Is Stan Lee the Real Mr. Fantastic?

Thanks to general comic book discourse as well as books such as Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by [...]


Thanks to general comic book discourse as well as books such as Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe and documentaries such as With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, I've spent what is probably an inordinate amount of time considering Stanley Martin Lieber, the man publicly and professionally known as Stan Lee; his impact on; and contributions to the medium of comic books. That he co-created some of the greatest comic book characters that have ever existed is indisputable. That Marvel Comics wouldn't be the same without him is similarly beyond question.

Of course, Stan Lee though is not an uncontroversial figure. His relative contributions to the characters he co-created and the stories in which they appeared will probably always be up for debate. By the same token, there will probably never be consensus regarding to what degree he "did right" by his collaborators or whether the Marvel experience was exceedingly good to him relative to the other persons who've created for the publisher over the years.

Discussing Stan "The Man" Lee with a friend in the recent past, it occurred to me that there was one character that he co-created with Jack Kirby who might serve as a prism through which to consider his career. That character? Reed "Mister Fantastic" Richards.

You might be asking yourself precisely how Stan Lee is in any way like the genius scientist who leads the headliners of the World's Greatest Comic Magazine, the Fantastic Four. Let's start by answering a simple question, who is Reed Richards?

This information should be familiar to most fans of the Marvel Universe but to review… Reed Richards is a genius-level scientific intellect and arguably the world's smartest person; however, when he, his best friend, his girlfriend, and her kid brother flew his experimental rocket into space, they were hit by cosmic rays and granted extraordinary super powers. This event heralded the start of the Marvel Universe and opened the door for the rest of the heroes which now inhabit it.

Reed Richards is a leader. He is a man who, sometimes too smart for his own good, blazed forward into the unknown and inadvertently sparked a revolution of sorts. Along the way, he gave his friends fantastic powers, costumes, and alter egos; however, these boons came with a price for his closest friend who turned into a monster. Still, to make up for what he took from them (i.e., normal lives) he made them into celebrities. Realizing he'd done incredibly wrong by his best friend he continually tried to make up for the injury but repeatedly failed.

If we really think about it from a broad perspective, how much of that last paragraph could apply to Stan Lee?

Can we deny that Stan was a leader? He certainly led Marvel through its early days. He guided the development of the company from a struggling outfit into a publishing powerhouse. He was the face and voice of the company, imbuing it was a kind of lovable goofiness that somehow meshed with an earnest sincerity. In the early days, Stan was writing (via Marvel Method) the majority of everything Marvel was putting out and could no longer shoulder the entire load, he oversaw the work of others. Perhaps not a genius by most standards, he was undoubtedly a supremely skilled marketer and as an ideas man he is perhaps unmatched in the comics industry. As Reed Richards leads the Fantastic Four, inventing new devices, and repurposing alien technology, so too did Stan Lee lead Marvel while inventing with new characters and superpowers as well as repurposing myths, films, and literature to his own creative ends.

It's also impossible to deny that Lee's work represented a radical shift in superhero comics. Prior to the Fantastic Four, heroes were largely uncomplicatedly moral individuals who always did the right thing. With the FF and later characters, readers were introduced to super teams that quibble and argued among themselves, people whose powers came at the cost of their appearance and sense of humanity, and a general sense that these characters were multifaceted, three-dimensional figures. It was changes like this as well as Lee's courting of the college-aged crowd that helped to shift the demographics of comic readers and advance the medium. Once Marvel had taken off, Lee went anywhere and everywhere people would have him to extol the virtues of comics and the sorts of stories Marvel was telling. As Stan Lee was the person who served as the real-life impetus of the Marvel revolution, Reed Richards was certainly the fictional spark that started the metaphorical fire. It was Reed's intellect, rocket ship, and scientific zeal that took him and his friend into space where they gained their powers and forever changed their world.

Here's where things get particularly interesting. What about the consequences of being led by Lee versus Reed Richards? While Lee never turned anyone into an orange rock monster, one cannot deny that there are parallels to be drawn. Marvel (probably not much more or less than the rest of the comics industry) could be something of a cruel mistress with just about everything created by those working for the company owned in perpetuity by the company, royalties existing only as a fanciful dream, friendships made and then torn asunder, acrimonious disputes, and longstanding grudges.

It could be argued that working for Marvel could saddle a creative individual with frustrations almost equal to those engendered by the appearance of orange, rocky scales covering one's body. Just take the case of Jack Kirby. Kirby co-created most of the flagship characters of the Marvel Universe back in the early 1960s but only recently has received a prominent co-creator credit. He had to deal with the indignity of Marvel refusing to return original art, the company trying to force untenable terms on him for said return until just about every prominent creator signed a petition essentially telling Marvel to "get bent."

