Nerd History (w/Tom Elmore): Excelsior! Remembering Stan Lee

In November of 2018, the world of fandom was struck a devastating blow as legendary comic book writer, publisher, creator, and Marvel founder Stan Lee passed away at the age of 95. In this most very special edition of Nerd History, we honor the man, the myth, the legend – the incomparable Stan Lee.

 

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Born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922, he was the son of poor Jewish-Romanian immigrants in New York City. By the time he exited the world as Stan Lee on November 12, 2008 he was one of the most famous men in the world and the creator of a universe that rivals Middle-Earth, Star Wars or Harry Potter and one that still makes an undeniable mark on American pop culture.

One of the few ways young Stanley could escape his childhood poverty was to go to the movies. The swashbuckling films of Errol Flynn in particular, made a great impression on him that lasted his whole life. In high school, Lieber took up writing for his school newspaper. To help his family’s meager income, he wrote obituaries, sold newspapers and worked as a delivery boy. Remarkably, Lieber graduated from high school at the age of 16.

Fate would step in 1939 when Lieber’s uncle, Robbie Solomon, got him a job at a new comic book company called Timely. Stanley was basically a “gofer.” His tasks included making sure the inkwells for the artists were filled, got them lunch, did proof reading and made sure that there were no stray pencil marks. Eventually he graduated to text filler for the company’s most popular character in Captain America Comics #3, May 1941, for the story “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge.” This was the start of a decades-long relationship between Lee and the character.

However, Lieber, dreamed of being a great novelist, and was worried that getting credit on comic book under his real name would hurt his future literary endeavors, so he was credited as Stan Lee.

Lee soon was writing back-up features and in Mystic Comics #6, August 1941 he introduced his first creation, the Destroyer. That same year he would co-create the characters Jack Frost, and Father Time. Later in 1941 he became the intern editor of Timely after artist Jack Kirby, the co-creator of Captain America, left in a pay dispute. For most of the next three decades he would be the editor-in–chief and art director of the Timely Comics line of titles.

Lee served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Originally he served in the Signal Corps and was later transferred to the Training Film Division. (He would brag that he was one of only nine soldiers in the army to be designated as a “playwright.”) In this capacity he wrote training manuals, drew cartoons and wrote slogans. He left the army in 1945 with the rank of sergeant. During this time he worked with Theodore Giesel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss.

Two years later he married Joan Boocock, a British-born model, whom he met in a blind date. They would be married for nearly seven decades, and Joan would prove to be a major, positive, influence on Stan’s career.

After the war Timely Comics had become Atlas Comics. Unfortunately for Atlas, the end of World War II, had made Captain America passé. Consequently most of the company’s output was now romance, Westerns, humor, science fiction, fantasy and funny animal comic books.

Lee was dissatisfied with the company’s direction. Furthermore, Lee and all who worked in the comic book industry had to endure public pressure and government scrutiny after the publication of Seduction of the Innocent the infamous, and now-discredited, 1954 attack on the comic book industry.

Lee was on the verge of quitting the comic business altogether when fate again stepped in. Having witnessed rival DC Comics’ success in the late 50s and early 60s reviving the super hero genre, Atlas publisher Martin Goodman gave Lee the task of creating a new super hero team for their company. Lee’s wife suggested that he simply write whatever he felt like writing since he was going to change careers and had nothing to lose.

Lee welcomed the challenge. In 1974 he claimed “For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading…. And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they’d be flesh and blood, they’d have their faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they’d still have feet of clay.” But to hedge his bet, Lee included a monster, The Thing aka Ben Grimm, to cover his bets since Atlas was known for its monster comics.

The result was The Fantastic Four, which debuted in the self-titled comic book in November 1961, which coincided with Atlas being rebranded again, this time as Marvel Comics. To draw the character, Lee was able to secure the talents of Kirby, still considered one of the greatest comic book artists of all times. They created a different kind of superhero. Not the problem-free, all-American Boy Scout, that had come before but a group of flawed individuals, who acted just like normal people, with the same kinds of concerns and worries average Joes had. This would be a trademark characteristic of future Marvel heroes and even some villains.

(Exactly who was responsible for what is still a matter of controversy. Lee claimed he created the synopsis for the story which he gave to Kirby to draw. Kirby then turned in the pencil art to Lee who added dialogue and captions. This approach became known as “The Marvel Method” and is used today by many comic book publishers. According to Lee this system not only saved time but the collaboration between the writers and the artists led to better stories and art. Kirby, however, maintained that most of the first issue of the Fantastic Four, including the visuals, was his idea and all that Lee did was add dialogue.)

