Stan Lee, in Brief

Who —or what— was Stan Lee? Editor, hustler, hatchet man, corporate player, shill, writer, frustrated novelist, success, failure, catalyst, front man, self-parody, hack, exploiter, innovator. He was, probably, all of those things.

What he was, improbably enough, for at least one brief moment, and what he may have become if he had had the stomach for it, which he obviously didn’t, was a truth-teller. When I discovered a transcript of a conversation among Lee, Will Eisner, Gil Kane, John Goldwater, and others from 1971, I was flabbergasted that Lee had this to say about the industry he promoted for the rest of his life:

I would say that the comic book market is the worst market that there is on the face of the earth for creative talent, and the reasons are numberless and legion. I have had many talented people ask me how to get into the comic book business. If they were talented enough, the first answer I would give them is, why would you want to get into the comic book business? Because even if you succeed, even if you reach what might be considered the pinnacle of success in comics, you will be less successful, less secure, and less effective than if you are just an average practitioner of your art in television, radio, movies, or what have you. It is a business in which the creator, as was mentioned before, owns nothing of his creation. The publisher owns it… … Unfortunately, in the comic field, the artist, the writer, and the editor, if you will, are the most helpless people in the world.

The following year, he would join management, become the publisher of Marvel Comics, and change his tune, at least in public, for the next nearly 50 years. God only knows what he thought privately, or if he thought privately at all.

(The entire transcript of this conversation is published in a book I recently edited, Sparring with Gil Kane.)

Yesterday’s L.A. Times quoted me from 2002:

Gary Groth, co-founder of comics and graphic novels publisher Fantagraphics Books, told The Times in 2002 that Lee's reputation rested on approximately nine years of work, from 1961 to 1970, and mostly in collaboration with Kirby and Ditko.

“What he did in those nine years and what he helped Kirby and Ditko achieve — the kind of synergy they must have had working off each other — was a high-water mark in the history of the comic book,” Groth said.

I think this is right, and his contribution throughout those nine years cannot, and should not, be gainsaid. What they didn’t quote me saying, however, was that compared to the careers of Lee’s two most prominent visual collaborators, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, he was virtually a creative nonentity.

Naturally, he became richer and more famous than either of them. Whereas they merely had their talent and their genius, he had something far more valuable: an affable and smarmy persona that gave the American public what it always prefers: decades of vacuous pronouncements, and a smattering of entertainment devoid of content and substance.


28 Responses to Stan Lee, in Brief

  1. ChrisB says:

    It seems bizarre to speculate the man had no internal monologue because he sold out, like he stopped being worthy of calling himself a human in the early 1970s. That you did the same to Carol Kalish almost 30 years ago is insane. It’s great news you got to put an x over another name in your “Mainstream Comics Creeps Who Poisoned the World” bingo card, but maybe just express that joy out loud to an empty room. Whisper it between pages of Fukitor, you creative entity you.

  2. Stan Lee’s attempts in 1974 to get underground cartoonists to work for his hybrid comic book, cutely called Comix Book, was quickly dropped from Marvel production and distribution when sales didn’t match the circulation of X-Men and Spider Man. He wanted to own all the rights to their comics too, and for the independent underground artist that was a non starter. Plus he was so damn smarmy.

  3. ChrisB says:

    Ah, let me make a clarification after reading my comment and its bad grammar back. Was saying Groth also gave Carol Kalish a wildly condescending obit after she died, not that he stopped being a human in the early 1970s.

    As far as smarm, holy moley, this is a site/publisher run by Gary Groth. Come on.

  4. Adam Strom says:

    While all of the above may be true, iIt seems incredibly tacky to say the least, to indulge in this sort of bitter diatribe the day after the man’s death. His faults and foibles are well chronicled. Why not leave that to the rest and rise above the pettiness for one brief hour.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    Although harsh, the assessment offered here happens to be accurate. We don’t owe the dead anything but the truth.

