Happy Birthday, Stan Lee … I Guess?

Stan Lee turns 91 today. Good for him. I hope I make it that far. He’s left his mark on popular culture. That much I’m sure of. I’m just not sure about the rest of his legacy.

There are two schools of thought about Stan Lee. The prevailing notion is he’s Smilin’ Stan, the guy who more or less invented modern comic books, or at least Marvel Comics, or at least Spider-Man. And the Hulk. And Thor. And the X-Men. And Iron Man. And the Fantastic Four. And on and on and on.

Marvel Age 41 Stan Lee Cover

The other school says he’s the biggest charlatan under the sun, Funky Flashman, a con man, a thief, an avaricious liar who not only takes credit for the works of men like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko but took money out of their pockets as well. And on and on and on.

From DC's Secret Society of Super-Villains #8. Art by Rich Buckler and Bob Layton. H/T BronzeAgeBabies.

From DC’s Secret Society of Super-Villains #8. Art by Rich Buckler and Bob Layton. H/T Bronze Age Babies.

I don’t know what the truth is, actually. I wasn’t there. In all likelihood, you weren’t either. But I know what’s been written and I know what’s been said.

And the only conclusion I can come up with is that Stan Lee is all of the above, in some form or another.

When Cliff and I set out to put this site together, we wanted to provide a place where people could actually come and love comics. This wasn’t going to be a bitchfest, we told people. The Internet’s got plenty of that already. I think we’ve been good to our word.

But that doesn’t mean we’re Pollyannas. Good lord, anything but.

So when something as recognizable as Lee’s birthday comes around and the web comes running out to give him a big cyber-hug, I have to pause.

Because, sure, I’m glad there was a Stan Lee. He’s been an extraordinary ambassador for comics to the rest of the world. He’s tireless. I walk past him at a comics show and I find myself gently grinning.

But then I see him interviewed and I realize why he smiles so much: It’s because he can’t tell his tall tales with a straight face.

So, Happy Birthday, Mr. Lee. Your legacy is assured.

Now please stop talking about it so much.



Author: Dan Greenfield

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  1. Then you should have just left it with Happy Bday Mr.Lee.
    Your half heart attempt of wishing a Hbd and then try to tear the guy down was uncalled for.
    You said it best “you was not there” so then you cant really say what happened. You have jump on the bandwagon with the old wives tale and the gossipers.. You have broke the Man code.

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    • I don’t think I tore Lee down. I don’t think that’s possible. In fact, I think I was pretty reasonable. When the obituaries of Stan Lee are written — and I hope that’s a long time from now — all of this will be delved into in much greater detail than what I wrote. His actions are his own, whatever they may be.

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  2. Not really sure what the point of this post is either. If it were an examination of the things that have been said about Lee then I could see the point, but what it comes down to is…

    Happy birthday Stan Lee > some people think you’re a charlatan, I don’t know > I like being around you, but actually yeah, you are a charlatan. The End.

    Sorry, I don’t know whether he’s a charlatan either, but if I decided I was going to post something about it, on his birthday of all days, I’d make sure it had some substance to it.

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  3. I wasn’t there, either.

    But, this I do know: as far as I can remember, Stan Lee’s hyperbolic dialogue and charming persona has always been in my life. I was born in 1967 and started reading Marvel Comics from my local NYC newsstand in the late 1970s around the same time I discovered and devoured The Origins of Marvel Comics (including Son of Origins, Bring On the Bad Guys, The Superhero Women, etc.), which became my bible, my religion, while watching Adam West play campy Batman on TV. Besides “Stan Lee Presents…” being on the first page of every Marvel Comic that was printed back then, I think Stan’s only regular writing gig was the Spider-man newspaper strip when I started reading Marvel Comics. Like Norse and Greek mythology, I believe Marvel & DC superheroes ARE our American Mythology and I’ve bought The Fantastic Four every month since I started reading comic books.

