Stan Lee was the most important man the American comics industry ever produced. Through talent, chutzpah and sheer hard work, he built a publishing powerhouse out of a clapped out shell of a company and co-created Spider-Man, the Hulk and the X-Men, along with a cavalcade of other costumed stars of page and screen. Along the way, he created a pop culture phenomenon (Marvel Comics) and recreated a comics genre (superheroes) that rules at the box office to this day.
In 1960, the American comics industry was a shadow of its former self, after a decade of haemorrhaging readers to television. Lee, writer-editor at failing Marvel Comics, a marginal outpost of Martin Goodman’s magazine publishing empire, was instructed by Goodman to come up with a rival to its arch competitors National Comics’ latest success story, the Justice League of America; a teamup title showcasing all its leading superheroes. There were just two catches: Marvel had no established characters to draw on and it looked as if it soon wasn’t going to have Lee either.
After 20 years of loyal service at Marvel (and its previous incarnations as Timely Publications and Atlas Comics), Lee was on the verge of quitting the business, fed up with hacking out puerile plots in service of the latest comic trend. He still had ambitions to write “proper” novels (and, in fact, had adopted the nom de plume Stan Lee for his comics work so that his birth surname of Lieber wouldn’t be tarnished by association). However, he was convinced by his wife Joan to take one make-or-break gamble at crafting a superhero comic the way he thought it should be done. On the plus side, he had some of the best artists in the industry at his disposal, notably the formidable creative genius Jack “King” Kirby and the talented youngster Steve Ditko.
Lee’s new series, the Fantastic Four, featured a quartet of science-fictional adventurers with a range of superpowers implausibly acquired through radiation. However, the X factor was his innovative portrayal of these heroes as flawed human beings rather than perfect archetypes: right from the off, they bickered and fought amongst themselves, they had foibles, they were fallible. They had character by the bucket load.
In addition, Lee stripped away the tried and tired conventions of the secret identity (their identities were public knowledge), the hero’s girlfriend kept perpetually in the dark and the kid sidekick (both were fully fledged members of the team). And topping it all were Kirby’s stunning character designs and visuals, although his contribution to the plots remains a matter of bitter dispute.
Fantastic Four #1 hit the newsstands in 1961, to an overwhelmingly positive reaction from fans. Over the ensuing four years the Lee-Kirby partnership repeatedly tapped into the zeitgeist with a string of chart topping titles, including the Incredible Hulk (a radiation-spawned variant on the Jekyll and Hyde theme), the Mighty Thor (a slice of Norse mythology), and the X-Men (an allegory for America’s racial turmoil, and ironically the only Lee-Kirby commercial flop). But the brightest star in the Marvel universe was one with little input from Kirby: the Amazing Spider-Man, the brainchild of Lee and Ditko.