I think it's fairly safe to say that Kirby never saw the sort of financial boon from his work that Stan Lee enjoyed or would be commiserate with his contribution to their financial success. One could even suggest that the experience turned him into a monster of sorts. Reading the history of Marvel and Jack Kirby's comments about the company toward the end of his life, it seems as if his acrimony toward his former employer had somewhat turned his head, leading to statement claiming greater responsibility for the characters of the Marvel Universe and the comics on which he worked than I think any reasonable person would suggest. In the same way that Reed Richards greatest injury was in turning his greatest friend, Ben Grimm, into the Thing, it seems clear that Lee and Marvel's greatest injury was in its treatment of Lee's greatest collaborator. Considering the situation at Marvel in this light lends greater meaning to Jack Kirby's personal identification with the character of Ben Grimm and puts a certain issue of What If? in a very different light.

Still, while Lee and Richards both at the very least had a hand in harming their friends and collaborators, I would argue that neither did it out of malice. Reed Richards was striving toward scientific discovery tinged with patriotic zeal to beat the Ruskies into space. Stan Lee was arguably simply conducting business as usual, for good or for ill, in the comics industry of the time. While we can forever look back and say what Lee might or should have done, the fact is that he and Marvel's actions were not particularly extraordinary given the standards of the time.

Though both had their faults, both Lee and Richards took steps to make amends for their misdeeds, consciously or unconsciously. Reed Richards turned his teammates into celebrity superheroes and while Lee didn't turn his employees and collaborators into superheroes, he did turn working on a comic book into more than an anonymous slog. It is generally accepted that Lee started the practice of visibly crediting everyone who worked on the comics Marvel published. More than that, he made people into personalities and gave them bombastic nicknames. No one was called a "Thing" but the early days of Marvel saw the emergence of "Shy" Steve Ditko, "Joltin'" Joe Sinnott, Jack "King" Kirby, "Jazzy" John Romita, Vince "The Prince" Colletta, "Fabulous" Flo Steinberg, and more. Without Lee changing the demographics of the average comic buyer and giving creators a hitherto unknown visibility, could they have made the careers that they did in the industry? Would "Jack Kirby" have become a household name? Would there be a reliable stream of income on the convention circuit for noteworthy writers and artists? Could a retired artist command the kinds of prices for commissions currently charged by the likes of John Byrne? Lee might not have given comic professionals colorful costumes but he certainly gave them caché. Without his influence, how long would it have taken for a similar state of affairs to arise, if at all?

Beyond this almost certainly unintended benefit that Lee gave to his collaborators, what has he done more actively? One cannot dispute that these days Lee is much more open about the credit that his collaborators deserve. He has said repeatedly that Kirby as well as Steve Ditko deserve a great deal of credit for the creation as well as the early stories of the characters they worked on together. One can also point to the incident of the letter exchange between Lee and Ditko where Lee put in writing the extent of Ditko's contribution. While Ditko was not entirely satisfied by the wording, apparently taking issue with Lee stating that he "considered" Ditko to be Spidey's co-creator, it is still a significant gesture. Even Lee's call-in to Jack Kirby's 70th birthday radio interview from 1987, as uncomfortable and ham-fisted as it was, had a sense of Lee wanting to do right by his collaborator. Much of it features Lee complimenting Kirby's work in one form or another. Today, Lee repeatedly emphasizes the importance of his collaborators, but the question persistently comes up and likely will never fade from public consciousness, just as the specter of Ben Grimm's deformity has never and seemingly will never cease to weigh on Reed Richard's conscience. As Richards has repeatedly tried and failed to cure his best friend, it seems that Lee will never fully atone for what some consider to be his ill-gotten gains or unfairly garnered praise.

In many ways it seems that Reed Richards serves as a fitting parallel for Stan Lee but what does this mean when considering Lee and his legacy? Simply put, just as Richards is a flawed but admirable character, so is Stan Lee. He is as he described the characters he attempted to create when putting together, fittingly enough, the Fantastic Four:

For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading… And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay.

Some people are too quick to turn Stan Lee and Jack Kirby into nigh-mythological figures, denigrating the one to the benefit of the other and vice versa. We should all remember that Lee, like Reed Richards and the rest of the characters of the Marvel Universe are three-dimensional figures capable of good or evil. Like Richards, Lee has accomplished great things and both have committed grave errors. Both are forward-thinking men of ideas who can sometimes overlook or underestimate the impact they have on those around them who they should care about. Both are worthy of our respect as well as a healthy dose of skeptical reconsideration. And that is why Stan Lee is the real-life Reed Richards.