28 December 2012

Excelsior!

There are certain periods that, in retrospect, seem almost impossible in their unbridled creativity. I want to make the case that Stan Lee’s co-creation of the Marvel universe as one of the greatest outpourings of artistic creativity ever. Name me another writer in any medium in the last 50 years who has given us as many characters that are now etched into the public consciousness as Stan Lee.

You have Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and almost all of the characters making up the Avengers – Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor.

In comics, one of things that defines a great comic is not just the hero, but the rogue’s gallery. The villains that the hero faces. Stan Lee not only helped create some of the best rogue’s galleries in all of comics, but he did it in an amazingly short period of time.


Look at the first year of The Amazing Spider-Man. In twelve issues, we get Doctor Octopus, the Lizard, the Vulture, Sandman, and Electro. Go just three more issues, and we get Mysterio, the Green Goblin, and Kraven the Hunter. Other heroes had to wait years, if not decades, to get a line-up of villains that good. Same famous superheroes still don’t have a rogue’s gallery that good. (Quick! Name all the Wonder Woman villains you can.)

In Fantastic Four, Stan created possibly the best villain in all of comics: Doctor Doom.

But I’m not singling out Stan Lee as the greatest writer in comics just because of the characters he created. At their best, Stan’s stories had an amazing economy. It’s no accident that retellings of classic stories Marvel stories often run many more issues than the original story did. Those Marvel issues routinely packed more plot and character in his single issues than most comics writers today manage in three or four.

One of the best examples is Fantastic Four #25, the first major battle between the Thing and the Hulk.


This is an issue that is near a high water mark for superpowered battle. In twenty-odd pages, this fight that takes so many twists and turns. The Thing gains advantage, then loses it, then gains it back. Ben Grimm knows he can’t beat the Hulk in a straight-up contest of strength, but keeps himself in though ingenuity and quick thinking.


It’s just amazing. Fights between superheroes and supervillains are so often used, so cliché, that it’s easy to forget how exciting a good one can be.

Part of the success was no doubt that Stan had great artistic partners. They didn’t call Jack Kirby (penciller of Fantastic Four, above) “The King” for nothing. Much has been written about just who contributed what (not to mention a bunch of court cases), and I don’t want to undervalue the contributions of anyone in creating those books. But those books wouldn’t be as good without Stan’s dialogue between characters, and, more importantly, the inner monologues.

Thought balloons are something of a lost part of comics. The few times I’ve talked to comic writers about them, they seem to think that they’re an unsophisticated storytelling device. I’ve always been intrigued by them, because comics is almost alone in the visual media for having a way to show the difference between what a character says and what a character thinks.

Again, nobody did that better than Stan. He gave his characters inner lives that were typically a stark contrast to their current situation. In fights, characters would get surprised, figure out plans, while retaining a cool exterior – the heroes snapping out the quips that Stan was famous for.

That’s my case. Lots of people have written comics. Many of them have written great comics. But in my mind, Stan Lee, working with the artists he did, is without peer.

Written on the occasion of Stan Lee’s 90th birthday.

Related posts

An appreciation

External links

Stan Lee turns 90
Stan Lee, Jack Kirby et al...The Birth Of The Marvel Universe

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