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Excelsior, Stan Lee

An ode to Stan Lee, writer, creator and publisher of Marvel Comics, who passed away at the age of 95 on Monday

Published: 13th November 2018

For a kid growing up in the late 90s in India, the lure of television was inescapable. My favourite channel growing up was, naturally, Cartoon Network. Amongst all the characters who used to appear on that channel, was a teenager who had to balance his schoolwork, homework and the secret life he led as Spider-Man. Aerosmith's new age guitar treatment to the classic Spider-Man theme song as he battled the Sinister Six still is vivid in my memory. Soon after, I met Spider-Man at the local library perched at the bottom of a shelf full of comic luminaries like Batman, Tintin and Asterix. I picked the issue up and it was one of the primary drivers for my reading habit. Little did I know that Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, predicted this outcome way back in 1977. "Kids are more visually oriented with the advent of television and parents have a problem with that. Comic books at the very minimum start off children with a reading habit. Once they read comics and like it, they equate printed matter with enjoyment and shortly thereafter, they gravitate to other books. Nobody just reads comic books. Moreover, in Marvel comics, our vocabulary is of college level. If we want to use a word like 'proselytize' or 'misanthropic' or 'cataclysmic', we do. The children learn what these words mean via their usage in the sentence or with the help of a dictionary."

Stan Lee, the creator of Marvel comics as we know it today, passed away on Monday at the age of 95. Born September 28, 1922, Lee was a voracious reader and was enamoured with Shakespeare and Sherlock in equal measure. Right from a young age he wanted to be a writer. His first job was at a newspaper company which employed him to write obituaries for people who weren't yet dead. While Stan saw the irony in this situation (much of this kind of humour would go on to populate his writings), he did not stay on. He wanted to try out acting, but decided there was no money in it. So he took up a temporary job at Timely Comics, which paid him around 8-10 dollars a week to fill inkwells, erase pencil lines and get hungry employees their food. When Simon and Kirby (creators of Captain America) left because of a payments dispute, Stan Lee became the interim editor of the magazine. He then stayed on as art director and editor-in-chief till 1972 and the comic book industry is the better for it.

The golden age of comic books ended soon after World War II and the industry was floundering in the 50s, till DC reintroduced The Flash in 1956 and subsequently put together an all-star team in Justice League of America. Timely Comics wanted a response and asked Stan Lee to come up with a superhero team of their own. Working with Jack Kirby, who he had rehired some years before, Lee created The Fantastic Four in November 1961. These were four characters who did not have a masked superhero identity, the leads (Mr.Fantastic and Invisible Girl) were in love, Human Torch was a teenager who wanted more money for the work he put in and The Thing, an ugly block of rocks, wanted spotlight. With the fantastic work of Jack Kirby that made these characters jump out of the screen, the comic was a roaring success.

Emboldened, he would go on to create other iconic characters working alongside Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, John Romita and John Buscema. They were The Incredible Hulk (Marvel's first TV series in 1978 had Lou Ferrigno playing the role), The Mighty Thor and Asgard (a huge influence on a certain George RR Martin who credits Marvel for his ASOIAF series), Black Panther (the first African-American hero in mainstream comics), Iron Man (who birthed the multi-billion MCU franchise), The Avengers, Daredevil (the character who would be singularly responsible for the revival of DC's Batman in the 80s), Doctor Strange (whose artwork influenced many a comic artist in DC and Marvel for years to come), X-Men (Marvel's second biggest selling comic title through which Stan talks about race and bigotry), and of course Spider-Man ("Everybody hated teenagers and so I felt let us make a hero out of one").

Lee and his team at Marvel ushered in the Silver Age of comic books, and at their peak, they would finish two books a week. They were able to do this was thanks to the Marvel Method - Lee would come up with story ideas, put up a synopsis and hand it over to the artists, who would draw the comic out leaving blanks for Lee to write the story and dialogues. This method while highly successful for the company resulted in the artists being shortchanged and leaving the company. But nothing could stop the Marvel juggernaut (pun intended) and with Lee turning publisher in 1972, he promoted comics on different platforms and brought the prestige he felt comics rightfully deserved. 

Lee's favourite character was Silver Surfer. There have been rumours that there is an unwritten rule in Marvel that no one would ever write the character except Stan Lee. It was through this pacifist that he would write some of the deepest philosophical quotes. One such quote defined Stan Lee's life and career - "Rather let me fail ... than never to have tried at all!"

For the man who made a career out of his cameos, I feel another quote that came from him in Spider-Man 3 (2007) makes more sense. He says to Peter Parker, "You know, I guess one person really can make a difference."

Truly, Stan, 'nuff said. Excelsior!

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