  6. RAG says:

    I dunno if I agree with that one. Respect is owed to everyone, alive or dead. When you trash someone in this moment regardless of how you want to make it look objectively, to people that may not agree with you or don’t know all the details to make a decision as to whether to agree with you, you seem insensitive and just a jerk. So you may not think that way, but others perceive you as such. If you don’t care what others think, how they will react to your statements, and their propensity to be swayed by your arguments, then by all means trash away. If you are trying to make an argument and present what you are saying as truth, good luck. I’m in the boat of not knowing much about Stan Lee’s intricate history, and when I read this piece, my thought was right in line with Adam Strom. Why does internet writing always have to be so aggressive and disrespectful?

  7. Eric Reynolds says:

    My father passed away two weeks ago almost to the minute. He was a good man who lived a good life over his 89 years. This morning, I woke up at 2:45 AM to catch a flight to spend some a few days with my mother, who is still picking up the pieces. When I got in the car at 3:15AM and turned on the radio, I was instantly met with an in-progress monologue about the great Stan Lee from some random voice of (presumed) authority. He was waxing effusively about Stan’s legacy as the creator of Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and went on to cite his favorite Stan Lee character, Gambit (an X-Men character everyone reading this site probably knows was not in any way created by Lee). It became clear that this fellow believed that Stan literally created everything under the Marvel banner, from the comics to the movies. “Stan Lee Presents” indeed. When I got to the airport in Seattle and through security, I looked up at a TV screen from CNN or Fox with a banner that read something to the effect of “Marvel Comics Visionary Stan Lee Dead at 95”. There seems to be so much hyperbole said about Stan Lee, but so little of substance from the majority of sources that will inform people about Stan’s life. You can question Gary’s timing, I suppose, but this is a very honest take, a necessary course corrective to so many “respectful” takes on Lee’s life that I can’t read as anything but disrespectful to Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and to so many others of their generation who simply weren’t as inclined to or talented at promoting themselves as Stan Lee was. I read nothing especially “bitter” here in Gary’s take, no “diatribe” — if anything Gary is noticeably more measured here towards the Man than he usually was while Stan was alive.

  8. R. Fiore says:

    Reading the obituaries what really comes through is the enduring appeal of the Myth of Stan Lee, the lowbrow Shakespeare who is the onlie begetter of this world of entertainment. You can readily see why the papers are so eager to tell the story, and why Lee gave in to the temptation to believe it himself. Anything else would be a bringdown by comparison, something that makes the world smaller and less wondrous. It’s only that tiny niggling voice of reason in the back of your mind that asks you to consider, how likely is it really that one person could have come up with all that? (It’s the same little snitch who asks you how Alexandre Dumas could have possibly written all those books he has his name on.) The understanding Lee brought to the enterprise was that while the mass audience wants something that’s in art, it doesn’t really want art. He took the creations of these gnomish Nibelungs in his workshop and bathed them in enough hokum to slide down the popular gullet. But the thing that transforms Falstaff from a lovable mountebank to something unforgivable, at least in Prince Hal’s eyes, is when he steals credit for vanquishing Hotspur – something that Falstaff himself hardly values at all and to Hal is the thing that would win the love and respect of his father. Lee’s usurpation of credit is a perfect expression of the droit de seigneur of the man who signs the checks.

  9. Nemo says:

    Excelsior, True Believer!

  10. Adrian B says:

    It cracks me up that Groth QUOTES HIMSELF in this petty write-up, like he’s the expert on everything comics. F*ck this nonsense. Yeah, Fantagraphics and The Comics Journal are sooooooooo counterculture. That’s why there’s massive banner ads for San Diego Comic Con, a comic convention dedicated to everything but comics. What a putz.

  11. If there aren’t fair appraisals of Lee now, his myth will only cause more confusion and excuses for bad behavior in the future. ‘Creative non-entity’ yes, that should be said for some one who was ‘creating’ Striperella for some $$, while at the same time Ditko was making richly complex work for..virtually no one! The comparison should be staggering to news writers if they bothered to research this stuff.

    Headlines should read ‘Gifted art director and talented sales man, with a tendency for snappy dialogue, dead at 95’

  12. Bob Levin says:

    It’s always positively stimulating to read anything to which Gary Groth has signed his name. I can’t say the same about Stan Lee.

