Reminder: Stan Lee was a legitimately great writer

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Jan 8, 2018

Stan Lee is probably the most important single creator in comic book history. You already know why: In a career that spanned nearly his entire adult life at Marvel Comics as a writer, editor-in-chief, and eventually publisher, Lee was responsible for creating dozens of major characters (and countless minor ones) that have grown into billion-dollar properties. That list includes Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, and Marvel Comics' version of Thor. Even now, at the age of 95, he's still credited as the executive producer on every Marvel movie, live action TV series, and cartoon that hits screens.

Lee made himself the public face of Marvel, but he was never an artist himself. The hard-working illustrators who played just as important a role in creating all those memorable characters — if not more so — didn't get the same glory, or often the same financial rewards, that Lee was reaping. Many of them, particularly his frequent collaborator Jack Kirby, spoke out in later years against Lee's business practices. So while we still love Stan Lee, he's recently grown into a somewhat controversial figure.

With a new scholarly but lively book published this fall titled Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel, author Bob Batchelor, Ph.D., wants to make sure we don't overcorrect on Lee's legacy. Batchelor, a professor of media, journalism, and film at Miami University of Ohio, argues that Lee should be regarded as a literary figure on par with the great novelists of the 20th century like John Updike and Norman Mailer. As our first story for Stan Lee Week, SYFY WIRE spoke with Batchelor about Stan Lee the writer, self-promoter, and reliable Marvel movie cameo.

Some people think of Stan Lee as a villain, some people think of him as a hero. What's your take?

Bob Batchelor: I think people who turn Stan Lee or Jack Kirby into villains don't really understand the full picture. The most interesting thing to me is that these guys were just trying to make a living. The reason Kirby produced so much was, yes, he was an incredibly creative artist, but he also had a growing family to feed and a mortgage. That was these guys' first and foremost thought. That necessitated that they work fast and produce a lot of comic books under really tight deadlines.

By placing himself at the center of the Marvel brand, it seems like Stan Lee is also aware that he is the engine for everything that's happening there.

When you look at the Stan Lee archives, you can find hand-drawn pictures. One day Stan Lee might be choosing covers for issues, the next day he might be checking on circulation numbers, the next day he could be jotting down notes on a Marvel coloring book that featured superheroes on the cover, and how he wanted it to look. So from merchandising to the editorial process to the production process, Lee was really at the center of everything. That just grew exponentially as the superhero comic books took off.

How did Stan Lee's talent as a writer come through in his early works?

I looked back just today at Captain America Comics #14 from May of 1942, which Lee had already taken over already from Joe Simon and Kirby. So in May of '42, Stan Lee is 19 years old. Captain America #14 is like 70 pages long, there's something like five or six stories in there. Stan Lee wrote one, and we know he wrote it because he signed it. It's about a character called The Imp, who is this imaginary character who lived inside the narrator's ear. The Imp would come out and play with him and get him in trouble, and the entire thing was written in rhyming verse. It's, you know, funny for that era, and it's interesting.

I looked at an issue of Marvel Boy, which was a character that had gone through several iterations and never really stuck. They had re-introduced Marvel Boy in December of 1950, and one of the lines is about these ships sinking when Atlantis reappears in the oceans. He writes, "Vessels are sucked in the bottomless maelstrom as if they were no more than straws. Moans of the living vanish unheeded into the raging elements." And that's totally Stan Lee, that's his voice from 1950, a decade before we get Fantastic Four and Spider-Man.

What do you see in the Silver Age superhero comics as evidence that he was a great writer?

What he does best during the superhero era is first to grasp the humor in human situations, and understand that superheroes don't have to be just god-like and above human frailties. He's able to add in dashes of humor and dashes of emotion that weren't really prevalent in most comic books at the time.

The second thing Lee does, that he doesn't get enough credit for, is that he built a voice across all the characters that gave Marvel a tone that was so completely different than comic readers had experienced up to that time. That consistent tone grew as the Marvel superheroes engaged with one another. Their voices were close enough that you could see Daredevil and Spider-Man in a conversation together, and it rang true to your ear when you read the words on the page. It was really mirroring the popular culture of the era, including the novels that are out. Something like Rabbit, Run is akin to what was happening at Marvel, and what was happening in music. Lee was able to grasp all this stuff and pull this into comic books.

Why is he not widely thought of as a great writer? Is it because of the collaboration involved with the "Marvel way," or is it because the style of that era which makes the dialogue harder to appreciate now?

He's not considered a great scriptwriter first because of the controversies that have arisen since all these superheroes became such linchpins for contemporary culture. Whether or not you're a Kirby fan or a Lee fan, you have ample reason to think that things there were not above board. So that in some way diminishes Lee's reputation as a writer.

It's also difficult to tell everything that Stan Lee wrote, because not everything is signed. That blurring between when he was editing and when he was writing makes it difficult. With Norman Mailer, for example, if Norman Mailer wrote it, he wrote it, you have no doubt.