Together Lee and Kirby would go on to co-create a slate of superheroes that would challenge DC’s long held grip on the comic book genre with Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and one of the most popular super hero-teams of all time: The X-Men. The two men would also bring back the “golden age” superheroes Captain America and the Sub-Mariner. They would also team up their most popular characters into a superhero team called the Avengers.

With artist Steve Ditko that Lee co-created his most successful hero, Spiderman who debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15, August 1962. In a rare 1965 interview Ditko claimed “Stan Lee thought the name up. I did costume, web gimmick on wrist & spider signal” On another occasion Ditko claimed “I wasn’t sure Stan would like the idea of covering the character’s face but I did it because it hid an obviously boyish face. It would also add mystery to the character.” Lee and Ditko would also go on to co-create Dr. Strange.

All these heroes followed the Marvel formula of having their own Achilles heel. Daredevil was blind, Tony Stark (Iron Man) had a heart condition and was later shown as an alcoholic. Spiderman’s alter-ego PeterPparker was your stereotypical high school (and later college) nerd living with an elderly aunt who had troubles making ends meet. Sub-Marnier had anger issues, Bruce Banner (The Hulk) had even worse anger issues.

Also, whereas DC’s heroes were exalted and glorified by the public, Marvel’s heroes were constantly under government scrutiny, with mutants, like the X-Men being hunted by the government and/or forced to register with it. Meanwhile Peter Parker’s boss at the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson, is always writing editorials about how Spiderman was a menace to society.

Another trademark of Marvel was that it was not uncommon to see superheroes make cameos and guest appearances in tittles other than their own. (Happily this trend has continued in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) This was due to Lee’s desire to see the Marvel universe as one, though it should be noted that in the early years most of Marvel’s heroes were New Yorkers, and the Avengers were likewise headquartered in the Big Apple. In a 2014 interview with Playboy magazine Lee admitted that having all the heroes in New York “was convenient for me since I lived there myself. To me, these characters existed only if I could picture them around town.”

Lee and Kirby also created the very first African-American superhero, The Black Panther who debuted in Fantastic Four #52, July 1966. Three years later they created another one, The Falcon, in Captain America #117, September 1969. The Falcon would partner with Cap for several years and for a while Captain America was retitled Captain America and the Falcon.

Lee and company created many fine villains such as Loki and Magneto and brought back from the dead, the greatest Nazi villain of them all, the Red Skull. But arguably their greatest villain was Dr. Victor Von Doom, a psychopathic, paranoid, impulsive master of the dark arts and mechanical wizard who also is the head of a kingdom. Yet if he was a Dungeons and Dragon character he (like many of the Marvel villains) would be considered lawful evil. In the interview with Playboy Lee said that making up villains “was even more fun than making up the heroes. Until I ran out of animal names, I was OK. There was the Lizard, the Scorpion, Doctor Octopus, the Vulture, the Rhino.”
But the mightiest villain of them all was Galactus. He debuted in the three-part “Galactus Trilogy” that began in Fantastic Four #48, March 1966, in which the super foursome face for the first time the planet eating giant and his herald, the Silver Surfer. The story is often viewed as Lee and Kirby’s finest achievement and was so popular that Lee and artist John Buscema launched a Silver Surfer series in August 1968.

Lee further built up the Marvel brand by creating a relationship between the company and its fans. On the splash page of each story he gave credit not only to the editor, writer and penciller, but the inker and letterer as well. He introduced the Bullpen Bulletins page which were written in a casual, conversational style. He later created “Stan Lee’s Soapbox” in which he would not only share news of what was going on behind the scenes at Marvel but his thoughts on social issues of the day, including discrimination and racism. He would always sign off with his trademark motto “Excelsior!” In addition, any sharp-eyed reader who caught an error in any Marvel comic book would receive a “No Prize” which consisted of a blank envelope mailed to the observer. The No Prize became a highly sought after badge of honor for Marvel readers.

Lee also created fan clubs, first the Merry Marvel Marching Society in 1965 (which actually had its own fight song!) and in the 1970s F.O.O.M., Friends of Ole Marvel. At one point Marvel was producing 40-50 titles a month and printing a combined 50 million copies of them annually. Though to be fair, the company did ride the coattails of Batman mania in the late 1960s which led to a number of Saturday morning cartoons based on Marvel heroes.

