Celebrate Stan Lee's 95th birthday with six ways he changed comics

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Dec 28, 2017

Today is the 95th birthday of one Stanley Martin Lieber, aka Stan Lee! While there is no shortage of tributes and salutations for Stan on the interwebs, or listicles of all his memorable Marvel movie cameos, we wanted to revisit what made Stan “The Man” in the first place.

Obviously, we’re talking about comics, and it’s important to remember that Stan is arguably the greatest editor in the history of the medium. That sometimes gets lost in the wash of the ongoing debate over whether or not Stan claims too much credit for creating the heroes of the Marvel Universe at the expense of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, et all.

But this much is indisputable; without Stan Lee, there is no Marvel Universe, cinematic or otherwise. Why? Because he changed the game, in a number of ways, including:

Choosing Ditko over Kirby for Spider-Man

It's a contentious topic to say the least, given the never-ending dispute over proper creator credits for Marvel's flagship character. But one thing we do know: Steve Ditko was the right choice to launch the Amazing Spider-Man strip with Lee. His idiosyncratic art stylings and melancholy depiction of Peter Parker perfectly captured the awkwardness of teenage life. As a result, those first 38 issues of Spidey adventures remain a high mark in comics, and the benchmark for striking the right balance between the superhero stuff and the drama that happens when our hero takes off his mask. Kirby was King, but his style was ideal for the grandeur of The Mighty Thor and the cosmic scale of The Fantastic Four. Lee-Ditko was the magic formula that made Spider-Man Marvel's main man. And while there is much debate over Kirby's contributions to the character, as editor, it was Lee who decided who would illustrate and co-plot the book. And his decision to go with Ditko proved to be one of the best Marvel team-ups ever. 

He helped create the Marvel Method

"Desperation is often more powerful than inspiration."

Whoever said that must have been peeking into the Marvel Bullpen during its early, fabled days in the 1960s, when they were making history on a monthly basis. Problem was, for Lee, Kirby, Ditko and the other Marvelites, they were too busy making the donuts to sit back and appreciate the journey. For most of that decade, Lee was the main writer, art director, and editor for just about every Marvel title. It isn't humanly possible to script all those comics every month, so Lee came up with a novel solution. He would type up a simple plot synopsis (sometimes a page in length, but often much less than that) and hand it off to the artist on the book. Because he was working with creative geniuses like Kirby and Ditko -- and later on, with John Romita Sr. -- Lee would sometimes just go with a verbal description and send the artist off to do the rest. Once the finished pencils were done, Lee would fill in the dialogue to go along with the imagery. Just like that, the process of making comics was fundamentally changed. Marvel's books were true works of collaboration, and with one main person doing the dialogue (Lee), it allowed for the cohesion that created the closely-interconnected Marvel Universe.

The so-called 'Marvel Method' gave artists much more creative freedom, so guys like Kirby could let their imaginations run wild on the board. While this would lead to unresolved issues over creator credits, the fans were the ultimate winners from Lee's inventive workaround. Without it, the Marvel Age of Comics would have turned out much different.

Stan made creator credits a thing

While most serious comics fans are aware of the accusations that Lee has claimed far too much credit over the years, the irony is that he helped make credits for all comic creators a regular part of the books. It was Lee who began the practice of a splash page credits box, not just for the writer and artist, but the inker and letterer, too. Not only that, he did it with style. 'Joltin' Joe Sinnott, 'Jazzy' John Romita and 'Adorable' Artie Simek were just a few of the clever nicknames used to add personality and introduce fans to the everyone who had a hand in creating their monthly adventures. It helped fans establish a closer connection to Marvel in a time when comic book conventions had only just started popping up. One of the many unique aspects of the comics industry is the close proximity creators have with their fans. One could argue this began with a simple act of acknowledgement by Lee on the first page of each Marvel comic.

He helped usher in the graphic novel era

Back in 1974, Simon & Schuster and Marvel partnered for a series of groundbreaking collections that reprinted the early Silver Age comics, which launched the Marvel era. Lee wrote the foreword to each book, which were handsomely packaged in hardcover and softcover editions to be sold in bookstores. They also featured new painted covers from artists such as John Romita Sr., Bob Larkin, and Earl Norem.

It's easy to overlook now, given how often classic stories are reprinted, but back in the 1970s, the Fireside series were well ahead of their time in offering fans the chance to buy high-quality collections of classic comics. They also provided a glimpse to the future of comics: Graphic novels sharing shelf space with more traditional books.

One of the Marvel Fireside books also blazed its own trail. The 1978 release The Silver Surfer featured an all-new story by Lee and Kirby, and is widely considered to be one of the first true original graphic novels. It also made another bit of history: The GN marked the final time comics' most famous creative team would collaborate.

He sold Hollywood on comics

Without Lee's relentless ambition to turn Marvel into a multi-media monolith, there's a good chance fans wouldn't be clogging up Twitter and Facebook with arguments about which heroes will bite the bullet in Avengers: Infinity War.

Lee was banging the drum for filmmakers to adapt Marvel's tales into heroic blockbusters decades before comics conquered Hollywood. He was meeting with filmmakers like Federico Fellini back in the 1960s, when Marvel's comics were the darlings of college campuses everywhere. After he became publisher in the early '70s, Lee continued to focus on creating movies and TV shows around Marvel's vast library of characters. The lack of corporate support made that next to impossible.

In hindsight, the fact that Marvel had The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man both become television series, along with the Dr. Strange TV movie, is a testament to Lee's commitment to expanding the Marvel brand. He relocated to California in the early '80s to continue seeking new film/television deals, but aside from several successful animated series and several, er, not-so successful movie deals (The Punisher, Captain America, the Fantastic Four), Lee's attempt at becoming a hotshot movie producer never panned out. Even when he got in the room with guys like James Cameron, he sometimes got in his own way. Chris Claremont described one example to SYFY WIRE: An X-Men movie meeting that got accidentally derailed by Lee himself.

To his credit, Lee saw the crossover potential of Marvel's heroes years before Hollywood really took the idea of comic book movies very seriously.

Stan's Soapbox

Much like the creator credits at the front of the book added a personal touch to each new comic, the back pages took it even further. From the inane witticisms found in Bullpen Bulletins or the monthly remarks in Stan's Soapbox, Lee managed to create a casual, inviting atmosphere that made readers of Marvel comics believe he was talking directly TO YOU. It was a simple and ingenious tactic that was effective for decades. As he wrote fewer and fewer comics, and became more of a brand ambassador for Marvel, Stan's Soapbox became more like a monthly letter one would receive from the fun uncle in the family who lived across the country. And it lent an air of personal connection that you never ever felt while being a DC Comics devotee (sorry, DC, just speaking truths here). That connection is why a now-95 year old man remains the biggest rock star attraction at any convention he visits.

Whatever you want to say about Stan Lee, and there is plenty to say, without his Barnum-esque ways and self-promotional antics, the modern comics business simply wouldn't exist.