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How Stan Lee Created Comic Book Celebrity and Modern Geek Chic

Stan Lee did not create the Marvel Universe alone. To successfully do so, he worked with the best comics creators of all time; legends like Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Steve Ditko and countless others. It was a notion Lee himself often fought against, using the same humility and empathy that defined many of his characters to tell people who fawned over his work that he could never do it alone. And he was right.

So no, Stan Lee did not create the Marvel Universe alone... but he is the reason it succeeded.

RELATED: Stan Lee, Legendary Comics Creator, Passes Away

Lee became the company cheerleader, a friendly voice for the growing comics audience to follow. His attempts to connect with his readers helped foster an entire community around the industry, turning comics from the remnants of a once booming industry into one of the defining art forms of the 20th century and beyond.

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His attempts to transition to Hollywood helped lead to geek culture reaching the mainstream in ways never before seen. He became every reader’s “Uncle Stan,” a sarcastic but kind figurehead of comics. Stan Lee helped mold the modern idea of Geek Chic into what it is today, and turned Marvel Comics from an entertainment company into its very own culture.

Merry Marvel Marching Society

Lee was among the defining creators of the company, at one point writing every book under the Marvel header. When he left the monthly titles, he shifted more into his true calling as the figurehead of the company.

RELATED: Bill Sienkiewicz Honors Stan Lee with a Marvelous Portrait

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The first sign that promoting the comics was his greatest skill can be seen in “Stan’s Soapbox.” Lee turned the letters column of the comics, typically just full of glowing responses from fans, into a place where he could better establish the tone of Marvel as a publisher and universe.

His soapboxes were bombastic and memorable, much like the man himself. They even sometimes spoke of higher issues, like the evils of bigotry and the merits of camaraderie.

The Soapbox was where many fans first felt like they “met” Stan. He wasn’t just a writer anymore, he was the voice of Marvel Comics. He would rib DC Comics, calling his "Distinguished Competition" “Brand Ecch.” He would talk up Marvel books, and tease future events. He would engage the fans in actual conversation and debate, something unheard of at that time.

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Remember, this was before the premiere of the '60s Batman television series, and less than a decade after Frederic Wertham's anti-comic book treatise, Seduction of the Innocent or the implementation of the Comics Code. Comics and superheroes were not a popular pastime for people over the age of 12.

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But Lee gave Marvel a voice and a devil-may-care attitude that appealed to young readers, even more so when they became teenagers. He engaged with his fans, and the comics community as a subculture grew around him as a result. He created the “Merry Marvel Marching Society," the actual motto of which was "I Belong," itself an anthem of inclusion and community.

By becoming the spokesman for Marvel Comics, Lee became “the” comics creator. College kids would come to see him give lectures on stories. Conventions began to become a thing, and Lee would often arrive, even dragging some of his compatriots with him.

RELATED: Tom King Has Been Subtly Honoring Stan Lee at DC for Years

He was a naturally sociable man, smiling in pictures and talking to anyone with an ear. It’s that ubiquity that led to some fans only recognizing him as the maker of their favorite stories. Of course, that fame played a role in the dissolving of his creative partnerships with Ditko and Kirby, but it also made Marvel Comics stand out, and earned it a larger fanbase.

Hollywood

In 1980, Lee moved to Los Angeles with his wife Joan to turn that success and fame from comics into something else. While he served as a producer and hype man for early adaptations of The Incredible Hulk, he also tried his hand at other ventures.

RELATED: Comics and Hollywood Pay Tribute to Stan Lee

These included Stan Lee Media and POW! Entertainment, neither of which ended up working out in the long run. He also took part in the DC Comics miniseries Just Imagine, where he was given the chance to create his own revamps of classic DC characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

While these all failed to garner the breadth and depth of response that the original Marvel Comics were able to achieve, they did keep Lee in the limelight.

In an era where most ideas of comic book fans evoked Kevin Smith slacker characters at best, and Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons at worst, Lee gave the industry a friendly ambassador. His decision to parlay that fame into Hollywood ended up having the most impact with the growing number of Marvel movies hitting theaters.

RELATED: DC Comics Honors Stan Lee on Twitter

Beginning with X-Men in 2000, Lee made a point of having a cameo appearance in almost every single Marvel film and television series that followed. This includes every entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It made him recognizable to an entirely new generation of fans. His tone and inner character influenced how Marvel grew in the years that followed.

Stan The Man

In current culture, geek is cool. Giant robots, superheroes, monsters and mutants, all those things are at the height of their popularity. And Stan Lee, with his robust personality and friendly-but-feisty demeanor, helped define the aesthetic of the casually cool geek.

Stan Lee fostered a sense of fun and inclusion, where anyone (and everyone) could (and should) be a Marvel fan. Lee helped define the sense of self for an entire industry, and even though he has sadly passed on, that feeling -- and his presence within it -- will continue well into the future, both far-flung and not-too-distant.

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