    I asked someone the other day who Stan Lee was and they basically said he was the guy who created Spider-man, X-men, Hulk, Iron Man, etc. The guy who created Marvel! I then asked him who Steve Ditko was and I got a shrug. I asked him who Jack Kirby was and I got a shrug. Yes, it sucks that Stan Lee, the co-creator of Marvel Comics, gets all the play because he was such a good shill for the company and of the medium, parading and celebrating his own name, while Jack and Steve and everyone else who co-created the Marvel heroes slaved away at the art table whipping out stories as fast as they could think them up, but, unfortunately, that’s the way it was. It seems Stan story-managed and even art directed that first decade of Marvel before setting his sights towards Hollywood and beyond. From what I understand, Stan Lee never really wanted to be in comics, he wanted to be a “real writer,” and The Fantastic Four was a last ditch effort to attempt something different in comic books.

    Arguably, Stan Lee devoted only 1/9th of his life to co-creating NEW comic book ideas. The latter half of his life was dedicated to being “Stan Lee” and expanding the Marvel superheroes into more lucrative mediums. He had the personality to open new doors. Anyone who knows me and my work knows how much I cherish Jack Kirby, my artistic hero, but could war-torn Jack have been that kind of person to kiss ass and take those obnoxious meetings and flex that “fake it ’till you make it” attitude? Could Steve Ditko push aside his philosophies and bend over backwards until their ideas could eventually become Joss Whedon proof? Of course not! And why should they? They had no fair stake in the characters they co-created and they weren’t company men like Stan Lee who famously coined “With great power comes great responsibility,” only what was he responsible for and to whom? It certainly wasn’t to the people who concocted another superhero-of-the-week that just so happened to permanently crack the pop culture zeitgeist. That took hard work, other collaborations, and many years to happen. Who knew Marvel Comics superheroes would become what they became?

    Let’s put it into BIGGER terms. My girlfriend loved BREAKING BAD but she still doesn’t know the name of the actor that played “Walter White.” Because it doesn’t really matter to the consumer. Another example: THE WOLF OF WALL STREET is a new movie that just came out. What do I know about it? Martin Scorcese, the guy who directed TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, and GOODFELLAS directed it, Terence Winter, who wrote/created BOARDWALK EMPIRE, wrote it, and it stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Matthew McConaughey. That’s it. And, that’s all most people will ever know about that movie. I could look it up and find out if it’s based on another source and who the cinematographer was and who edited it, etc., etc., but I probably won’t. I know that The Coen Brothers have a new movie out about a folk singer with a cat and that John Goodman is in it. I can hardly remember the title of the movie and I don’t remember the two lead actors names even though I kinda recognize them from the trailer I’ve seen (looks like the same actors from the movie DRIVE). That movie NEBRASKA looks cool because it’s in black & white. That’s the only thing selling me on NEBRASKA. Bottom line: most people don’t know who makes the things we like or the stuff that attracts us to discover new things, new stories, and that’s okay because we’re not always supposed to know or rummage and file that info in the back of our brains. We’re supposed to like the product first and foremost. Alas, Stan Lee became synonymous with comic books and that’s okay.

    Do I benefit whenever someone recognizes my work? OF COURSE! It might get me more work and accolades are fun to collect. Lord knows publishers and editors are relying on name value to help hawk and sell their wares. So, while currently living in the internet/crowd funding age of “ME! ME! ME!” it’s critical to engender a loyal fan base. Especially as publisher press budgets diminish to near nil. However, is it critical that you know that I wrote and drew a story that you read of mine? Nope. Did Stan Lee help inject new life into a medium that was starting to dwindle, starting to get compromised by competing mediums and technology? I think so. Should Stan Lee have given his Marvel Comics co-creators the same attention as he gave himself? YES! That would have been the right thing to do but he didn’t and neither did the company and that’s terrible.

    We still live in a lazy world that thinks a director and a few actors are the people who make the movie and a writer is the person who creates the comic. In a medium like comic books where image is text, too, we truly need to reconsider the way we credit and sell our comic books but that’s another discussion. Meanwhile, it’s tragic stories like Jack Kirby’s; not getting his due props and all the other terrible things that happened to him, that has artists like Neal Adams, Frank Miller, et al, fighting for co-creator rights and credit, ever since. Am I mad at Stan Lee for not being more responsible towards his co-creators? Yes. He could have been a better shepherd of his co-creators but, dollars to donuts, I doubt many people would have given a damn because, in general, they don’t really care who makes the stuff they like. That’s what us passionate “nerds” care about. Am I pissed Stan Lee turned 91 years old? NO! Happy 91st Birthday, Stan Lee.

