Superman was boring. Superman comics were faceless, institutional. Nothing mattered from issue to issue; villains might return, but there wasn’t any sense of accumulating history. The writers, bored with an infallible hero without personality, would come up with alternate-world plots. What if Superman were a baby married to Lois Lane? What if Superman had six legs and was Superspider of Venus?
OK, DC comics didn’t go that far, but they came close.
Marvel changed the expectations of the audience, and it was Stan Lee who was the face of the new style of comics. Lee, a longtime comic book editor and writer, died Monday at the age of 95. He had the frantic fortune to collaborate with two titanic talents — as he might have phrased it in his alliterative, excitable style: Steve “Difficult” Ditko and “Joltin” Jack Kirby.
“Collaborate” is a tricky word.
For the past few years comic fandom has been sorting out who came up with what. Lee was no longer thought to be the primary creative force behind Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the raft of characters that powered Marvel from the 1960s to the present. He might have exaggerated his contributions. And, in his tireless promotion of Marvel — and, by the way, himself — he might have soft-pedaled the innovations of his collaborators.
Here’s the odd thing, though. Most people who loved comics forgave him, because they wanted to like Stan.
Stan Lee, you see, liked us. The readers. The kids who bought the rags from a creaky wire rack in the drugstore.
We were a gold mine, sure, but we were the most appreciative and fanatic audience a fellow could have, and he addressed us one by one. His “Stan’s Soapbox” column was a breathless exhortation to believe in Marvel’s ever-loving greatness. It always ended the same: “Excelsior!”
We had no idea what that meant, but it sounded like something Thor would say. Or Stan.
The Soapbox ran on the Bullpen Bulletins page, a collection of news flashes — ITEM! — that talked about upcoming comics, slung the insider slang we all knew, used nicknames for the artists: Merry Marie Severin! King Kirby!
We imagined Stan as an impresario, a ringmaster, ducking in and out of offices to slap backs and offer advice. He held the shop together. He gave everything the quality that made it Marvel, not Brand Echh, as they called the Superman shop.
In the early ’60s Marvel’s work took a turn toward human characters with flaws and foibles — mixed up, to use the swingin’ parlance. This expanded the audience to college-age kids who would have sneered at Superman.
Spidey had girl problems. He washed his costume with hot water once and shrunk it, and had to go out crime-fighting with his wrists and ankles exposed.
Those touches, you suspect, were Stan’s. He made these kids’ stories grow up, let them breathe and laugh.
In the early days of Marvel he was probably happy to have a steady job, and the idea of his co-creations ending up in Disney’s hands — with billion-dollar valuations — would’ve seemed like a dream. But he lived long enough to see Spidey and the Avengers and Dr. Strange and the Black Panther and others hit the big screen, and he was honored with cameos. We loved those as much as he enjoyed doing them, because we remembered what he said.
“Keep the faith!” We did.
“Face front!” Well, that’s the best way to see a movie, yes.
“True Believers,” he called us, with a grin. We were.
So was he. That’s one of the reasons we loved him.