There is probably no one more synonymous with the world of comics than the venerable Stan Lee himself, particularly when at the age of 90 he appears in cameo after cameo in various movies based on Marvel Comics’ properties, and is a frequent guest at comic book conventions throughout the United States and Canada. For all of Stan Lee’s creative achievements in comics, it’s his ability to craft and cultivate his brand that causes him to remain in the collective consciousness of not only avid comic book fans but the casual consumer as well.
Working with talented artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Stan Lee helped to define the Sliver and Bronze Ages of comics. Spawned from these collaborations came some of the most compelling characters and stories to ever grace the comic book page. The 60’s heralded the genesis of Spiderman, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Avengers and the X-Men, heroes and anti-heroes that reflected the pulse of that particular decade rife with fears of nuclear war, teen angst and the civil rights movement in the United States. Stan’s writing style, mixed with dynamic artwork was the formula that helped to define Marvel Comics and the Marvel style for close to two decades. From the cosmic battles of the Fantastic Four, bombastic villains like Doctor Doom or Galactus to Spiderman’s quite ordinary personal struggles, Stan and the artists that helped to plot some of the tales provided audiences with a new mythology that was decidedly different than what was being published by other comic companies at the time. Other signatures of Lee’s was the way he used alliteration for his character’s names (e.g., Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, Sue Storm) and the removal of the teen sidekick as a comic book trope, although Rick Jones seemed to be everybody’s sidekick at one time or another. As other creators took over to guide the characters that Stan, Jack and Steve created, they put their own spin on them, but for the most part followed Stan’s creative blueprint through the 70’s and early 80’s.
Stan Lee’s brand became more prevalent as he moved into upper management at Marvel. Unlike his contemporary, Julius Schwartz the editor chiefly responsible for modernizing the DC universe, Stan started to become as popular as his characters. Having “Stan Lee Presents…” on the first page of each comic helped to keep Stan in the public eye even after he had relinquished his writing duties. Ever the showman, he also made it a point to interact with his audience with his bullpen editorials addressed to the fans and his signature catchphrases like “Excelsior’’ and “Welcome True Believers” became part of the Marvel lexicon. As the creator or co-creator of several of the company’s intellectual properties, Stan Lee was the face of Marvel Comics as much as Spiderman or the Hulk.
Over the years Lee moved from editor to executive producer as Marvel gained a foothold in Hollywood. He lent his voice narrating episodes of “The Hulk” and “Spiderman and His Amazing Friends” cartoons during the early 80’s and made cameos in the company’s television shows and movies including the recent run of blockbuster films that have come out of the house that Stan built. While it can be debated that the artists that co-created the Marvel universe haven’t gotten their due, this scenario has played itself out in other forms of entertainment. McCartney or Lennon? David Lee Roth or Eddie Van Halen? Puff Daddy or Biggie Smalls? Which individual is more responsible for the success of their respective accomplishments? Either way you look at it one needed the other at the time they were making their magic for things to happen. The sum is always greater than it’s parts. It is unfortunate that Kirby is not alive today and that Ditko has chosen to distance himself from his contributions to the Spiderman mythos. That being said, would they be able to get as much recognition as Stan has if they were involved? Unfortunately that question will never be answered. What is certain is that Marvel would probably not be the juggernaut it is today without Stan Lee juggling the roles of creator, caretaker and salesman of not only the Marvel brand but his own. He is in the same category as a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates. Jobs and Apple, Gates and Microsoft, Lee and Marvel. The name and the product go hand in hand.
There are several modern creators who have followed Lee’s template for branding themselves and their products, two of whom are Robert Kirkman and Kevin Smith. Both Kirkman and Smith understand the value of reaching out to their audience, not only to connect to their fans but also to promote what they have created. Kevin Smith is well known for his films and comic book stories but he is also a master of self promotion. His masterful ability to weave an oral story in his “An Evening with Kevin Smith” series of speaking engagements is an example. It is just as entertaining to hear Smith recount events from his personal and professional past as it is to read or watch one of his narratives. Robert Kirkman’s wildly popular Walking Dead began as an independent comic that slowly built up its audience and has morphed into one of the most popular shows on television. The record breaking broadcasts of Walking Dead are followed by a half hour ‘after show‘ where Kirkman and celebrity guests discuss the show in front of a live studio audience. A new generation has embraced Lee’s branding template and moved it into the age of Twitter. Regardless of how creators like Smith and Kirkman promote themselves they still have to produce content that resonates with an audience.
Stan Lee’s impact on comics and popular culture is immense. He has helped to feed the imaginations of countless comic book fans and has been an inspiration to some of the top creators in comics today. When you really think about it, at one time or another, Stan “the Man” has made us all “true believers”.