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Stan Lee Gave Us Relatable Superheroes

The late Marvel Comics icon had a hand in dozens of iconic characters, each with their own special powers. But the one thing most of these figures shared was a revolutionary sense of normalcy.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Stan Lee’s great contribution to comics was the idea of normality. It’s the not-really-secret ingredient that helped Marvel rise to the top of the comics industry and, later, to dominate movie screens. In the 1960s, he created or helped create the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and many other iconic characters and titles in an unparalleled outburst of imaginative energy. But it was Lee’s insistence that Marvel’s characters be relatable and have real-world problems that set them apart from the competition, most notably DC Comics.

Lee liked to describe his characters as superheroes “with feet of clay.” They could lift buildings and create invisible force fields and swing across the cityscape using the proportional strength and agility of a spider. Their concerns and their environments, however, were staggeringly quotidian. When he wasn’t slugging it out with Doctor Octopus, Spider-Man was a regular teenager, struggling with feelings of inadequacy and trying to scrape together a little spending money to take Gwen Stacy out on a date. The Fantastic Four bickered and worked each other’s nerves the way only family can. The Avengers, Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, flat-out disliked each other and spent most of their first few issues fighting each other. And all these heroes lived not on the moon or some far away planet but in New York City.

Superheroes are people too. Seems like an obvious idea now! But in the 1960s, the so-called Silver Age of Comics, this was revolutionary. Marvel’s comparatively complex story lines and relatable themes, combined with that trademark rock-’em, sock-’em action, appealed to both adolescent and college-age readers. That latter demographic made comics cool. In a 1965 issue of Esquire, the Hulk and Spider-Man were listed as “college campus heroes” alongside Bob Dylan and Malcolm X for the cover story “28 People Who Count.” A Cornell college student interviewed for the article said “[Marvel Comics] are brilliantly illustrated, to a nearly hallucinogenic extent. Even the simple mortal-hero stories are illustrated with every panel as dramatically composed as anything Orson Welles ever put to film.”

Suddenly, comics—Marvel’s in particular—were deemed worthy of the kind of critical analysis previously reserved for more highbrow fictions.

A two-page advertisement from the September 1966 issue of Esquire quoted a letter from an English teacher at the State University of New York at Buffalo asking for 25 copies of Fantastic Four #46 (“Those Who Would Destroy Us”).

“I wish to use them in my course on contemporary American literature. … I know the class will dig them, and I hope that in them they will see various archetypal and mythological patterns at work which would give them better insight to where things are today.”

Marvel’s house style flowed from the infamous “Marvel Method.” Rather than creating a panel-for-panel script, Lee, often in collaboration with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, would create a plot outline. The artist would then be free to lay out the story visually in any way they saw fit. Then Lee would come in and fill in the dialogue bubbles and captions. The upside of the process was twofold. It allowed Marvel to move efficiently through the production process while giving legendary artists like Kirby and Ditko the most creative freedom possible. It also meant Lee was able to enforce his bantery, down-to-earth style across all of Marvel’s titles, thus creating a unified thematic approach. The downside, sadly, was that it would become impossible later on to accurately apportion credit for the creation of these works. And it’s this uncertainty that ultimately clouds Lee’s legacy.

As Marvel took off like a rocket ship on its way to study cosmic rays, Stan Lee became the company’s biggest real-world star. As both editor in chief and head writer, he was the company’s most recognizable name, wielding massive institutional power and influence. Marvel’s success meant that Stan’s natural affinity as a pitchman par excellence was uncovered, much like a mutant whose latent powers suddenly emerge. Soon enough, readers were greeted by a gaudy “Stan Lee Presents” at the top of the credits page, which appeared whether or not Stan wrote the story. At the back of the book, “Stan’s Soapbox” column, in which Lee opined about whatever happened to be on his mind, was featured among the fan letters.

By the 1970s and into the ’80s, Lee was essentially a figurehead—the smiling, mustachioed symbol of the company he helped build. Presaging his ubiquitous on-screen cameos, Lee made numerous fourth-wall-shattering appearances.

Those moments in the middle of a Marvel movie are what Lee is possibly best known for now, given the impact of the Marvel movies. A good (though admittedly rough) metric for a person’s impact on the world is whether their Wikipedia page has Wikipedia pages. Under Lee’s Wiki-entry, you’ll find a link for “Stan Lee Cameos.”

As digital-effects technology evolved and became able to realize the stories and characters that Lee and his colleagues had imagined, the film industry discovered, in comics, an untapped reservoir of beloved stories, stocked with vibrant and original and relatable superheroes just waiting to be made. Stan fell into the role that he’s been playing since the ’70s—Smilin’ Stan. There he is—in Iron Man (2008), three women draped across his arms, being mistaken for Hugh Hefner (this aged terrible, y’all); in The Avengers (2012), playing chess in the park after the Battle of New York; in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), assisting the Grandmaster as he cuts the God of Thunder’s golden locks; and in Venom (2018), as a dog-walker.

Marvel’s house style—the chatty, everyday banter mixed with saving the world—is the DNA of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The Avengersshawarma credits stinger is a callback to the early work presided over by Lee and his various collaborators; same for the scene in Iron Man when Tony Stark directs Pepper Potts on how to change out his chest reactor or the Thor-Hulk argument in Thor: Ragnarok; and many, many others.

The other notable page within Lee’s Wiki is “Characters Created by Stan Lee,” which details the 360-odd characters created or cocreated by Lee, most during a roughly 10-year period starting in the early ’60s. (Or to put it another way: about the same amount of time as he’s been making his three-second appearances in Marvel movies.) This was a creative explosion unmatched in comics. It’s an amazing, uncanny, and certainly mighty achievement. But one made more complicated by the haziness surrounding who, exactly, did what.