How Stan Lee Catapulted Superheroes into the American Mainstream

stan lee

As hard as it may be to believe now, there was a period in American superhero comics when the genre and medium as a whole was written off as little more than children's literature and World War II-era propaganda. Nowadays, superhero films earn billions of dollars at the worldwide box office, comic book conventions pack in hundreds of thousands of fans and Marvel's heroes and villains are the backbone of the most recognizable brands on Earth. The dividing line between the period of superheroes in the mainstream and the genre being dismissed and forgotten by the general public is Stan Lee.

Stanley Lieber was born on Dec. 28, 1922 in New York City, the city that would forever become associated with his work. A writer since childhood, Lieber long dreamed to one day write the next Great American Novel while starting to work at Timely Comics in 1939 as an assistant. After transitioning to an editor position with the publisher and writing a short story for 1941's Captain America Comics #3, Stan took on the pen name Stan Lee, a moniker less identifiably Jewish in a country still rife with anti-Semitism, while reasoning he could use his real name when he began writing more traditionally literary works. Of course, the pseudonym would stick with him for the rest of his life.

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After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Lee returned to the industry to write romance, Western and horror comics at a time when the superhero genre was on a bit of a decline. As the genre began to receive its second wind thanks to the more sci-fi oriented reinventions of DC Comics' The Flash and Green Lantern, Lee decided to branch more into the superhero comics that had given his professional career its start over a decade prior.

Now a seasoned writer, Lee wasn't interested in replicating the archetypal, seemingly flawless characters seen throughout the medium with the overt, jingoistic moral messages completely lacking in subtlety. Instead, Lee wrote from his own human condition, scripting characters that would experience the daily hang-ups and personal setbacks people faced in the real world. The virtuous messages would still be there, but as undertones, not overtones. Stan and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four would deal with the dynamics of family. Their Incredible Hulk explored handling one's own darker impulses and propensity for self-destruction. Their X-Men espoused the importance of tolerance. And Stan and Steve Ditko's Spider-Man, of course, was all about responsibility.

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The more nuanced storytelling approach paid off. The Amazing Spider-Man quickly became one of the highest-selling series in the industry following its debut in 1963, and a poll of college students less than two years later cited the character as a revolutionary icon; Spidey was the only fictional character included on the list. The Marvel revolution began with those foundational heroes, and Lee expanded on the dream by co-creating Iron Man with Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Kirby; Thor with Lieber and Kirby; Black Panther with Kirby; Silver Surfer with Kirby; Ant-Man with Kirby and Lieber; Wasp with Kirby and Ernie Hart; Doctor Strange with Ditko; and Daredevil with Bill Everett. The heroes that weren't performing as well as Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four were given their own ensemble book in The Avengers, created by Lee and Kirby, with the creative team reviving Kirby's co-creation, Captain America, by the fourth issue, with the added narrative element that he was a man out of time.

NEXT PAGE: How Stan Lee Transformed from Comics Writer to Pop Culture Phenomenon

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