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13 November 2018updated 26 Jul 2021 11:47am

“Smilin’ Stan” – the legacy of Marvel’s Stan Lee

A comic book artist remembers his idol.

By Tony Wolf

I started drawing Spider-Man as early as age six.

In fact, I’m sure I was attempting renditions of the web-spinning, wisecracking hero even earlier than that, which must have come out as incoherent scribbles.

I remember asking my mother to pen the dialogue I dictated before I had learned how to write. By age seven, I started to look at the covers I found in the paperbacks Son of Origins and Marvel’s Greatest Superhero Battles, and practice drawing the composition and art I found there.

I wore a Spider-Man costume as an official Marvel-costumed store appearance guy for several years, to help promote the Sam Raimi Spidey movies at places like Target and Toys ‘R’ Us in New York City and Long Island. I will tell you that it never got old, seeing children’s faces light up as they took a picture with their hero.

You will read many tributes to Stan Lee in the next 24 hours. You may have already read some by now. They have certainly been pouring in, since the man born Stanley Martin Lieber, but who liked to call himself “Smilin’ Stan”, passed away on Monday aged 95. You probably know that he co-created most of the blockbuster Avengers. In fact, Stan Lee co-created Spider-Man, The Black Panther, Doctor Strange, The Hulk, Daredevil, Ant-Man, Thor, The X-Men, and The Fantastic Four, among many other superhero characters and supporting characters in what came to be known as The Marvel Universe.

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Like millions of people around the world, Stan Lee’s work touched my life and inspired me. Like millions of comics geeks, Stan Lee’s unique brand of gregarious, optimistic hucksterism infected my soul in the most positive ways. His creations fascinated me as an artist, but it was more than that: like millions of children who dream of being Spider-Man, Stan Lee gave me an ideal of personal conduct and altruism to live up to.

It is notable that Lee’s heroes were essentially the first superheroes in the history of the genre to display – and take readers through – their insecurities, fears, and flaws. Peter Parker was the archetypal misfit; a bookish nerd who never quite fit in and worried about his ailing, doting Aunt May.

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Tony Stark’s arrogance and eventually, his alcoholism, reminded us of the dark side of the ‘cocky rogue’ leading man. Stephen Strange, aka Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, learned a lesson in humility – as did the Norse god Thor. Captain America struggled with the meaning of patriotism in the modern world, where the stark good and evil of World War II gave way to complex grey areas. The Fantastic Four, celebrities of the Kennedy variety living in a scientific gleaming skyscraper, bickered like any normal family. Surely something resonated for us, as a culture, in knowing that life’s tribulations and common neuroses could still affect even the godlike among us.

And although Lee had conflicts over time with his superstar collaborators – artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in particular – there can be no doubt that the unique alchemy that sprung from Lee working with such iconic illustrators had never occurred before, and may never be replicated again. We can, without exaggeration, place Stan Lee’s creations and co-creations up there with The Beatles and other watershed artistic achievements in global arts and entertainment.

Stan Lee began as an assistant at Timely Comics in 1939, and eventually moved up to writing pieces for the comics by 1941. He served in the US Army from 1942-1945, and returned to the world of comic books for the publisher then known as Atlas Comics. By 1961, the company had become Marvel Comics, which debuted the first issue of the Fantastic Four by Lee & Kirby – and which started a revolution in superheroes.

The creation of Spider-Man with artist Steve Ditko followed in 1962. Lee pushed the edge of what was socially acceptable in comics, writing a storyline in May 1971 in which one of Peter Parker’s friends was engaged in substance abuse – the first mainstream comics story to run without the industry’s self-censorship stamp, known as The Comics Code.

Lee’s stories pioneered self-reflection in superhero comics; they advocated helping those less fortunate. Even a non-comics fan can read the poetic soliloquies of the Silver Surfer and walk away thinking deep thoughts about humankind and our place in the universe. His stories spoke of endless perseverance in the face of wrongdoing, and of dogged determination to achieve one’s goals.

Comics fans adore the scene where Spider-Man, trapped under heavy machinery, wills himself to do the impossible: summon the strength to lift the debris enough to free himself and get back to his family, and to the next battles at hand. Peter Parker’s interior monologue echoes through the ages: “Anyone can win a fight when the odds are easy! It’s when the going’s tough – when there seems to be no chancethat’s when it counts!”

I drew an homage of this scene for a friend, the late Seth Kushner, as he fought cancer. I depicted Seth, a photographer and comics writer in Brooklyn, in place of Peter Parker, holding up the impossibly heavy equipment, like Atlas. It came to mind as one of the only ways I could visually express even a hint of what it might feel like to be facing a fatal disease and stay strong for oneself and for one’s family.

Lee’s wife famously advised him to stop focusing on what he thought would sell, and to write something he really believed in. The result was the creation of The Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. It’s a lesson that many writers around the world can still benefit from.

I never met Stan – but honestly, I didn’t need to. Along with countless other comics fans, I’ve soaked up “The Power Cosmic” as a result of reading a lifetime of heroic tales. And I’m eternally thankful for it. Without Stan, there just wouldn’t be comics as we know them. And everyone in that industry can continue to build on his foundation, and have a hell of a fun time doing it.

Tony Wolf is a comics creator and actor in NYC. He has written & drawn comics for The New York Times and been featured in New York Magazine’s Vulture. He tweets @tonywolfness.