Stan Lee and the Rise of Spider-Man

Stan Lee at Phoenix Comic Con 2014 (photo credit Gage Skidmore)

Creation of Spider-Man

You could say the creation of Spider-Man started with three men: Jacky Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. Or you could say it started with a fly. A fly which made Stan Lee think: what if there was a superhero that could stick to walls? He might have been called Fly-Man or Mosquito Man, but Stan Lee thought ‘Spider-Man’ sounded more dramatic. Marvel comics publisher, Martin Goodman, didn’t agree with Lee’s idea.

“It’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard! For starters, you can’t have a superhero be a teenager. Teenagers are sidekicks.” Goodman tells Stan Lee in ‘A Marvelous Memoir’ Lee’s graphic novel memoir.

“Also, he can’t have tons of personal problems. You’re describing a comedy character, not a hero. […] And the name –!” continues Goodman.

“What’s wrong with calling him Spider-Man?!” replies Stan Lee

“Don’t you realize that people hate spiders?” Goodman retorts sternly.

Marvel Comics publisher Martin Goodman doubted Stan Lee’s idea of Spider-Man. (Image scanned from: ‘Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir’ Lee’s graphic novel memoir.)

Despite Goodman’s doubts the teamwork of Lee’s writing and the artistry of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created an instant hit. Today 57 years later Spider-Man continues to grow in popularity. Fans relate to Spidey often for the very reasons Goodman thought Spider-Man would be a failure. During his 95-year lifetime Lee saw Spidey transcend comics to cartoons, live action movies and video games. The movie adaptions alone have made more than $2 billion worldwide according to Box Office Mojo. Even after his death on December 12, 2018, Lee’s impact continues to be felt. Just as he says in his Spider-Man 3 cameo: “You know, I guess one person can make a difference. Nuff said.”

Stan Lee the writer

Young Stanley Martin Lieber, aka Stan Lee, imagined his impact would be as an actor or a great novelist – not a comic book writer. Instead he had many other jobs including working at a trouser company and writing obituaries. This was all in an effort to help the Lieber household pay rent during America’s Great Depression. Starting at Timely Comics in 1939 (later called Marvel Comics), young Lee was an errand boy to Editor in Chief Joe Simon, and legendary artist Jack “King” Kirby. A couple of years later he wrote his first story, using the name ‘Stan Lee’, called ‘Captain America Foils the Traitors Revenge’. He hoped to save the name ‘Stanley Martin Lieber’ for when he achieved his dream of being a great novelist.

Even after 20 years he still saw writing comics to be a temporary job and wanted to quit. His wife, Joan, suggested he write at least one comic the way he liked before quitting. Taking her advice Lee wrote The Fantastic Four and with its success continued in the comic book business. He then came up with his most famous superheroes including: the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Spider-Man. One thing all these heroes had in common was they were flawed heroes.

Peter Parker, the human character who becomes Spider-Man, is an example of a flawed hero. Despite being a hero he still has problems with money, romance, bullies and school.

“Peter Parker was meant to be the everyman,” Stan Lee said in the 2011 documentary ‘With great power: the Stan Lee story’. Many of the other people featured in this documentary say similar things about Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Tobey Maguire stared in the first live action movies of Spider-Man as Peter Parker. According to him “Peter Parker was just your normal kid.” Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada says “One of the things that I’ve learnt from Stan is what’s really important is not Spider-Man it’s the guy in the Spider-Man costume. It has to be about Peter Parker.” It is the “normal kid” aspect of Peter Parker fans love and relate to.

Gippsland’s Torben Jones was first attracted to Marvel Comics as a teenager because Lee’s characters were more relatable. One of the key things he learnt was relatable characters, even superheroes, are flawed characters. Now as a freelance writer he uses what he learnt in his own writing.

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Torben Jones and his Spider-Man comic that Stan Lee autographed. Photo credit Valley Lizard (2018)

“If you have a hero that is infallible and cannot be beaten then immediately we cannot empathise with the struggle because there is no struggle. They’ve just gotten what they want. You need to have weakness to have courage. […] And so I guess Stan Lee’s characters and Stan Lee’s stories were what taught me the essential part of any kind of storytelling. This could be applied to you know your superheroes or to your [romantic comedies] and to anything. Any kind of significant story you need to know what your main character’s weaknesses are and then make sure they end up in situations where they are threatened by that weakness cause that’s when we start to emphasise with them and that’s when the actual conflict begins because they can’t necessarily win.”