Probably the final nail is the self-aggrandizement. We like our writers to be arrogant to a degree, we don't want them to be overly effusive in their self-love. So when Lee went into his promotional side, he probably went a little overboard. You see that in both his autobiography and the graphic novel version of his autobiography. They're both over-the-top.

He had worked there for decades before he really became the public voice of Marvel. Why did he start writing his "Stan's Soapbox" column and doing things like giving all the creators nicknames?

I think that there had been enough instances of that fourth wall being broken, either in radio or television or film in various ways, that Lee recognized that he could attract readers by breaking that wall down a little bit more seriously.

Part of it as well was responding to fan mail. Marvel never got fan mail, they never, in fact, ever got any mail. With the Fantastic Four, all of a sudden they got tons of fan mail. Now, Lee supposedly read all that fan mail and it had an impact on him. These letters were almost like an informal focus group, and gave him insight on what interested fans, how to engage with them, and it paid off for Marvel in a big way.

It sounds like it's not just that people are writing a lot of letters, they're writing because they felt like they were already part of a dialogue when they were reading those early issues.

This was a way that Lee could make the artists and writers seem more human, make the process seem less lofty. It was a stroke of genius to be able to pull that off, making the bullpen seem like the real thing and getting people like me, a poor kid in western PA, to hang on the every word of "Smilin' Stan," who seemed like this Wizard of Oz character off in shiny New York City.

He also had that great radio voice so eventually he was even narrating the Saturday morning cartoons.

People look down at Lee because he wasn't the artist. It's easy to see the power of Kirby's drawings, see the interest in the way Ditko creates the look of Spider-Man. And you think, Well, Lee was just providing the words. But if you look across this guy's career, he was a serious genius. He really has a multitude of skills. I don't know who to compare him to. He saw the Marvel films as blockbusters long before anyone else did. Could capture the voices across a lot of different kind of characters.

It's kind of amazing when you think of the level of skill that he had, in addition to being able to also promote the entire industry. The average comic book fan couldn't name an editor from DC, certainly no editors from DC were invited to speak at 150 colleges a year. You could argue that Stan Lee's boosterism of the comic book industry saved the industry in many respects, or at least established the tone of what later happened when the technology advanced to the point that superhero movies could be decent.

Stan Lee strikes me as very good at being Stan Lee. In interviews or on Comic-Con panels he's been asked the same question hundreds of times but he always has a good answer. He comes off as the ultimate fan of Marvel. How much of that is real?

I would argue that Stan Lee's personality is 100 percent authentic. He likes to be the center of attention and he always liked to be the center of attention. People don't realize it now because he's older, but he's an incredibly good-looking guy as a young man. He was used to getting attention because he was funny, he was smart, and he was good-looking. He had the trifecta going for him as a young guy. There are stories from the early 1940s and 1950s that when he was super animated in the office, he'd jump up on his desk and act out a scene, and show somebody, "The punch shouldn't be like this, it should be like this."

Stan Lee/Chris Hardwick (Getty Images)

I think at the core of all that is the fact that Stan Lee grew up in such horrible conditions during the height of the Great Depression. To me, that effusiveness, that joy and that enthusiasm comes from the understanding that hard work equals worth, hard work equals self-value. He could increase his self-value by increasing his enthusiasm and by being happy-go-lucky. Growing up where he did and when he did, he's watching his dad melt away as a human being for more than a decade because of his challenges during the Great Depression. This had a great impact on how Stan Lee viewed the world.

Stan Lee can be an unreliable narrator, but if you knew he would give you a straight answer, what are the burning questions that you would ask him?

I talked to him while I was writing the book, but I purposely did not interview him because I wanted it to be more archival-based. That said, I'd like to know a lot more about his relationship with his parents, particularly after he became a celebrity. He's very tight-lipped on that.

Say we were sitting in a giant Marvel archive, I'd love to go through some of the Rawhide Kid comic books and ask him what he wrote, and if he had recollections of those. Stan Lee prior to the Fantastic Four is a vastly interesting person. He toiled for decades to become an overnight sensation, and I think that's a fascinating story.

How do you see Stan Lee's legacy evolving today?

We're in Kirby's 100th year, and there's a lot of pro-Kirby, anti-Lee stuff going on right now. But in every Marvel movie I've seen in the theater for the past five years, when Stan Lee's cameo comes on, the place erupts in applause and screams. When he passes away, I think people are going to look back on him like we look on Mr. Rogers.

Part of the point of your book seems like the time is right to think of Lee as more than just everyone's favorite comic book grandpa.

He's more than just the king of the cameos. I think Stan Lee is one of the most important creative icons of the 20th century, and of contemporary America. I wrote the book explicitly to make that point. Because the cartoon character Stan Lee sometimes came at the expense of the serious artist who really encapsulated what storytelling and narrative would become across contemporary popular culture. He's not a P.T. Barnum character. He's an important figure in American creativity and creative life.