The Flawed Superhero of Marvel Comics: A new book reveals the origin story of Stan Lee, the self-aggrandizing impresario of an entertainment empire.

AuthorHeilbrunn, Jacob

When the comic book innovator Stan Lee died in 2018, at the age of 95, he was widely hailed as one of the most significant figures in modern American popular culture. A nonstop hustler who grew up during the Great Depression, Lee was an unmistakable figure, with his aviator glasses, flamboyant mustache, and heavy New York accent. He was central to establishing what became known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe--a world in which superheroes didn't stay stuck in their own orbit, but regularly interacted to provide endless fodder for new tales of derring-do. Thanks to his cameos in more than 30 Marvel movies, including The Amazing Spider-Man and Black Panther, Lee became an international celebrity, prompting The New York Times to hail him as the true "superhero of Marvel Comics."

Yet when a teenage Stanley Martin Lieber, who signed his work under the name Stan Lee, began working in 1939 as an assistant at Timely Comics for eight dollars a week, nothing would have seemed more far-fetched. While Timely enjoyed several successes during World War II, including the introduction of the Nazi-bashing Captain America, business was lean in the postwar era. It wasn't until the early 1960s, when the company reinvented itself as Marvel Comics, that it became profitable, outpacing its longtime rival DC, the publisher of Superman and Batman. That's when Lee, together with several highly talented artists, decisively broke with the familiar mold of superheroes as paragons of virtue by creating characters with human foibles and struggles. The Amazing Spider-Man, for example, was constantly fretting about his love life, not to mention the health of his Aunt May. The Fantastic Four--Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing--spent as much time quarreling among themselves as battling their enemies. After going bankrupt in issue nine, the Fantastic Four are evicted from their headquarters at the Baxter Building. "Heroes one minute--bums the next!" muses the Thing. "How did it happen to us?"

With the Fantastic Four and other hits, Lee quickly became the impresario of Marvel Comics. He transformed himself into a celebrity by delivering talks on college campuses, appearing on The Dick Cavett Show, and dashing off an irreverent column that appeared in Marvel's comic books called "Stan's Soapbox." In 1966, the New York Herald Tribune profiled him as a "rangy look-alike of Rex Harrison" who "dreamed up the 'Marvel Age of Comics' in 1961."

As Lee...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT