The Fantastic Four was not the first superhero family of comic books. Before Reed Richards and company rocketed into space only to be buffeted by cosmic rays forever altering their biology and destiny, a plethora of spandex-clad dynamos cavorted across a myriad of titles and companies. Fawcett Comics had The Marvel Family (eventually to be rechristened the Shazam Family thanks to the runaway success of their competitor and FF owners Marvel Comics). DC Comics had the Challengers of the Unknown as well as an endless supply of Superman cousins and housepets.
There were men who could transform their very will into weapons of mass destruction and women who had access to invisible jets and magical lassos of truth. There were crusading avengers of global justice and vigilante victims of mad science. No superhuman ability was too silly, no costume too garish. Characters were born by their creator tossing a dart at a board of random powers: invisibility, speed, strength, mind control, moth wings… yeah, moth wings.
In 1961, Stan Lee was 39 years old and on the verge of succumbing to his own embarrassment regarding a career trapped in funny books. He had already spent the prior 22 years toiling away as a writer and editor for Timely Comics which would become Atlas Comics and then Marvel. He originally got the job because he was the cousin of boss Martin Goodman’s wife and rather enthusiastic. However, that enthusiasm had now worn thin.
Lee still fancied himself a great American novelist who had fallen into a black hole of commercial writing. The comics were not fulfilling his artistic urge, and the copywriting and newspaper features he accomplished on the side were additionally soul-sucking. The time had come for him to remove himself from the dull equation, sever his relationship with Marvel and find a serious line of work.
His wife Joan asked a question, “What do you want to write?” Goodman was on Lee’s case to focus on the action. Bif. Bam. Pow. He asked Lee to ease up on the dialogue, cut down on the fancy vocabulary. Lee wanted to do the opposite. His dream was to reach a slightly older audience than the children Marvel catered to and grab their attention through melodrama and characterization. Joan followed her question with a suggestion, “Write one book the way you want. The worst that will happen is he’ll fire you, but since you want to quit anyway, at least you’ll have gotten it out of your system.”
That one book was The Fantastic Four #1. Tapping into Cold War paranoia and the patriotic pursuit of The New Frontier, Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby launched a family of adventurers into space where they would be mutated by mysterious cosmic rays. On the surface, they appeared to be just another spin on Kirby’s other scientific explorers from across the publisher pond, the Challengers of the Unkown. The big difference being Lee’s desire to transform superhero action into a gateway for exaggerated emotions and internal conflict.
While other books of their day kept cranking out bizarre plots and even weirder players within them, Lee and Marvel were using fisticuffs to string together overly wrought word balloons and the even more operatic thought balloons. Readers hungered for punching, but they stuck around for the squabbles between Mr. Fantastic and Invisible Girl, and the tortured self-loathing of man-turned-monster The Thing. Comics were no longer simple wish-fulfillment, they became invitations for their readers to work out their anxieties and presented relatable avenues for maturation.
Goodman never made a peep about that first issue until the sales started flooding in. The comic was a hit, and by the third one they slapped a bold proclamation across the cover, “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” Here is the moment when Lee became the loudest carnival barker since P.T. Barnum, and he quickly positioned himself as the face of the company.
Lee fashioned the Marvel Method of sequential storytelling. In order to completely alter the mood and drive of Marvel, Lee had to inundate the market with new titles. That meant he could not sit at his desk churning out one full script after the other. He would need his artists to do the heavy lifting, and only provided them with a brief outline or sometimes just an idea. Kirby and Steve Ditko would take the concepts and conceive whole issues from page to page. Lee would come in afterward and fill in the balloons and captions.
The house style has lead to a neverending debate on creative rights. Who was the true originator of Peter Parker? Lee or Ditko or Kirby? Each artist contributed a little piece to the concept that would finally evolve into their most recognizable hero. Ultimately, as editor-in-chief, Lee had a firmer hand on the selling of the characters. Kirby, Ditko, and other artists would occasionally chime in with their discomfort at seeing their creations make millions while they scrounged to make ends meet, but Lee would trumpet the work-for-hire nature of the business. It’s a gig, fellas.
The Fantastic Four exploded, leading to The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor, The Invincible Iron Man, the Uncanny X-Men, and the Amazing Spider-Man. Adjectives were essential to indicating the gravitas waiting to be discovered within, and Lee transformed the readers into True Believers with his Bullpen Bulletins in the back of the book. Each issue was an opportunity for Lee to get on his soapbox and speak directly to his audience. In case the more dense members in the crowd couldn’t see the civil rights debate waging between Professor X and Magneto, here would come Stan The Man to explain it all in one tiny block of philosophy.
Lee outlasted everyone from the early days of Marvel. He went from assistant to writer to editor-in-chief to publisher to mascot. With lawsuits lost, arguments faded. Kirby and Ditko couldn’t compete with the 39-year-old’s rekindled enthusiasm. The man who once changed his name from Stanley Lieber to Stan Lee in an effort to protect his unrealized dream as a novelist had fully bought into his alter ego.
As a fan, you recognize that these characters are the result of a magic elixir. They don’t belong to any one creator. They belong to us. The infighting drops away, and the comics remain.
In 2002, longtime Marvel zombie Kevin Smith sat down with Lee for an extended interview entitled Stan Lee’s Mutants, Monsters, and Marvels. Around the 20-minute mark, Lee explains to Smith what he saw his job as a writer to be: “I try to make the readers feel they’re more than just casual readers, but we’re all part of a family. We’re all part of an inner group. We’re having fun, and the outside world isn’t aware of it.” You are special, and your doubt is no different than the uncertainty Marvel titans face in each issue.
Comics are cool. Lee fostered that into a reality by being a champion of the medium. Every time you crack open a Marvel comic you enter not only the brain of the protagonist but his brain as well. He’s asking you to see the world as he does. Whether it’s racism, homophobia, or paying the rent on time, there are battles to be waged. We can fight them together.