It’s a hypothetical we love asking ourselves, but also one with ties to Marvel Comics thanks to a long-running series of the same name that retold key stories from the publisher’s history. It was a title that gave us a look at what things could have been like had crucial moments in the lives of Marvel’s heroes played out just a little bit differently.
While nearly every important character from Marvel’s lineup has been featured in that aforementioned series, arguably the most important figure from the vaunted publisher’s history has never been highlighted: Stan Lee, the man who helped build it all.
Lee, who died Monday at 95, is an easy guy to ask that kind of question about given his essential role in comic book history and so many of the medium’s pivotal moments. But there’s one hypothetical that is especially important when attempting to define his legacy, and that’s this one: “What would pop culture look like today if Stan Lee never helped build Marvel?”
The short answer: “not remotely the same.” The longer version is a bit more complicated, if only because of what Lee did at Marvel, for better or worse. While most people can quickly rattle off a laundry list of the characters he helped create, it’s the context and details that are essential when considering his larger impact. That’s because that hypothetical situation was this close to playing out.
Lee—then Stanley Lieber—started at Marvel forebear Timely Comics in 1939 when he was just 16 years old, at least in part because Martin Goodman, the man who owned Timely, was his cousin-in-law. While he succeeded in his varying roles there, the publisher struggled to stay alive, and Lee’s own interest waned.
That’s when an inflection point came. In 1961, Goodman asked Lee to create a superhero team in hopes of capitalizing on rival DC Comics’ resurrection of the genre with the Justice League of America. At this point, Lee was uncertain about his long-term future in comics. So his wife, Joan, challenged him to leave nothing behind and to craft characters that reflected his own perspective. That creation was the first superhero title of the newly minted Marvel Comics line and found Lee partnering with artist Jack Kirby. The Fantastic Four was born, and to use language from the genre itself, nothing would ever be the same.
In the three-year window following the Fantastic Four’s arrival on the scene, Lee played a part in the creation of the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, the Wasp, Ant-Man, the X-Men, Daredevil, and more. That’s a four-year stretch of nearly unrivaled creativity, and one that’s still paying enormous dividends to this day.
The characters Lee created with artists like Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Bill Everett represented a sea change in the way heroes were normally portrayed. Traditionally, superheroes were effectively flawless, having more in common with gods than the average reader. Marvel’s new wave of characters was different, with each defined as much by their humanity as by their amazing powers.
Characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men were ordinary people put into extraordinary situations, and the relatability at the core of these characters tethered them to fans. They were aspirational in a way comic characters hadn’t been before, which is why potent, Lee-crafted lines like Spider-Man’s mantra “With great power comes great responsibility” became more than just a catchphrase for some readers; over time, they took on the weight of an ethos. Furthermore, Marvel Comics reflected the real world, underlining how being different isn’t just OK, but something that can be empowering.
Marvel was, of course, a sensation, creating a new generation of fans for the medium. Lee routinely devised ways to get readers to buy even more of Marvel’s product. An example: In a change of pace from most superhero comics, all of Marvel’s heroes lived in the same world, meaning Spider-Man could pop up alongside the X-Men or the Hulk could battle the Avengers. That shared universe became a defining element of modern pop culture. The characters they created and stories they told were essential to the rise of Marvel, but an underrated part of Lee’s place in the company’s history was how his fingerprints were all over everything else Marvel had to offer. Lee’s handling of both the Bullpen Bulletins write-ups and his Stan’s Soapbox columns engendered an almost friend-like feel between the publisher and its rapidly growing collection of fans—or “True Believers,” as Stan liked to call them—with “Stan & Jack” becoming not just storytellers, but the reader’s pals in a way.
Lee embraced an almost carnival barker–like persona within those pages, and in a medium filled with solitary craftsmen that let the story and characters come first, his showman nature was key to Marvel succeeding in the way it did. But there’s a key word in there that can’t be ignored when reflecting on Lee’s legacy: “help.” Lee didn’t do it alone, even if sometimes it’s portrayed that way.
One of the first graphic novels I owned was a trade paperback published in 1974 called Origins of Marvel Comics by Stan Lee. I still have it, and the state of it is a reflection of how much I read it as a child. Its spine is torn to shreds, with the cover and interior pages folded and bent in a way only a kid who truly loved it would.