  13. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Lee’s legacy is mixed, for a lot of reasons, and it’s not wrong to say so on his death. Part of the bitter animosity though seems to come from a belief that Ditko and Kirby were creative gods, who Lee failed. For me, Ditko and Kirby were both talented creators who made some good comics, maybe a few great ones and are vastly overhyped themselves at this point. If TCJ really wanted to be contrarian, this could be a moment for a more realistic assessment of Lee’s collaborators, rather than a chance to circle the wagons and toe the same party line as ever while claiming to shock someone or other.

    Of course, that’s not going to happen. Excelsior.

  14. James Romberger says:

    I can say that when I was a kid, I liked Lee’s unifying voice well enough on all the comics and in the Bullpen Bulletins–he made the reader feel like they were in on something special. The Kirby/Ditko et al Marvel Method problem has been done to death; and I do have strong feelings in that regard—but I didn’t hate Lee’s blurbing, sometimes I liked it, as in the case of Thor—what ranked when I came to understand the reality of the whole business is that Lee took not only the full writer’s credit for stories he either only co-plotted and overwrote, or just overwrote on someone else’s story–but he also claimed for himself the entire writer’s pay!—for years!!! That adds up. And then he testified against his colaborators in court. Those points more than anything are what tarnishes his legacy.
    I don’t have Fantagraphics’ “Messages in a Bottle” but I do think those Lee-credited stories are among Krigstein’s best—well, not the stories themselves really, but what Krigstein did with them, brisk and fresh loose handling of his micropanel breakdowns; still Krigstein had a pithy putdown for Lee in 1962 in his interview with John Benson in Squa Tront and it makes me wonder, did Krigstein plot those, or did Lee actually write full scripts in the 1950s, in those pre-Mavel Method days? They aren’t great, but they are servicable. But then, they and Lee’s other early work do not show the promise of the massive creative burst to come that his praises are sung for. His editing is something I generally don’t fault and Marvel artists of the time that I have known like Steranko, Dick Ayers and Gene Colan respect(ed) him in that role for the most part. However, and here’s the other thing, my impression of the sprawling lateral interrelating continuity that marks the “Marvel Age” is that THAT was the doing of Jack Kirby—expansive epic storytelling techniques that Jack learned from his literary heroes like Dumas, Dickens and Shakespeare and his primary cartooning influences, Hal Foster and especially, Milton Caniff.

  15. Alex says:

    Austin– his myth will continue to fade, like Bob Kane’s or Thomas Edison’s or Milli Vanilli’s have. We have the rest of human time to (rightly) tear Stan Lee apart. Nobody needs Gary Groth opening his laptop and crapping this out while the body is still warm. If Lee was John McCain or Donald Trump and he was responsible for war crimes, OK. If people who actually care about comics thought Lee’s death was the end of a creative era and the readers of The Comics Journal needed a corrective, OK. It isn’t some unspeakable crime, though, that Today Show anchors are more familiar with Stan Lee than they are with Steve Ditko’s crowd-funded Henry Darger ramblings about why it’s important to kill people who make mistakes.

  16. Rob Postuma says:

    I have to say that your latest rant about the passing of Stan Lee was both rude and shameful. While I don’t disagree with everything that you wrote, feeling that you have to look at Stan’s contributions (or claim thereof) with a grain of salt, to do so right when he’s passed is just wrong.

    But at least you got to use the occasion to promote your Gil Kane book.

  17. James Romberger says:

    Hmm, my bad, I did say that I don’t have the Fanta Atlas Krigstein book, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen those stories— but I’m now told that Lee didn’t write any of them (I thought I recalled Lee signing them, but they are uncredited)—so I guess Krigstein’s judgment of Lee (which I won’t repeat here, look it up) is based on knowing him as an editor—but it might be mentioned that if nothing else, Lee seems to have had some good taste in recruiting talent and allowing them some latitude, or Krigstein never would have gotten and kept the gig. Lee’s editing and promo skills are not in dispute. But the rest stands

  18. Christopher A. Allen says:

    Pretty right-on, but the “if he thought privately at all” line was childish. Telling the truth doesn’t mean dehumanizing the subject.