    I guess what motivated me to respond to this column was the “…I guess?” portion of the title. It almost read as if Stan Lee shouldn’t be allowed to turn 91 years old. Let Stan Lee’s 91st birthday BE his 91st birthday and save the criticism of his career for any of the other 364-days. It’s not like the industry is giving Stan Lee awards for being Stan Lee, but I felt I had to acknowledge the good things Stan Lee did do on his birthday. Stan Lee co-created Marvel Comics and he is an ambassador of comic books. Stan Lee is one of the people that made me love comics and devote my life to comics. ‘Nuff said.

    –Dean Haspiel

    Full disclosure: I’ve met Stan Lee a few times and I even collaborated with him once. He was always honest in his answers to my questions and he is a tireless ambassador of comics. I’d like to believe that if Stan could turn back time, he’d have given Jack and Steve and everyone else who co-created Marvel Comics in the early 1960s their due props. Alas, it was a different time with different concerns.

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  4. Excellent, thoughtful post, Dean. I just want to clarify that I in no way intend Lee any ill health. That would be insane and disgusting and not something I’d ever engage in. That wasn’t remotely where I was going with the headline. I was just trying to convey my overall ambivalence about him. Just want to set that part of the record straight.

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    • Dan, I know you didn’t wish ill-will towards Stan Lee but maybe the headline was a little…provocative. Stan deserves to get old. He earned it! And, he’s still championing comics even when, sometimes, comics won’t champion him.

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  5. Dan, I support your right to express some doubt about an individual who seems to have stood on the sweat and toil of great people and appears to have succeeded in taking the credit and financial rewards for much of their creative effort as well as all of his own, whatever that may be. Birthday or no. It was an honest expression of doubt given the narrative swirling around him. You named it and in doing so encapsulated the sum of the parts. Nothing at all wrong with that. By the way Dean, whenever I see Stan Lee, he’s championing Stan Lee, not the medium. Stan is the best self promoter in comics. He’s an absolute genius at it. I remember how the Marvel Bullpen was all of the rage in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I remember how, early on, Ditko and Kirby were just supposed to be jobbing artists, but even then, there were rumblings leaking out about who was doing what and who was taking credit for it. Face it, Kirby and Ditko et al were fair game. Hard working creative engines churning out quality stuff like the rest of the bullpen, but they clearly didn’t really know publishing law. Stan the man did.

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  6. I began replying to this post a few days ago when I first read it, but decided to put it down and collect my thoughts about Stan Lee for a few days before adding my invaluable insight. In truth, I don’t have much more to add than Dean. When I began reading comics, Stan Lee was a figure or organization that merely “presented” each Marvel issue. I didn’t know whether that made him the publisher or the owner or what, but it was clear he wasn’t credited as a creative contributor, just a master of ceremonies for the proceedings. And I think that’s an apt description for his contribution to comic books.
    It is very rare that art is uniquely great in a vacuum. Often some other person, agency or event conspires to elevate the quality (and sometimes quantity) of artistic output so that it gains notoriety. So it was, I think, with Stan Lee and the bullpen. Kirby and Ditko were nothing new to comics, they were drawing Westerns and Romances for years (and, of course, Kirby had drawn plenty of superheroes besides.) But when the Marvel Age began, there was a big change in their work. Kirby, especially, grew by leaps and bounds in the 1960s. Lee went on to inspire writers like Roy Thomas and Len Wein who became legendary wordsmiths. I think Stan Lee is the spark that ignites a fire, and his influence can be felt in so many aspects of comic books up to today.
    It doesn’t absolve Stan Lee for self-aggrandizing, and it doesn’t mean his dealings could have been fairer. Surely, Steve Ditko deserves more recognition and some fair payment for co-creating the international icon known as Spider-Man. But consider that potential licenses that have catapulted the character into popular consciousness might not have happened if Spidey was pitched by an introverted Randian nerd like Steve Ditko. Or maybe things would have unfolded the same. It’s pure speculation, but I do feel that Stan Lee is the ambassador of comic books, for good or ill.

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