x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Stan Lee made Marvel something to behold

The wild success of The Avengers film proves the creations of Stan Lee are still relevant decades after he started writing them. Alex Ritman profiles the man who changed the comic book industry.

Illustration of Stan Lee. Kagan Mcleod for The National
Illustration of Stan Lee. Kagan Mcleod for The National

There are several laugh-out-loud moments in the new box office record-smashing superhero outing The Avengers. Most of these involve Tony Stark's egocentric wisecracks or The Hulk's gigantic green fists, but there's a small cameo role at the end that is likely to have had the biggest knowing chuckles from the comic book fanboys.

With New York saved from certain destruction thanks to Marvel's assembled stars (don't worry, this really isn't giving anything away), a local news crew asks an old man on the street about the near-death experience. "Superheroes in New York? Give me a break," cracks the cheery, bespectacled gentleman, before returning to his game of chess.

That man, as millions across the world will have no doubt recognised, is Mr Stan "The Man" Lee, without whom the Avengers - and an extensive list of other colourful, tightly clad doers-of-good now existing in a superhero universe worth hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars - would never have existed.

It was Lee who - as writer and editor at Marvel - created Iron Man, Thor and Hulk together with artist and "co-plotter" Jack Kirby in the 1960s. It was Lee who took over writing duties on Captain America and gave him his signature shield discus-like toss. It was Lee who brought the fighting unit together in 1963's first The Avengers comic (although, pedants will no doubt point out Captain America wasn't added until issue 4). Then there's Spider-Man, another Lee co-creation, along with the X-Men and Fantastic Four. Now 89, Lee's name and grinning face are as synonymous with the superhero world as his fantastical characters who reside there (as underlined by the Stan Lee action figure, released in 2007).

Born Stanley Martin Lieber to Romanian-born Jewish immigrants in New York City in 1922, Stan Lee (a name he first started using in his comic book debut in 1941's Captain America Comic #3) grew up in near poverty with his dress-cutter father struggling to make ends meet following the Great Depression. Living in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx, a literature-hungry teenage Lee worked numerous jobs - from sandwich delivery boy to theatre usher - before landing the position of assistant at Timely Comics, the comic book arm of publisher Martin Goodman. Timely, as comic book historians will know, would go on to become Marvel Comics.

Lee's original duties, he once recalled, required him to "make sure inkwells were filled", along with fetching the artists' lunches and proofreading. With the appearance of Captain America, however, he began writing, with his first superhero co-creation, Destroyer (an American journalist captured by the Nazis and given abnormal powers via a super-serum), landing in 1941's Mystic Comics #6.

When Timely's editor, along with chief artist Jack Kirby, resigned later that year, a 19-year-old Lee was suddenly named interim editor, a position he would thrive in. Ironically, given his creations spent much of their time battling the Third Reich, Lee, who volunteered for the army, spent the war writing scripts for training films and instruction manuals.

By the time Lee took over as publisher in 1972, there had been something of a revolution at Marvel, with Lee pushing the industry into what is now dubbed the "Silver Age" of comic books in the early 1960s. In 1947, Lee married Joan Boocock, a British actress and model, who had fled post-war Newcastle for Los Angeles. Seeing Lee uninspired with his career direction, Joan urged him to experiment with stories he preferred, rather than using the sort of flawless, idealistic specimens of humankind such as Superman, brandished around by DC Comics, the biggest comic book name of the era.

What flowed from Lee's imagination became the template for almost every superhero since: heroes possessing more human, complex feelings that readers could connect to, heroes who had mood swings, who would worry about girlfriends or finances, who might even get sick. Consider Iron Man, a capitalist playboy with a torturous secret (he was actually based on Howard Hughes), or the reserved and withdrawn nature of Bruce Banner (and the distinct opposite of his alter-ego), or the loneliness of Peter Parker. These were figures with flaws that people could, and did, relate to.

"Lee's superheroes might get a cold; they would get headaches; they had problems with friends. They had very human characteristics. Lee was the first one to do that," George Mair, the author of Excelsior!: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, once said.