In 1971, Lee indirectly helped reform the Comics Code when the U. S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare asked Lee to write a comic-book story about the dangers of drugs. Lee conceived a three-issue subplot in The Amazing Spider-Man #96–98, May–July 1971, involving Spiderman’s best friend becoming addicted to prescription drugs. The Comics Code Authority (CCA) refused to grant its seal because the stories depicted drug use, even though the story was anti-drug in nature. With Goodman’s cooperation and confident that the government’s request would give him credibility, Lee had the story published without the seal. The comics sold well and Marvel won praise for being socially conscious. Consequently, the CCA subsequently loosened the Code to permit negative depictions of drugs.

However some felt that Lee, who legally changed his name to Stan Lee, was more interested in promoting himself than Marvel, and often took credit for projects in which he had little, if any, input. This led to a very public, and still-controversial, falling out between him and Steve Ditko allegedly over Spiderman story ideas. Jack Kirby left in 1970 due to a host of issues including money, character ownership, feelings that he did receive enough credit for his work and jealousy of Lee’s popularity. Kirby did return briefly in 1976 to do a special edition of Captain America to coincide with the U.S. bicentennial. (Kirby and Ditko have shared “created by” credits with Lee in all recent Marvel films and television shows.)

Another criticism was the treatment of women in Marvel Comics. In a recent opinion piece for NBCNEWS.com, Ani Bundel argues:

There’s a reason Marvel has struggled to find a female superhero to match DC Comics’ Wonder Woman, and it’s a simple one: There aren’t any. Lee never took female superheroes seriously, thinking them more suited for Playboy than Marvel‘s imprint… Captain Marvel, who is being played by Brie Larson in the upcoming blockbuster, was a man during Lee’s time as editor and was only gender-flipped decades later.

She further argues:

Like many men of his era, he talked the talk, overseeing the creations of characters like Black Panther and Luke Cage in the 1960s and 1970s, and regularly used his Marvel soapbox to comment on social issues like racial bigotry. But walking the walk was harder. As late as 2015, he still insisted Spider-Man films should only cast the character as straight, white and male, because that’s the way Lee imagined him. The idea that his characters could be recast or reimagined as women, or as people of color, didn’t sit well with him.

 

In 1972 Lee stopped writing monthly titles to become Marvel’s publisher. His final issue of The Amazing Spider-Man was #110, July 1972 and his last Fantastic Four was #125. August 1972. Though he remained active in launching new characters (most notably The She-Hulk in 1980) as time went on he became less hands on and more of a figurehead for the company. In 1981 he moved to California to help oversee Marvel film and television properties and was the narrator on a number of them.

At Lee’s retirement from Marvel in 1996 he was named the company’s Chairman Emeritus. (That same year Marvel filed for bankruptcy) He formed his own entertainment company, Stan Lee Media, in 1998 but three years later in went bankrupt due to a stock manipulation scandal by one of Lee’s partners. (Lee was never implicated.) He later formed a new entertainment production company Purveyors of Wonder! (POW!). Their most notable production was the reality television show Who Wants to be a Superhero? which aired on the Sy Fy channel in 2006 and 2007. POW! also handled all of Lee’s public appearances.

In 2009 Disney acquired Marvel for $4.2 billion but Lee didn’t see any of that money. He told Playboy “I was always a Marvel employee, a writer for hire and, later, part of management. My role at Marvel is strictly honorary. Marvel always owned the rights to these characters.” Lee was however credited as an executive producer on almost every Marvel related film and television project of the 21st century.

In addition he made countless appearances at science fiction conventions and comic book trade shows all over the globe signing autographs, posing for pictures or sharing tales of his days at Marvel for the “true believers.” He also spent his time collecting numerous awards and accolades from the comic book and entertainment industry.

In 2000 Lee went to work for DC comics for the first time ever for a series called Just Imagine in which Lee re-imagined the classic DC heroes Superman, batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash and Captain Marvel (Shazam). (For the record Lee said the DC character he wished he could have had the most was Batman.)

For those who discovered Marvel heroes through the movies, Stan Lee became an “Easter egg” making cameos in over 30 Marvel related films to date. He has made appearances either in person or as a photo in all of Marvel’s recent television shows. So famous were his cameos they that he started doing them in non-Marvel films including 2018’s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies his only appearance in a DC related film. According to Roy Thomas, Lee’s friend and successor as Marvel’s editor-in-chief, days before Lee’s death “he was still talking about doing more cameos. As long as he had the energy for it and didn’t have to travel, Stan was always up to do some more cameos. He got a kick out of those more than anything else.”

However, just like the Marvel universe is full of hills and valleys, so was Lee’s last years. He was involved in a number of lawsuits over royalties and character rights. Lee had a pacemaker put in his heart in 2012. In 2014 he admitted that his eyesight was so bad he could no longer read comic books and his hearing was going. Three years later, his wife of 69 years, Joan died from a stroke.

