Stan Lee passed away last month at the age of 95. The worlds of film and comic books, an industry Lee helped define, mourned his passing and paid tribute. Whether it was on the screen or on the page, Stan Lee’s work changed pop culture forever. To better understand that legacy, I sat down with three people whose lives have been shaped by comics and the Marvel Universe. I spoke with Zack Kruse, a Phd candidate at Michigan State originally from Cherubusco. We spoke last year to look back at Fort Wayne’s Summit City and Appleseed comic cons, which Kruse organized. I was also joined by Aaron Minier, an artist and illustrator working in Fort Wayne, and the owner of a certain confectionary shop in the North Anthony corridor.
“I’m Chad Seewald. I own Sweets So Geek, custom bakery and confectionary shop here in Fort Wayne, and I learned how to read on X-Men comic books I stole from my dad’s collection, so lifelong geek.”
The X-Men comics Seewald learned on were part of The Dark Phoenix Saga. For Kruse and Minier the path into Marvel comics was similar. Starting at a young age, taking interest in comics from friends or looking at comics in the magazine racks on family trips to the store. Here’s Zack Kruse. “I was certainly exposed to characters like Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Hulk, and the X-Men very, very young. I was also collecting Marvel’s Secret Wars and the Secret Wars toys.”
Artist Aaron Minier also remembers what comics got him started, the popular What If? Series from Marvel set up each issue with a question. What if the X-Men never existed or what if Dr. Strange was a disciple of Dormammu or what if Peter Parker had never been bitten by a radioactive spider?
Another what if? What if the characters Stan Lee created had never evolved into the Marvel Cinematic Universe we know today? Here’s Chad Seewald again. “I really believe the Marvel movies in general is one of the major factors that has made it perfectly acceptable to be a geek in the world right now.”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been at the center of mainstream cinema for ten years now. Four of the top ten highest grossing films this decade were Marvel movies before The Incredibles 2 bounced Avengers: Age of Ultron from the top ten. In a time when a superhero movie surpasses another superhero movie, it’s easy to forget a time when films based off of Marvel characters flopped at the box office. Stan Lee’s earliest attempts to bring his creations to the screen failed.
The period of struggle and irrelevance followed by success, was also how things went for the Marvel comics leading up to the early sixties. Books in other genres weren’t keeping the company afloat. Here’s Zack Kruse again. “Prior to that they or course had been publishing, but they were publishing a lot of weird suspense and monster stories and things like that I still have a very special place for in my heart and I love. But they did not see the kind of audience reactions that came from Jack’s reintroduction of psychologically complex and narratively complex superhero dramas.”
Kruse mentioned Jack, as in Jack Kirby, not Stan Lee in speaking about Marvel’s shift to superheroes in the sixties. Stan Lee was so synonymous with the characters of the Marvel universe, that it’s easier to overlook many of the other contributing creators. If you look up many of Marvel’s most familiar heroes, several names appear alongside Lee’s. Writer and artist, Jack Kirby pops up repeatedly. When Marvel Comics was about to shut its doors, but the publisher had already paid a few months advance on printing, Kirby had nothing to lose when he pitched some of the characters who would ultimately save the company. Here’s Kruse, “Jack said I’ve got a million ideas. Here they are. Let’s try them. You’re going to close the doors anyway. Let’s see if we can make a go of this, so from that moment Jack brings in the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk.”
Kirby collaborated with Lee to also create Iron Man, Thor, Groot, and the Black Panther, just to name a few.
Even Marvel’s most well known web-slinger was a group effort. What readers and audiences know today about Spider-Man came from Steve Ditko, another writer and artist who did much of the early writing and designed the costume, after he was given just a name and a set of powers as a starting point. The popularity of these characters launched Marvel into the public consciousness, and the face of that cultural shift was Stan Lee.
In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Lee talked about how Stan Lee was his pen name. His given name was Stanley Martin Lieber and he used the pen name so his credibility wouldn’t be hurt by writing comic books. With the popularity that came from Marvel’s comics and characters, he legally changed his name to Stan Lee, and became the ambassador for the medium audiences saw in the last several decades of his life. Kruse describes Lee’s transformation into “the bombastic sort of persona he created for himself as a comics booster.”
Being a comics booster was more than just characters and stories, it was everything about comics and how they are made. In the late seventies, Marvel Comics penciller and inker John Buscema was running an art school. Here’s Fort Wayne artist, Aaron Minier.
“And Stan being the guy he was, said ‘that give me an idea, let’s make a book.” That book would be called How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. It was a breakdown of many of the different techniques used by Buscema, Lee, and other creators to draw comics. Minier says it’s a guide every comic artist likely owns and should have in their toolkit. It’s “a shorthand bible of how to construct a comics page the way the pros do it, and give you basic knowledge of anatomy, perspective, and what makes a layout work.”
Though comics the Marvel way were part of a group effort with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others, Stan Lee became the face of comics as the medium became more mainstream. In the decades that followed, Lee himself became larger than life. Kruse describes it this way. “Stan Lee’s greatest invention was the character Stan Lee.”
And with great invention, comes great memories.
Full Disclosure: Sweets So Geek is a supporter of 89.1 WBOI