Stan Lee the Showman

As Lee moved through the ranks of Marvel he became more than just a writer. He came to represent the entire company similar to how Walt Disney represents the Disney Company. He promoted Marvel on radio, TV, newspapers, lectures at universities, documentaries and in his later years YouTube. He also wrote a column called ‘Stan’s Soapbox’ which appeared in the news bulletin section of the comics. The column was a chance for Lee to respond to common fan questions and engage with issues of the day such as racism. He continued writing ‘Stan’s Soapbox’ even after he’d been promoted to publisher and was no longer writing comics. Other achievements include being the first writer to defy the Comics Code Authority (1971), creating early Marvel cartoons (1967-1998) and officiating Spider-Man’s live wedding (1987).

While Lee did many ground-breaking things he wouldn’t have achieved them without his team at Marvel. He explains in ‘With great power: the Stan Lee story’: “Some people somewhere thought I wrote and drew. They think the scripts were just mine, but they would have been nothing if not for the artists I worked with. I just put the words in the people’s mouths and I may have come up with the original idea, but after that it was a partnership.”

From his research in Marvel comics and their film adaptions, Doctor Liam Burke describes Lee as a showman. He explains how Lee is not just famous for what he did, but as a celebrity in his own right. When writing his book ‘Superhero Movies’ Dr. Burke interviewed Stan Lee. In the interview Dr. Burke reflects how Lee was every bit as funny and engaging as fans would expect him to be from his other appearances.

Another possible reason Lee is so famous is his many movie cameos. The Marvel movies in particular don’t seem complete without his appearance. Despite being released after his death ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ still features a cameo he pre-recorded. The movie also included a tribute to him in the credits with a quote from Stan Lee: “That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero.”

Impact on fans

Lee became a hero and an inspiration to his fans, a relationship that went both ways. For Marvel fan and blogger Brianna Wilkie “The world he helped create is one of my favorite escapes from my stressful life.” When things got stressful for Stan Lee he remembered just how much his fans cared about him. His goal with Marvel was to create enjoyable quality entertainment that meant something. Wilkie now uses her blog (My Marvelous Obssession) and Facebook page (My Marvelous Escape) to continue sharing the joy of Marvel.

For performer Rosanna Hewson (aka Rosie Roulette) Spider-Man was her introduction to Marvel and the larger world of geek culture. Nerdy or geek culture is the main influence on her burlesque style ‘GEEK OUT!’ shows. The next one, called ‘Comic Strip’, features comic book characters including superheroes and villains. Common nerdy interests is also how Hewson met her boyfriend. She says “60% of our conversations are Marvel theories. […] It was through talking about Marvel and comic books in general that we discovered our compatibility.” Hewson was also one of about 40 cosplayers who attended a Stan Lee cosplay tribute late last year run by Vanda Bourandas (aka Orchid Princess Cosplay) in Melbourne.

When Bourandas heard about Lee’s death she felt there needed to be a tribute to him. “I thought the best way to do it would be to cosplay characters that have inspired us all” she explains. The event was held at Marvel Stadium, Melbourne on the December 28 which would have been Lee’s 96th birthday, hence Bourandas calling it the ‘Stan Lee Birthday Tribute.’

About sixty Marvel cosplayers attended the ‘Stan Lee Birthday Tribute’. Photo credit Valley Lizard 2018

On the day, Spider-Man was a clear favourite. Baxter Wardan has loved Spider-Man for as long as he can remember and came as the classic Spider-Man. “I’ve got about five Spider-Man suits and it was always going to Spider-Man especially on this day. […]. I love this one because that’s the one Stan actually nutted out himself. So I’m pretty happy with it.”

Spidey is also Bianca Bella’s favourite. She cosplayed Spider-Gwen at the tribute event. “Spider-Man is my fave as I feel he is the strongest superhero and person. His heart is huge and he never gives up on anything or anyone. There’s so much you can learn from his resilience. After all, he was created to be relatable to the average person. He’s very inspiring.”

Spider-Man was the most popular character at the ‘Stan Lee Birthday Tribute’. Photo credit Valley Lizard 2018

Stan Lee spoke to people through his stories. It is these stories and characters that will continue to inspire people for generations to come. Characters like Spider-Man will continue to teach how “With great power comes great responsibility.” And maybe people will discover the power they have to make a difference like Stan Lee did.

5 Thoughts

  1. This article was very informative. My primary school-aged boys have become interested in Marvel this last year and I’m pleased to be able to have some facts to go back to them with, to stimulate conversation between us.

    Liked by 1 person

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