Stan Lee and his Marvel-ous Career

May 2, 2022 | Isabel

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Born in 1922, Stan Lee would have turned 100 this year. He died in 2018, just one month shy of his 96th birthday. Lee presided over a period of intense creativity at Marvel Comics. With a talented team of artists, Stan Lee produced some of the most beloved comics characters in the world. Staff at the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy have a selected a few such characters to highlight in honour of Stan Lee's 100th birthday.

Visit A Marvel-ous Century of Stan Lee on the third floor of the Lillian H. Smith Branch. The exhibit is open from 10am to 6pm, Mondays through Fridays, and 9am to 5pm on Saturdays. Admission is free and everyone is welcome. The exhibit runs from now until July 2, 2022.


Stan Lee exhibit

If you are unable to come to the exhibit you can still learn more about Stan Lee’s career and some Marvel-ous characters below!

 

Early Career

Stan Lee was born Stanley Lieber, the son of blue-collar, Romanian-Jewish immigrants in New York. He always wanted to be a writer. At age 16, he got a job as an office boy at Timely Comics through his cousin, who was married to the owner. At first, Lee spent his time sweeping floors and running errands for the staff. Three years later, in 1941, he started writing short prose stories for Timely and was promoted to interim editor. Lee progressed to scripting comic books and kept writing even through a stint in the army during World War 2. Timely Comics became Atlas Comics after the war and then Marvel Comics in 1961. Stan Lee worked his way up from editor to publisher at Marvel and became the public face of the company.

 

The Silver Age of Comics at Marvel

Marvel Greatest Comics
Marvel Greatest Comics: 100 Comics that Built a Universe by Melanie Scott

During the 1960s, Stan Lee was writing for most of Marvel's series. This fertile period is when he created his most beloved characters, though his claims of authorship are sometimes controversial. Lee worked collaboratively with the artists at Marvel, usually giving them loose plots and then inserting dialogue into finished pages. Artist Jack Kirby claimed that Lee actually wrote very little and that Kirby himself and other creators wrote the bulk of what Lee took credit for.

To learn more, here's some recent biographies on Stan Lee that offer more background and insight into this controversy:

True Believer

True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee by Abraham Riesman

A Marvelous Life

A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee by Danny Fingeroth

No one can deny, though, that Lee was the driving force in popularising these characters and fostering the careers of many legendary artists and writers. Without his showmanship and marketing skills, Marvel Comics would not be the powerhouse it is today.

 

Marvel Teams

In 1961, spurred by the success of rival DC Comics’ Justice League of America (JLA) series, Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four. It was to be a team of superheroes with very human natures, who squabbled and sulked but still saved the world. This was a deliberate contrast to the JLA, which included virtuous and all-powerful heroes such as Superman and Wonder Woman. The Fantastic Four are the genius Reed Richards, Susan Storm, her younger brother Johnny, and Richards’ college friend Ben Grimm. While journeying through space in an experimental rocket-ship, they are subjected to radiation which gives each of them superpowers.

Check out these comics featuring the Fantastic Four.

A page from Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four: The World's Greatest Artist's Edition.
A page from Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four: The World's Greatest Artist's Edition. On display at the Merril Collection.

Other teams highlighted in our exhibit are the Avengers and X-Men (created in 1963), and the lesser-known team the Inhumans (created in 1965). Check out their stories at the library:

 

Heroes

Iron Man

While working on these teams, Stan Lee and the artists he collaborated with dreamed up a host of individual heroes. The hero Iron Man was first introduced in Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963). He was created by four people: Stan Lee, scripter Larry Lieber, story-artist Don Heck and cover-artist and character-designer Jack Kirby. Iron Man was developed as a likeable pro-war character at a time when American society was becoming increasingly anti-war due to the Vietnam War.

Check out these comics featuring Iron Man.

Iron Man is the alter-ego of industrialist Tony Stark. When he is kidnapped to build a weapon of mass destruction, he instead constructs a suit of armour to protect himself and escapes. During this time he suffers a chest injury that leaves him with a weak heart. Like most of Lee's characters, Tony Stark has several flaws, including heart problems as well as alcoholism. Iron man was most recently played by Robert Downey Jr. in several Iron Man and Avengers movies.

The Invincible Iron Man Omnibus, Vol. 1
Close-up of The Invincible Iron Man Omnibus, Vol. 1, showing the hero in his original grey metal suit. On display at the Merril Collection.

Black Panther

Black Panther first appeared in issue #52 of Fantastic Four (July 1966). Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Black Panther was a groundbreaking character – the first Black superhero, debuting in the middle of the American Civil Rights movement. Both Lee and Kirby claim they came up with the character on their own out of a desire for diversity.

Check out these comics featuring Black Panther.

Black Panther is the alter ego of T’Challa, king of the fictional East African country of Wakanda. He can draw on the knowledge of past Black Panthers and has superhuman strength and speed derived from a special herb native to Wakanda. Black Panther appeared as a guest in several comics, then joined the Avengers in 1968. He got his own series in the 1970s. Marvel released a hugely successful Black Panther movie in 2018 starring the late Chadwick Boseman.

Black Panther. A Nation Under Our Feet  Book One

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book One by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze and others.

Black author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates writes the current Black Panther series, which started in 2016. See also the Black Panther series by Ta-Nehisi Coates 

 

Silver Surfer

Silver Surfer is one of Merril department head Sephora's favourite comics characters. Funnily enough, he was also Stan Lee’s favourite character in the Marvel universe. Artist Jack Kirby created the image of the silver alien and his surfboard. Stan Lee was intrigued by the character and went on to write every one of the Surfer’s original stories himself.

Check out these comics featuring the Silver Surfer.

First appearing in March 1966, in Fantastic Four #48, the Silver Surfer was born as Norrin Radd on the planet Zenn-La. When Galactus, the Devourer of Worlds, comes to consume his home planet's energy, Radd agrees to be his herald if he will spare Zenn-La. His mission is to cruise the galaxy and seek out planets to satiate Galactus' infinite hunger for energy. Though he tries to find uninhabited planets, he is not always so lucky.

Stan Lee’s own ideas and thoughts shaped the pensive dialogue that became a trademark for the Surfer. A lonely being throughout many of his stories, the Surfer is honourable and altruistic, yet often conflicted – an alien with very human tendencies.

Essential Silver Surfer

Essential the Silver Surfer by Stan Lee. Illustrated by John Buscema and Jack Kirby.
This book contains the first 18 issues of Silver Surfer.

 

More Heroes

The heroes Spider-Man and Thor are also featured in our exhibit

 

Villains

Of course, a superhero is nothing without a supervillain to fight. Stan Lee created some of the most memorable villains of popular culture: villains like Dr. Doom, Loki, Doctor Octopus… and Magneto.

Villains case

Magneto

Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Magneto has filled the role of supervillain, anti-hero and superhero. He first appeared in The X-Men #1 in September 1963 as one of the team’s great antagonists. Born in 1920, Magneto is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. His mutant abilities allow him to manipulate magnetic fields. Magneto is also the father of Pietro (a.k.a. Quicksilver) and Wanda Maximoff (a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch), recently seen in the TV show Wandavision.

Although not yet as famous as their father, there are still several comics that feature Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch.

Magneto views mutants as the next stage of evolution and calls them Homo superior. He believes that mutants will – and should – replace humans as the dominant species. This view is based on his history of persecution and a desire to protect mutants from those that seek to control or eradicate them.

IGN ranks Magneto as the #1 most iconic comic book villain of all time.

Ultimate X Men. Vol. 13  Magnetic north

Ultimate X Men. Vol. 13, Magnetic North by Brian K. Vaughan. Illustrated by Stuart Immonen and others
Magneto devises an intricate plan to escape from prison.

 

More on the Legend

To learn more about Stan Lee and his work at Marvel, check out these great reads.

Amazing Fantastic Incredible

Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir by Stan Lee and Peter David. Illustrated by Colleen Doran

How Marvel Changed the World

Stan Lee: How Marvel Changed The World by Adrian Mackinder

Marvel Comics the Untold Story

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe

 

And be sure to check out A Marvel-ous Century of Stan Lee at the Merril Collection!

 

With thanks to Kim Hull, Ames Geddes, Sephora Henderson and Brian De Wolfe.

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