100 years of Stan Lee, the man who invented the Marvel universe

The story of Stan Lee can be counted among those of the artists who for “a flicker” manage to leave a mark in the sector in which they work, turning their very existence towards fame. Cartoonist and creator of the Marvel Comics universe, manager, producer, Stan Lee (pseudonym of Stanley Martin Lieber) had his “flash” in 1961, when, following a request from the publisher Martin Goodman, he followed his wife’s advice to write comics that he himself would have liked to read. Thus he gave birth to the Fantastic 4, the first “superheroes with superproblems” who revolutionized the world of comics. To this first strange family, Stan Lee’s imagination added Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, all superheroes with emotions and feelings, made vulnerable by their human traits, by the awareness that « with great power comes great responsibility,” as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker before he died.

Figures that marked the end of the so-called “golden age” of comics, that of the perfect and invincible superheroes of DC Comics (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman), inaugurating the «silver age». The new generation of Marvel superheroes had the same problems as mere mortals. The success of the publishing house was sudden and in a few years it became one of the most important of all time. Fellini discovered it in New York, where he was in 1965 to promote his film Giulietta degli spiriti, and was struck by it (it was not yet distributed in Italy). As a great lover of the genre, he asked to visit the editorial staff and to meet his authors. Stan Lee, whose centenary of birth falls today (12/28/1922) found him “very nice”.

New Yorker, with a peaceful childhood, a solid literary culture and the desire to become a novelist, the young Lee began working at the age of 17 as a handyman at the Timely Comics publishing house, which would later become Marvel, employed by Martin Goodman. Here he will make his debut in comics, collaborating in 1941 on n.3 of «Captain America». He became managing editor, a position he held until 1972 (apart from the years 42 to 45 which took him to the front). Along with other comic book authors and publishers, he faced the moralistic campaign promoted since 1954 by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham and Senator Estes Kefauver (the same one who brought Betty Page to court), who accused comics of being the cause of juvenile delinquency. Strips came under scrutiny, with the establishment of the Comics Code Authority, a self-regulatory body for publishers that restricted the depiction of violence, sex, drugs and monstrous creatures. Stan Lee was impatient with this (self) censorship and began to violate it as early as the 60s. Then in 71 the United States government asked him to create a story on drug abuse and Lee decided to set it in the world of Spider-Man. The proposal was not accepted but Marvel decided to publish it anyway, going against the Code and forcing the Authority to update it.

In his editorials, signed «Excelsior!» and in the pages of the mail he addressed the readers directly using a confidential tone and a completely personal style that entered the comics jargon. His imagination also led him to create the Marvel Universe, an imaginary multiverse made up of different dimensions in which the various stories take place. His privileged accomplices were Steve Ditko, with whom Stan Lee created Spider-Man, and Jack Kirby (former co-author of Captain America) with whom he created the Fantastic 4 and all the new Marvel superhero family. Their creative process gave birth to the “Marvel method” which was not based on detailed scripts but only on the writing of the subjects by Stan Lee, who then left the designers the freedom to develop the stories, making them true co-authors. A method that favored bitterness on creative merits. With Kirby there were several controversies for the authorship of the stories, also due to the media exposure of Lee who over the years had become the “image man” of Marvel, thanks to his columns, his presenteeism (we also remember him in “Lucca Comics» in 1974) and to his strong personality. Kirby in an interview said of him that he had “a God complex” and contributed to the construction of his character by drawing a parody of him in the 70s for DC, Funky Flashman in the comic “Mister Miracle”.

With great flair for the times, Stan Lee predicted the “bronze age” of comics, with the associated decline in sales and the resurrection of superheroes in cinema and TV. Leaving Marvel in 1972, he devoted himself to promoting his characters on screen, first as creative director of Marvel Productions from 1980 and then as founder of POW! Entertainment since 2001, albeit going through a few business flops as he indulged in iconic cameos in nearly every Marvel Universe film he helped create, keeping his popularity alive.

He didn’t even abandon his dream as a writer in 2001 he published The alien factor, his first novel. In 2018 he received the National Medal of Arts from George Bush. After creating 590 characters for Marvel, he died in Los Angeles at the age of 95 on November 12, 2018, not to be forgotten by Hollywood that he already has a biopic ready about his relationship with Jack Kirby entitled «Excelsior!». Nicknamed «The Man» and «il Sorridente», his story has already become a successful book, Stan Lee, by the journalist Abraham Josephine Riesman, published in Italy by Rizzoli who does not give up digging into the gray areas of the life of he. After all, don’t wriggles also produce splashes? Despite the background, we can’t help but recognize Stan Lee’s inspiration for having created a pop imaginary in which to find comfort: in the fragility of his superheroes we see our fears again, in their superpowers our strength to react to difficulties.

“Never give up on your dreams! When I first wrote Spider-Man, my editor said I was crazy because people hate spiders and bugs and he wouldn’t publish it. But I never gave up, until it was released,” he tweeted on May 19, 2018.

100 years of Stan Lee, the man who invented the Marvel universe