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November 13, 2018

How Stan Lee changed comic books, and changed the world

If you only know Stan Lee from his cameo appearances in the Marvel movies, or from seeing his name in the credits, you may wonder just who that old guy was? And his recent death has people thinking about him, and maybe wondering what he did. He wrote comic books, and changed the world. Because the pen is truly mightier than the sword. He was a writer.

Speaking for myself, I never really paid much attention to Stan when I started reading Marvel comic books in 1967. My main interest was the artwork, because I loved to draw, and still do. And so, looking back, it surprises me to see that his writing had caught my eye, not just the artwork of the comics.

I bought comic books based on the artist, starting when I was very young, reading Batman. I always looked for the Bob Kane artwork, and refused to buy a comic that was drawn my Carmine Infanto. That was before my attention was caught by Marvel. And I really have no idea who wrote the Batman comics, but I can tell you who wrote the Marvel comics - it was Stan Lee.

Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, my favorite team. Captain America.

Before Stan Lee started "signing his name all over the place" comic books were mostly done by anonymous artists and writers. But Stan made a point on page one of every comic to tell you who wrote it (him) and also who the artist and inker was. My favorite combination of artist and inker, by the way, was Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott.

Spiderman and Doctor Octopus in the 1960s. Stan wrote "Doc Ock!" and 'Nuff said", a light-hearted writing style that comics had never seen before. It's as if I could hear his voice.

I was nine years old when I read by first Spiderman comic book. I can be that precise because I distinctly remember the first page had blurb on the left that said, "Explanation '67!", and explained what had been happening in the story so far. Spiderman was in the middle of an adventuring with Doctor Octopus, one of his arch-enemies. The format of this type of writing, I later learned, is a "serial", which means that one story connects to the next, but other than a quick explanation, you really don't need much to enjoy the current story. And the current story always ends with a "cliff hanger" (going back to stories where the hero was actually hanging onto the edge of a cliff), which made you look forward to the next story. And at the end of every Marvel comic book, there was a cliff hanger. I couldn't wait for the next issue to come out! I saved up my twelve cents!

So the format that Stan used was an old tried-and-true format, and he didn't invent the idea of superheroes, You could argue that Edgar Rice Burroughs created that in 1912 with Tarzan, who had powers beyond normal, a way cool origin story, bulging muscles, was adored by women wherever he went, and fought bad guys. And of course there was Superman, and others after that. What Stan did was to make them human, to give them imperfections. And that's what attracted me to Spiderman. He wasn't just a titanic hero who swaggered around saying, "Don't thank me! It's what I do!", he had what was called at the time "hang-ups", insecurities. He had to learn over and over that with great power came great responsibility. He made mistakes, he got hurt, and he got back up again to do what he knew was right. The daily newspaper didn't praise him, they criticized him, but he kept on doing what he did.

I'm sure that Stan Lee never set out to change the world, he was just writing comic books. But between him and his artists he created heroes that the world had never seen, in all shapes and sizes. His X-Men stories were all about what it's like to be different in a world that didn't understand. And his female characters also weren't just "eye candy" - they were women of character, and what I'd like to believe influenced girls who read the comics (did girls read Marvel comics?). I know that the female heroes he created, which are now in movies, are very different from the mere "damsels in distress" that he knew from his youth.

The Silver Surfer disavowing Galactus in the 1960s.  The Surfer stands with Earth!

Stan Lee believed that the world, and humanity, with all its faults was worth saving, and that there was hope. I was saddened to see how badly the "Fantastic Four" movie dealt with the story of Galactus, which was one of my favorites. I've often thought of that story, how the earth was saved not with an heroic battle, but with the words of a woman who shared them with the herald of Galactus, the Silver Surfer, who averted disaster simply with compelling words.

Thank you, Stan! 'Nuff said!

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