amazing Fantasy.
Turns out Stan Lee was right. To say the least.
Aside from Action Comics #1 that in 1938 introduced Superman to the pre-war universe, Amazing Fantasy #15 would go on to be the most famous, important and expensive collectible comic book ever and Spider-Man arguably the biggest, baddest, most marketable character in American history. Nearly 10 years to the day from that fateful decision to follow his preternatural instincts for connecting the supernatural to our realities, Stan “The Man” Lee, with dozens of groundbreaking characters and titles behind him, would assume Goodman’s job as the publisher of the most renowned and successful comic book empire the world would ever know. Under his enthusiastic tutelage, Marvel Comics became the focal point of the superhero archetype for the Baby Boomer generation, and, quite pointedly, for every one thereafter. In addition to the iconic Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, Lee, along with artists like Ditko and the brilliant Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr, Bill Everett, among others would create the Hulk, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, The Avengers, Daredevil, Thor, X-Men, and hundreds more. Their alter egos, the men and women who lived behind the heroics, were wildly flawed and relatable, like young Peter Parker, as well as impressively irascible and infuriating. You rooted for them as you were, in many ways, them. And his villains (Doctor Doom, Green Goblin, Loki, etc.) were never two-dimensional meanies. They had pathos; darkly pitched in ennui, tragically Shakespearean, and in the most delectable ways, empathetic. You feared you may become them, because again, you were them.
I can tell you first hand that coming of age too late to see this blossoming cache of essentially epic dramas for kids, filled with danger and excitement and for the first time in this genre, humor, was overwhelming. It was already the standard for a young boy growing up. The Spider-Man Saturday morning cartoon ruled my existence. For five straight Halloweens I was Spider-Man. When my parents would ask what I would be the next year, I thought they were mad. Of course, I’m Spider-Man, who else would I be?
All the while, through all of the comic books my dad would bring home from the Big City where Spidey and the rest of Marvel’s superheroes plied their trade, and later on the spinning rack at Lane Drugs, I was mesmerized and hypnotized by the craft — the art, the dialogue, the gripping beauty of it all — and leading the way, always reminding us in his Marvel Bullpen Bulletins, Stan Lee was our guide, our master of ceremonies, our voice of morality and reason — at once shamelessly plugging all-things Marvel (“Make Mine Marvel” was one of his biggies) and making you feel as though you were part of a fun cult. He would end them all with a hearty “Nuff said!” or his signature “Excelsior!”
But, for me, it was Lee’s 1974 professional memoir, Origins of Marvel Comics that turned a mere cultist into an ever more dangerous creature, a writer. Here was Stan “the Man” revealing where all of this magic came from, and for an 11-year-old former Bronx boy now moved to the flat farmlands of Freehold, it was like getting the map to a treasure chest. None of this just came out of thin air, mind you, it came from some guy’s imagination and that guy would share how it’s done. And man did I read that book over and over for two summers and then found my best friend Chris Barrera and we began making our own comics and selling them to neighborhood kids and I knew right then how I would spend the rest of my time on this spinning sphere, in one way or the other, writing.
I would learn from that book that Lee had done it all; penning stories for Atlas Comics in the 1950s in every damn genre; romance, Westerns, humor, science fiction, medieval adventure, horror and suspense. The guy knew had to tell stories and do it under pressure and do it well, time and time again. This was a master. There is a line in it, and I am paraphrasing, where Lee marvels (pun intended) at the connective emotional and intellectual tissue of what it is to have something come out of your head and know that someone tonight will go to bed reading it and have it on their night table in the morning. You can move the reader through your words, and, if you’re lucky, inspire them and enrage them and frighten and entice and appeal to their best intentions without artifice, with no social preconceptions or anything that comes with the art of communication beyond the written word.
I have Stan Lee to thank for that. He kick-started this in me. He awakened my imagination and provided a young mind direction and purpose and man-o-man a lifetime of entertainment. But, most of all, I thank him for making me want to tell stories.
And I have always tried to find in those stories something Stan once said, “I see myself in everything I write.”
James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey”, “Fear No Art”, “Trailing Jesus”, “Midnight For Cinderella” and “Y”. “Shout It Out Loud – The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon”
And coming in June, 2018; “Accidentally Like a Martyr – The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon”