We have to admit, writing a tribute for Stan Lee is one of the hardest things we can think of doing. After all, who are we?
There will be other tributes -we are sure- which are more beautifully written. There will be pieces crafted by his former employees, his friends, his loved ones, and the people he mentored over the years. There will be thousands of amazing and tear-wrenching artwork done by the most talented artists in the industry, and all who have their own Stan Lee stories. We here at The NYRD did not work with Stan. We did not personally know him. We never even got the chance to meet him. Though, we feel like we did, and with Stan that was perhaps the most special thing about him.
Stanley Martin Lieber was born in 1922, right here in Manhattan. He grew up on West 98th, under the care of his parents, Celia and Jack Lieber, both of whom were Romanian-Jewish immigrants. They struggled through the Great Depression, as most families did. Stan served during the tail-end of World War II, as most of his peers did. Yet, Stan was not like most of his peers. Growing up, he always wanted to write the great American novel, which was why in 1939 when he got his first job at Timely Comics he chose the pseudo-name, Stan Lee, so that his work with pulp fiction would not tarnish his eventual success as a “serious” writer. The first series he ever wrote for was Captain America.
Incidentally, Stanley Martin Lieber would later legally change his name to Stan Lee, year later.
That’s who Stan was, an ambitious writer with a reluctant foot in the comics game, but it didn’t stay that way for long. When legendary figures, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, left Timely in 1941 Stan was made interim editor. He was only 19, but his sense of business and his knack for the comic industry helped him remain as editor-in-chief until 1972, at which point he became the publisher. In the 1950’s with the superhero revival, Stan joined forces with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others to create some of the most iconic characters of the 20th century and in 1961, Atlas Comics -which had previously been Timely Comics- became Marvel Comics.
In part, it was Stan’s philosophy that helped the small company compete with the industry leader, DC Comics. Where DC was telling big stories about gods and men, Marvel chose to keep their stories grounded. Peter Parker had superpowers, but he also had girl troubles and homework. The Fantastic Four were superheroes, but they were also a family with strife and heartache. Superman fought criminals in a Metropolis where there was no Vietnam War, or Communism. Iron Man fought crime in New York City, and was frequently caught up in the events of the day. Stan was fond of saying, “I just tried to write characters who are human beings who also have superpowers.”
There is this constant rumor that J. Jonah Jameson is as close to self-portrayal as Stan ever came when writing his comics. According to Gerry Conway, “Just like Stan is a very complex and interesting guy who both has a tremendously charismatic part of himself and is an honestly decent guy who cares about people, he also has this incredible ability to go immediately to shallow. Just, BOOM, right to shallow. And that’s Jameson.” Yet Stan Lee was much more than just a boisterous news editor, he was a Jewish kid from the Bronx, someone who knew what it meant to be different. He did charity work. He had a genuine exuberance for life. He cared about his employees, his readers, and those he met in his everyday life.
One of the most important parts of those early Marvel books was the sense of community that Stan fostered. He would frequently write his own personal thoughts to the readers and reply to their letters, and he introduced the practice of crediting stories to not just to the writer and penciller, but also the inker and letterer. He wanted Marvel Comics to be a family and a place where everyone felt at home. That meant giving credit to the people who made the comics, and it meant engaging with the readers so that they felt like they were a part of it all… In the end, that was the core of Stan Lee, at least we think so. He wanted that sense of community. He wanted us all to feel like friends, because even though we did not know him personally, nor ever shook his hand, we did feel like his friend.
So, writing this tribute is daunting for another reason, as well. Our friend is gone, and we are still finding it hard to believe that we now live in a world without him. Stan Lee was like the city itself, a fixture in our everyday lives. In a way, he was more like one of his characters, as if there was something more than mortal about him. He was Peter Parker, and Bruce Banner, and Tony Stark, and Ben Grimm, and Charles Xavier, and all the rest. There was a part of him in all that he did, and that means that there will always be a part of him with us.
So, Stan Lee never got to write his great American novel. No, he got to write something so much better than all that. He got to write a story of a man who created characters and wonders that not only reflected our lives but influenced them. We would not be who we are today if not for him, and we know that we are not alone in that feeling. He taught us to be heroes, and that it was okay to different, and that you could find good even when the world seemed like it was going to hell. Stan Lee wrote the kind of story that changed our lives and the lives of millions of people, and that story was his life.
For that, all we can really say is: Thank you, dear friend… Thank you.