Stan Lee’s death at 95 wasn’t a shock, but it was still a knife to the heart of anyone who loves Marvel Comics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Netflix’s Marvel series, Spider-Man underoos, or any of the other zillions of products spawned by characters such as the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and the X-Men.
But one of the words frequently used to describe Lee reflects misinformation about what the legend did and didn’t do back in the Marvel heyday of the 1960s. In death as in life, Lee gets too much credit for creating and not enough credit for all the other important jobs he did on behalf of Marvel and geek culture in general.
In sum, you can call Lee plenty of things—editor, publisher, scripter, plotter, celebrity, huckster, and cameo machine—but for the love of the dread Dormammu, don’t call him creator.
Creator, with its godlike connotations, suggests a harmful lie about the genesis of the Marvel Universe that has been debunked for decades, and will probably continue being debunked until a real-life Galactus eats our planet. For most of its history, Marvel Comics—with Lee’s participation—portrayed “the Man” as the primary creator of the Marvel Universe, but the truth is that most of the work of creation was done by the artist/storytellers, especially Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
Necessity was the mother of inequality. After the success of The Fantastic Four in 1961 led to The Hulk, The X-Men, Daredevil, The Avengers, Spider-Man, and others, Lee had more comics to write than even a superhuman could script. Enter “Marvel style.”
With Marvel style, the “writer” of a comic would suggest a plot, leaving the artist (usually Ditko or Kirby) to develop the plot, craft the art, and often suggest dialogue. Then Lee would return to fill in the word balloons. The reality of the workload was that the artist was making most of the storytelling decisions. They weren’t illustrating a pre-existing, detailed script, as most comic book artists do today. (Although those artists obviously deserve credit as well. As comic-book artist Declan Shalvey has argued: “After all, drawing is creating too.”)
By the end of the ’60s, Ditko and Kirby had both left Marvel out of frustration with the situation. Lee became a pop culture hero and entrenched employee of Marvel, enjoying literal and cultural riches, while the artists who were doing most of the work were treated like hired hands.
But … just because the artists were doing most of the work doesn’t mean they were doing all the work. As Hellboy creator Mike Mignola put it on Twitter: “You can debate forever who really created what—Stan or Jack or Steve—but the truth is it was some magic combination of those guys.” Longtime comics writer J.M. DeMatteis voiced a similar sentiment: “And while we’re raising a glass to Stan, let’s raise a glass to the genius of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Together those three men reshaped our popular culture and fired our collective imagination. ’Nuff Said!”
The complexities of the Kirby-Lee collaboration in particular have been pored over for decades. The latest word will come in Stuf’ Said, a special book-sized edition of Jack Kirby Collector. Not even the most ardent Kirbyite or Ditkohead argues that Lee had no part in the genesis and development of Drs. Doom and Strange and the rest. But the facts dictate that calling Lee creator, which implies sole creator, is horseshit. So are these headlines:
“Stan Lee, creator of legendary Marvel comic book superheroes, dies at 95”
“Stan Lee: Spider-Man, X-Men and Avengers creator dies aged 95”
“Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man and Black Panther has died: report”
“Stan Lee dead – Spider-Man creator and Marvel Comics legend dies aged 95”
All of the above could be fixed with the addition of “co-.”
Similarly, the Hollywood Reporter’s obit piece includes this unfortunate passage: “Lee, who began in the business in 1939 and created or co-created Black Panther, Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Mighty Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil and Ant-Man, among countless other characters … ” That or is doing a lot of work, because Lee didn’t create any of them. He co-created Spider-Man with Ditko, Daredevil with Bill Everett, and the rest with Kirby. There’s no shame in the word co-creation. It’s the only accurate term.
While making this distinction now might sound to some like spitting on Lee’s grave, the relentless mythology of Lee as the sole genius behind Marvel has constituted an endless, geyserlike expectoration on the graves of Ditko and Kirby. An Onion headline published in the wake of Lee’s death had plenty of truth: “Stan Lee, Creator Of Beloved Marvel Character Stan Lee, Dead At 95.” Lee the character, outside his charming cameos, was not a harmless fiction. Other creators—and their legacies and families—suffered for it.
Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to describe Lee that accurately reflect his monumental impact on comics and pop culture. In addition to being a co-creator of Marvel, he was the longtime editor—a job far less sexy than writer or artist, but kind of important to making sure the damn comics came out at all. As Marvel editor in chief, Lee shepherded a marginal comics company from the bottom of the stack to the top of the sales charts, eventually smashing stodgy DC and revolutionizing comics. Many folks (such as myself) are obsessed with the artistic genius of Lee’s collaborators. Their impact might have been much less if Lee hadn’t been such a successful and skilled editor.
But if editor sounds too mundane, there are other, more colorful terms for the work Lee did to make Marvel, well, marvelous. In his columns in each Marvel issue atop Stan’s Soapbox, Lee’s distinctive vocabulary (“Excelsior!” “’Nuff said!”) and alliterative acumen marked him as a showman, a carnival barker, a hype man, and, to use an obnoxious but accurate term, a brand ambassador. To this day, Stan is Marvel to many people, and his charm and humor are among the reasons why Marvel is beloved. Without Stan’s style, would Marvel have proven such a durable brand? We’ll never know, but I doubt it. There have been many creators with prodigious imaginations in the history of comics, but there’s never been a salesman like Stan Lee.
In the spirit of Stan himself, you can even describe him in bigger terms. The following headlines are accurate and contain no slight to Lee’s collaborators:
“Stan Lee, Marvel Comics’ Real-Life Superhero, Dies at 95”
—The Hollywood Reporter
“Stan Lee Is Dead at 95; Superhero of Marvel Comics”
—The New York Times
“Stan Lee, Marvel Comic Book Legend, Dies at 95”
The truth about Stan Lee—a frustrated, middle-aged, would-be novelist who, just when he was ready to quit the business, helped reshape superheroes and pop culture—really is amazing and fantastic. Lee was equally skilled at making the sausage of monthly comics and selling that sausage as sensational (which it often was). His cameos are such a treasure even DC got in on the fun. He truly was a legend and real-life superhero—and a co-creator. That should be enough.