For comic book fans, Stan Lee is either one of the most consequential artists of the 20th century or one of the greatest frauds of the 20th century. But the bitter dispute over Lee’s actual contributions to the creation of culture-dominating characters such as Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four — or whether he deserves any credit at all — obscures his more important, and possibly more insidious, contribution to the culture at large.
Lee understood better than anyone that the true power of Marvel’s comics wasn’t their jolting artwork or snappy wordplay but the sense of community these books created. His genius lay in the sense of intellectual adventure he was able to cultivate by traveling campus to campus convincing young adults that his funny books were art on par with the European filmmakers then in vogue. His efforts laid the groundwork for today’s hyper-engaged fan culture and might be a more important innovation than the origin story for any character ever could be.
The dispute over Lee’s legacy stems from the “Marvel Method” in which artists drew stories from a rough plot, while the writer filled in the word bubbles with dialogue. This allowed greater freedom of artistry while freeing up writers and artists alike to work on multiple titles at once. The writer in this crucial period generally was Lee, born Stanley Lieber, the son of immigrants who served in the Army’s propaganda department and worked in the world of comics for most of his adult life.
The artist was often Jack Kirby, whose kinetic artistry and blocky, less realistic depictions of hero and villain alike gave Marvel a weird energy heretofore unseen in the world of comics. Where things get tricky is that, as years passed, Kirby would dispute that Lee created the famed characters who made up the core of the Marvel stable, insisting he was the plotter as well as the artist. Sure, Lee might have filled in the dialogue bubbles, but Kirby was the one coming up with the stories, creating the side characters and the villains as he went.
Among people who take comics seriously as an art form, Kirby is now considered king and Lee a vapid huckster, a flimflam man whose patois — catchphrases such as “Excelsior!” and “Face front, true believer!” — obscured a lack of creativity. This is not a new fight; I remember hashing these debates out in comic book stores and on early AOL message boards in the 1990s. Abraham Riesman’s exhaustively researched, exemplary new biography “True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee” is firmly in the “fraud” camp.
But as comic books have ascended the cultural ladder and become the financial backbone of movies’ theatrical business model, Lee’s supposed misdeeds start to seem like his greatest contributions to the medium’s dominance. Sure, Lee was a hog for credit. Yes, he undoubtedly fed media efforts to make him seem as the brains behind the whole operation. Granted, his appearances on radio shows and on college campuses made him the public face of the burgeoning world of Marvel mania, at Kirby and artist Steve Ditko’s expense.
But in the process, Lee was doing something more important than creating Doctor Doom in issue five of “Fantastic Four” or introducing the world to the Blob in the third issue of “Uncanny X-Men.” He was creating a rabid community of fans and erecting an intellectual edifice that superhero comics to this day rely on for their elevated place in the world.