In April 2018 The Hollywood Reporter claimed that Lee was a victim of elder abuse at the hand of his business manager, Keya Morgan, who was isolating Lee from friends and family to get his hands on Lee’s wealth worth an estimated $50 million. In August 2018 a restraining order was issued against Morgan banning him from being near Lee, his daughter, Joan Celia “J. C.” Lee, or his associates for three years.

In early 2018 Lee revealed to the public that he had been battling pneumonia and in February he was hospitalized for worsening medical conditions. Sadly, his health worsen as the year went on. (Ironically, 2018 was the best year for Marvel at the box office) He was rushed to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, Ca. on November 12 but died there that day.

Stan Lee leaves behind an unparalleled legacy in both comic books and entertainment. He was perhaps the last living survivor of comic books “golden age” and a main mover and shaker in its “silver” and “bronze” ages. In discussing the appeal of comic books Lee told Playboy

 

“It’s an extension of the fairy tales we read as kids. Or the monster stories or stories about witches and sorcerers. You get a little older, and you can’t bother with fairy tales and monster stories anymore, but I don’t think you ever outgrow your love for things that are fantastic, that are bigger than you are—the giants or the creatures from other planets or people with superpowers who can do things you can’t.”

 

Though Stan “The Man” is gone, his legacy will live on.

 

Excelsior!

 

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As Nerd Nation was preparing its tribute to Stan Lee word came about the death of another major figure in fantasy literature, William Goldman.

Goldman was born in Chicago in 1931. He graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1952 and was subsequently drafted by the U.S. Army. After his service he moved to New York, which would be his home for the rest of his days. He earned a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University in 1956. That same year his first novel was published, The Temple of Gold.

 

Goldman wrote novels and stage plays for the next nine years. Then in 1965 he co-wrote his first screenplay Masquerade. But it was his first original screenplay that brought him fame, fortune and an Oscar, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Based on the true story of the two Old West outlaws, Goldman spent eight years researching and writing the script and received a then record $400,000 for it. The film was a major success and made Robert Redford and Paul Newman two of the biggest stars of the 1970s.

He won his second Oscar in 1976 for his adaptation of All the President’s Men based on the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on how they exposed the Watergate scandal. Goldman coined the now famous phrase “follow the money” which does not appear in the original book.

But Goldman will always be best known for his 1973 novel The Princess Bride for which he wrote the script for its 1987 film adaptation. Though the book is said to be an adaptation of a tale written by a S. Morgenstern, its real origins lie in stories Goldman told his young daughters when they were ages 7 and 4 who wanted a story about a princess. From this came Princess Buttercup and the evil Prince Humperdinck, with the country names coming from old European coins. However, writing the book was a struggle as the ideas dried up, until he got the idea to write the book as an “abridgement” and the ideas started flowing again.

After several failed attempts to make a film version, director Rob Reiner (This is Spinal Tap) got the rights and obtained the funding from veteran television producer Norman Lear (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times). Goldman produced a wonderfully witty screenplay that (with Billy Crystal’s unscripted performance as Miracle Max) made it one of the most quoted films of all times. (Surviving cast members claim that fans are always going up to them and reciting lines from the film.)

Though it is hard to believe today, The Princess Bride was only a modest success earning $30.8 million on a budget of $16 million. Cary Elwes (Wesley) blames the film’s disappointing performance on the studio’s marketing department. However, once the film started appearing on cable televsion and showing up in video stores, word of mouth turned it into one of the biggest cult films of all times. In 2013, the Writer’s Guild of America named William Goldman’s screenplay the 84th best screenplay of all time. The American Film Institute placed it at #88 on the greatest film love stories of all time.

Goldman continued to write novels and screenplays as late as 2015. His most famous post-Princess work was the screenplay for Misery in 1990, considered one of the best film adaptations of a Stephen King book. Goldman died in New York on November 16, 20018 from pneumonia and colon cancer at the age of 87.

 

For an excellent, and often humorous, first-hand account of the making of The Princess Bride read Carey Elwes’ 2014 memoir “As You Wish.”

 

         By sheer coincidence, the worlds of Lee and Goldman will be merged in December with a special PG-13 edition of Deadpool 2. In an homage to The Princess Bride the story of the film will be told to Fred Savage who is (sort of) reprising his role as the sick grandkid with Deadpool reciting the film like the grandfather originally played by Peter Faulk. One dollar for every ticket sold will go to the charity F**k Cancer.

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-Tom Elmore
Staff Writer/Resident Historian
Nerd Nation Magazine

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