While we all celebrate the life of one of the most notable comic book creators in the history of the medium, I figured I'd start a tag for my posts about Stan Lee's comic book legacy, so you can follow the other articles as they come out. The tag is The Life and Times of Stan Lee.
Our first article has to do with the way that Stan Lee made a certain realism and humanity in its characters a centerpiece of the Marvel Universe in a way that it was not present present in comic book superheroes before the Marvel Age of Comics.
As you likely have heard by now, after Marvel publisher Martin Goodman found out that DC Comics had a hit on their hand with their new superhero team book, Justice League of America (how Goodman found out is still the stuff of legend, but suffice it to say that he somehow found out) and Goodman told Lee to do a new superhero team book to cash in on the success of the Justice League.
By almost all accounts, Lee wavered on the idea. He had now been working in comics for roughly two decades and the late 1950s were particularly tough times for Marvel (or whatever it was called at the time - Goodman was never much of a fan of company names until Marvel became an iconic brand name, so Marvel went through a few quasi-official names in the 1950s, with Atlas being the most commonly used) financially, so Lee was probably ready to move on to another career. As Lee himself told the story, “I told my wife Joanie, ‘ I’m going to quit.’ But she said: “‘Why not write it the way you want to write it? If it doesn’t work, the worst that’s going to happen is that they’ll fire you. And you want to quit anyway.’”
We don't know for sure that that actually happened, but what we do know is that what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby came up together with on the Fantastic Four was a superhero series quite unlike the superheroes that DC Comics was producing at the time.
The clear focus of the initial series was that these were superheroes that acted like "real" people, meaning that they did not necessarily get along with each other.
The Fantastic Four is, essentially, a riff on Jack Kirby's earlier DC Comics creation, the Challengers of the Unknown. A disparate group of adventurers survive a crash and decide to band together as a team of adventurers.
However, look at the Challengers in their first appearance in Showcase #6, with dialogue by Dick Wood...
Great Kirby concept, but Wood was providing a standard script of the era.
Compare that, then, to the first appearance of the Fantastic Four, with Lee dialogue...
It's like night and day. This new approach to superheroes was revolutionary. Superheroes simply didn't bicker with each other like this. There was an unpredictability in their interactions that just felt so darn natural. Heck, by the end of the Fantastic Four's third issue, the Human Torch actually quits the team!!
While the ideas for the characters were, at best, originating through discussions between Lee and Jack Kirby or Lee and Steve Ditko, the approach to how the characters would be depicted in their stories was something that Lee soon began to feel was an important facet of the new Marvel approach.
Thus, even when Lee did not script the comic itself, like with the introduction of Iron Man and Thor, he was involved in the plotting stages to give his brother, Larry Lieber, a basic direction of the pathos that he wanted out of the series.
With Steve Ditko, Lee perhaps co-created one of the most relatable superheroes of all time.