As a child, I didn’t think anything of the title. I just knew this collection allowed me to read early issues of Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four and Doctor Strange and more at a time it was nearly impossible for the average person to find or afford a copy of them. It was a showcase for these greats, as presented by the man who created them.
That title is at the crux of the downside of Lee’s time in comics, if only because of the names not on the cover. Marvel Comics wouldn’t exist as we know it without the contributions of the artists Lee worked with, particularly Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. And to call Lee’s relationship with them complicated is an understatement: their partnerships with Lee, and subsequent disillusionment, changed comics forever. Both Ditko and, in particular, Kirby were essential to the creation and development of Marvel’s greatest heroes, because of the procedure Lee developed to balance writing with his other responsibilities. It was called “The Marvel Method.”
It worked like this: Lee and whichever artist he was working with would formulate a story idea together; Lee would then create a synopsis the artist would use to draw the entire issue, with the artist defining many of the key storytelling details; once the art for each page was completed, Lee would go back and script the book via word balloons and captions before overseeing the remainder of the process. This technique sped the Marvel production schedule up, but it also turned the artists into more than just someone who draws the book, making them storytellers on at least equal footing with Lee.
But Kirby and Ditko’s part in the creation of these giants was at best limited by Lee and Marvel, and at worst, omitted completely. This led to Kirby and Ditko both departing Marvel, with both returning from time to time but never losing hold of the hard feelings they had toward the publisher and its figurehead. (Kirby’s family eventually settled a legal dispute with Marvel over his rights to the characters he cocreated, bringing that story to a close after his death, while Ditko never pursued the rights to Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, or any of his other cocreations.)
While Lee’s post-Marvel life was marked by a series of bad business deals and complicated relationships, nothing looms over his legacy more than the question of who actually created these characters. It’s led to many people relitigating his place in comic book history, lamenting Lee’s success relative to the oft-forgotten genius of Kirby and Ditko. Was Lee truly a comic book great, or was he simply carried by two of them? Here’s the truth: without Kirby, Ditko, and Lee, these characters wouldn’t have existed, let alone become the icons they are. You needed them all to make Marvel the success it was.
So, let’s get back to the big question: “What would pop culture look like today if Stan Lee never helped build Marvel?”
For one, it’s possible, even probable, that there would be no Marvel. Without Lee and his last-ditch attempt at making something happen in the world of comics, Marvel very well could be little more than a footnote in the history of the medium. At the very least, it means no Spider-Man, no X-Men, no Avengers, and none of the others Lee played a role in developing.
Of course, that means the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t exist either. While some might deride the dominance of comic book movies these days, it’s impossible to ignore the massive financial and creative impact the MCU has had on the movie business, with more than $17.5 billion earned across 20 movies in the past decade. We also wouldn’t have movie studios driving themselves mad trying to create their own shared universes. That might be addition by subtraction, though, as no studio has been able to near the effectiveness of Marvel’s original.
And what about the medium of comics? Where would it be without one of the progenitors of the modern superhero? It’s hard to say. At best, it’d be greatly diminished without its biggest company and defining voice. At worst, it would be an even more niche art form. His writing voice and humanization of heroes continues to inspire storytellers to this day. The medium of comic books wouldn’t be remotely the same without Lee.
Even the ugly side of Lee’s life—namely, his battle with Jack Kirby over credit—was hugely influential in comics, as that inspired writers and artists who saw what happened to create their own comics and characters outside of the major publishers. For example, it’s easy to connect the dots from Kirby’s troubles with Marvel to massive hits like The Walking Dead, which launched at independent publisher Image Comics.
And sure, Lee was imperfect—his hunger for the spotlight and hoarding of credit ruined relationships and turned others against him. But that just makes him a little more like the characters he cocreated: equal parts hero and flawed mortal.
In 1961, Stan Lee easily could have moved on from comics rather than take on Martin Goodman’s challenge. Instead, he stuck around and helped change the course of pop culture forever. Once an inspiration for outcasts everywhere, Marvel has become the mainstream. Lee played an outsized part in that. While one might ask what import brief, nameless lives like ours could have in the grand scheme of things, it’s impossible to deny Lee’s contributions will continue to be felt, far, far into the future. That’s a legacy few can match.