  19. I find it hard to reconcile Lee’s painfully honest and accurate assessment of how the industry treated (and treats) creators with the idea that he had no private thoughts. Clearly he thought a lot about how at least he, himself had been treated up to that point.

    I wince every time I encounter the fallacy that Stan “was” Marvel Comics, and I recognize that he did a lot to foster that illusion. But that quote about how any other field would be better for creative people, along with his embracing of progressive, humanist values in many of the comics he wrote is enough for me to realize he was a complex character, and certainly not a deliberately malignant one. Unlike, say, Jim Shooter or Julie Schwartz.

    Ultimately that line from Touch of Evil sums up Stan for me. “He was some kind of a man…What does it matter what you say about people?”

  20. Kevin D. says:

    It’s not unexpected that TCJ would continue to paint Stan Lee with a skeptical brush. It is not undeserved and it is not inaccurate. But Lee was the driving force behind the early years of Marvel and while he stood on the shoulders of giants, his drive and ambition are what made artists like Kirby and Ditko the forces that they are. He did not advocate for better treatment of artists and contributors. He seemed resigned to things being the way they are. That is a failure on his part but it is a burden he shares with countless others. He was a huckster and maybe a snake oil salesman but sometimes you need snake oil.

  21. Mbook says:

    He not only quotes himself, but then agrees with the quote. Hahahahaha

  22. R. Drew says:

    If you don’t want your sins tallied upon your passing don’t commit any. Stan is guilty of stealing credit and cash from his collaborators even as he preached virtues to his impressionable audience via his Soapbox. He lived a lie, and for people to speak the truth about him on his passing no matter how harsh, is as it should be.
    Fuck Stan Lee.

  23. Alex- if the protocol is ‘mention war crimes when someone dies, if they did anything short of that, eh, whatever, let it slide’ I think we are heading into choppy water.

    If you set aside the well worn Ditko/Kirby controversies, there’s plenty more to discuss in regards to Lee’s treatment of Wally Wood, Cal Massey and countless others. Looking at a case like Wood, it’s hard to argue that Lee’s acts were harmless. They had lasting marks on many people, and to avoid talking about them at this moment would be a disservice to all, especially people like Wood. Wood struggled with many demons, but it’s hard see Lee’s treatment of him as anythjng but another mark of disrespect of which he had far too many already.

  24. Danny Ceballos says:

    The greatest “writing” Stan Lee ever produced were those ubiquitous three words: STAN LEE PRESENTS. That’s all it took to ball-hog all the credit of his talented bullpen, robbing them of creative recognition and untold financial rewards. While his co-workers were somewhat culpable in this relationship, they in no way deserved what befell them. Stan Lee will always be a shining example of “failing up”, of willful disdain for truth to profit the self, and no corpse is ever too warm to point that out.

  25. J.D. says:

    It comes as no surprise to see that Noah Berlatsky, probably the worst comics writer in the world, used this opportunity to trash Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, to suggest that their works are only admired because of some imaginary “party line” that exists only in his addled mind, and to pat himself on the back for having a more “realistic” view of these artists. Talk about your vacuous nonentities.

  26. Jeremy Holstein says:

    It’s those brief moments when the facade of “Smilin’ Stan” broke and we heard from the man beneath that I seek. They are few and far between, but they are so revealing.

  27. Michael Hill says:

    Jeremy, Kirby captured this perfectly with Houseroy saying, “I must tell you that there are times when the *real* Master Funky comes through with *shocking* results!” Funky responds, “And *don’t* you forget it, *Sweetie*!” while shaking Houseroy by the neck.

  28. Peter says:

    Not being an adherent to the Stan Lee cult of personality, his passing was to me just another marker of another pop culture figure from my youth departing this world.

    Groth came across as relatively restrained in this piece, especially if you’re familiar with his facility with verbal venom. To ascribe negative emotions to him in this article says more about the commenter than what Groth actually wrote.

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