With this new blueprint, Lee and Kirby began unleashing characters like the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and the X-Men. With Steve Ditko, he made arguably Marvel's most famous creation, Spider-Man. He also added humour, the sort of socially aware comic asides now commonplace in every superhero film (and about every two minutes in Iron Man). He threw in storylines that dealt with issues such as drug use that broke censorship regulations (and in doing so, helped to reform the Comic Magazine Association's Comics Code).

He involved topics of the day, such as the Cold War and the Vietnam War, which had been untouched by rival DC Comics, whose superheroes rarely bothered with international borders or politics. It might seem unremarkable now, but these ideas were inspirational at the time.

For Marvel, the result was the lion's share of the market, with around 75 comic book titles published a month during the 1960s and 70s, each with an estimated 150,000 readers. For Lee, the result was to cement him into the comic book hall of fame and become the industry's cheery unofficial figurehead. And this is a position that has only grown in stature as his much-loved creations have stepped from page to screen, from under-the-duvets-with-the-torch-on to all-conquering global mainstream.

At Comic-Con, San Diego's annual convention that now attracts more than 126,000 fans, children and adults alike queue for hours to meet their hero and get a signed photo, while grown men have been seen weeping after shaking Lee's hand. "I squeeze their hand so hard, what are they going to do?" he once quipped.

"He's the Pope of comics," says Morgan Spurlock, whose 2011 documentary Comic-Con IV: A Fan's Hope (a story of the now internationally renowned comic convention and the adulation its attendees have for its biggest star) won the Audience Award at last year's Doha Tribeca Film Festival. According to Spurlock, it was actually Lee who suggested making the film.

"I was at Comic-Con the year before. I met Stan Lee and told him that he changed my life, that as a kid it was his comics that gave me the courage to want to tell stories, to want to write my own stories. And he said 'Morgan, we should make a film about Comic-Con'."

To help get the documentary going, Spurlock brought on board Joss Whedon, another Lee-inspired director who now, with the continuing success of The Avengers, can credit the octogenarian's wild imagination half a century ago for a significant proportion of his success.

Having passed US$700 million, The Avengers has now jumped into the list of the Top 50 Highest Earning Films, becoming the fourth involving Lee creations (unsurprisingly, the first, second and third live-action Spider-Man films are the others). These four titles alone have raked in over $3 billion. Throw in Iron Man, the numerous X-Men outings, plus Thor, The Fantastic Four and the various attempts to bring The Hulk to the big screen, and the figure easily tops $6 billion. Together with merchandising, video games and the countless other commercial tie-ups and you've got some very happy studio executives with a lot to thank Lee for.

The overall tally is likely to head towards double figures with this summer's Spider-Manreboot, together with Avengers 2 (now confirmed), next year's Iron Man 3 and Thor 2, plus the rumoured further Hulks on the horizon (Mark Ruffalo has signed a six-film deal).

But while many have accused Marvel (now owned by Disney following 2009's $4.24 billion purchase) of rinsing its prized possessions dry with the endless sequels and reboots, the love for 89-year-old Lee, still as committed to his superhero universe as ever, just keeps growing.

Despite approaching his 10th decade, Lee appears as unwilling to slow down as his never-ageing characters. In 2010 he launched the Stan Lee Foundation to help provide access to literary, education and the arts. Through his POW! Entertainment media company, he hosts Stan Lee's Superhumans, a TV show looking for real-life people with unique genetic traits, airing on the History Channel.

Lee's cameo in The Avengers wasn't his first film appearance among his own creations (that would be the 1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, in which he plays a jury foreman) and it won't be his last. This summer's The Amazing Spider-Man will see him as a librarian.

"There's a big battle going on with Spider-Man and the Lizard in the library," he said in his unmistakably enthusiastic tone last year. "I have earphones on, so while I'm stamping the books, this life-and-death battle is going on behind me. I don't know it - I can't hear them!"

Expect the knowing chuckles across cinemas to only get louder.