By Bill Cross
I was a lad of 11 and purchased my first Marvel comic at Dan Fitzgerald’s Pharmacy in Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, back in the fall of 1962. Marvel Comics weren’t even called Marvel Comics at that time. If you had told me then that when he died, the writer of that comic would make headline news around the world and the world would mourn his passing, I would have thought you were crazy.
But Stan Lee has done just that.
Back then, comics were still strictly kids’ stuff. And Marvel was a second-string company, dwarfed by the giants in the industry. Yet, Stan, along with his collaborators – chiefly Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – would soon change that.
There has been a debate in comic book circles about how much of Marvel’s success is due to Stan and how much to his artists, mainly Kirby. I’ve been re-reading those early books for the past year and I can tell you, no matter who was doing the art, including Don Heck and even Joe Sinnott, the books all read the same. The little plots twists, dumb jokes and recycled soap opera romances flow through every one of them. And I would argue it was those touches – as well as the “corporate voice” Stan created for the company, first through the letters pages and then through his monthly editorials, that were just as important in Marvel growing to become the dominant comic book company on the planet.
Stan made the reader feel as if they were a part of a secret club. He also tirelessly promoted his artists at a time when most pencil pushers in the industry were toiling in anonymity. People don’t remember now, but then Kirby had been fired by DC and really needed a job. Ditko’s quirky style was only found in one other publisher, Charlton, the absolute bottom of the comics heap. Stan not only gave them work – he created an environment that brought out the best in both of them.
As the years rolled on, Stan gave work to lots of industry veterans who were down on their luck, including Bill Everett, Carmine Infantino, Wayne Boring and others.
Yes, Stan was a ham. But neither Kirby nor Ditko really were comfortable doing publicity. So, Stan became the face of the company. He was also a tireless promoter of comic books in general. It was largely through his efforts that comic book shook off their juvenile label and became something more.
It is impossible to imagine how comic book history would have evolved without him. I dare say, I think comic books would have died by the 1980s – as most of the non-super-hero comics did. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine where American popular culture would be today if not for Stan Lee. The Marvel film franchise has now generated several billion dollars in ticket sales (to say nothing of the billions in merchandise). Not bad when you consider that Fantastic Four # 1 sold for dime!
My life has been made richer and certainly infinitely more entertained because of Stan Lee. So, as I face front (Stan’s favorite exhortation), I wish him well on his next adventure. Excelsior!