20th Century Fox/WETA/Photofest

Chris Evans as Johnny Storm and Doug Jones as the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), directed by Tim Story

In the universe of superheroism, hyperbole is the coin of the realm. “The Galactus Trilogy,” a much admired comic book saga published by Marvel in 1966 and taking up three issues of The Fantastic Four, is a not untypical tale of superlatives multiplied and obliteration avoided, emblazoned with the warning “If This Be Doomsday!” The planet-devouring Galactus is poised to consume Earth’s “elemental energies.” Diverted at first by a benign supernatural entity named Uatu the Watcher, who exists to observe the development of the human race, Galactus is betrayed by his herald, the Silver Surfer, a metallic creature nourished, like Galactus, by cosmic energy. This allows the Human Torch (a member of the titular Fantastic Four) time to zip from Earth to Galactus’s home planet and return with the Ultimate Nullifier, a grenade-shaped gizmo described as “the universe’s most devastating weapon,” which is sufficient to convince Galactus to leave Earth alone.

The demiurge behind Galactus, Uatu, the Silver Surfer, the Human Torch, and the Ultimate Nullifier was the story’s writer, Stan Lee. No superhero was more admired than he. Lee, the top editor at Marvel Comics, was instrumental in creating the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and dozens more. He was born Stanley Lieber in 1922. As recounted in True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee, Abraham Riesman’s biography, Lee was a relentless self-promoter—a professional mythographer who sought to make himself a mythic figure, though he was modestly pleased to be described as the “Jewish Walt Disney.” Lee became famous in the mid-1960s and enjoyed maximum visibility during the confused final decades of his life (he died at age ninety-five in 2018), at precisely the time that his best-known characters—Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the Black Panther—bestrode the world’s movie screens like so many caped colossi, all long beyond his control.

The comic book industry was largely created by first-generation Americans. Lee’s Romanian immigrant father was a fabric cutter in New York City’s garment industry; the family struggled during the Great Depression. Skipping grades, the faster to finish his education and get a job, Lee attended DeWitt Clinton, a huge all-boys public high school in the Bronx that produced many distinguished alumni. Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, A.M. Rosenthal, and William Kunstler were graduates. Lee’s classmates might have included the future playwright Paddy Chayefsky, the disgraced studio boss David Begelman, the Get Smart actor Don Adams, and (before he dropped out) the champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, as well as Richard Avedon and James Baldwin. Lee worked on the school literary magazine, less as a writer or editor than a self-appointed publicity director.

Three older Clinton graduates—Will Eisner and the creators of Batman, Bill Finger and Bob Kane—were pioneer comic book artists. Lee, who briefly attended City College, joined that business in his late teens, hired as a gofer by a family relation, Martin Goodman, the proprietor of a small outfit, Timely Comics. “The comic book industry, driven almost exclusively by volume, fashioned itself after that other bastion of industrious immigrant Jews—the garment business,” Liel Leibovitz writes in his biography Stan Lee: A Life in Comics. As with the garment industry, cartoonists were paid by the piece and often took their work home. Trafficking in fantasy, comics were also a bargain-basement version of the Hollywood dream factory. Goodman was a movie mogul writ small whose greatest star was Captain America, a two-fisted, anti-Nazi Superman knockoff created by the team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Lee ran errands for Simon and Kirby, then in their twenties, entertaining or annoying them by playing the ocarina. “One day I made his life,” Simon later maintained. “I gave him a text page to do in Captain America.”

Thus Lee became a junior writer at Timely. He rose in importance after Simon and Kirby were fired by Goodman for secretly moonlighting for the competition, National (later DC) Comics. Kirby (born Jacob Kurtzberg), a tough Lower East Side street kid who would perfect the most explosive style in action comic books, always believed that Lee had reported them to Goodman. True or not, Lee benefited from their departure when he was installed, at age nineteen, as Timely’s new editor. Enlisting in the army some eighteen months later, he wrote training films and equipment manuals, designed posters and war-bond promotions, and received a crash course in advertising and publicity.

Back home after the war, Lee had little interest in remaining in comics. He imagined developing a line of educational textbooks but stuck with Timely, where he functioned as a competent editor, managing his artists and adopting or discarding various trends as the wartime superheroes were displaced by westerns, romance comics, “true crime” stories, high school antics, and tales of funny animals, as well as the horror comics associated with the EC company; these and other violent comics precipitated a congressional investigation and brought about the Comics Code and the revival of the clean-cut superheroes that had flourished during World War II. Lee married and moved to suburban Long Island, freelancing newspaper comic strips, advertising copy and possibly radio scripts, and self-publishing several books of humorously titled photographs.

“I was probably the ultimate, quintessential hack,” he later recalled. In the late 1950s Kirby returned to Timely, soon to be renamed Marvel, with enormous consequences for himself and the industry. Asked to develop a multi-character superhero series comparable to DC’s popular Justice League of America, Lee and Kirby came up with the Fantastic Four—a team consisting of the elastic Mr. Fantastic, Sue Storm aka the Invisible Girl, her kid brother the Human Torch, and an irascible, golem-like creature called the Thing. They saved not only the Earth but Marvel as well.

The first issue of The Fantastic Four, published in late 1961, was distinguished by Kirby’s dynamic page breakdowns, Lee’s overwrought writing, and a distinctive attitude. Superman was bland. These superheroes were recognizably human—a bickering, borderline dysfunctional unit that inspired a new sort of hyperbole. Leibovitz considers the first issue of The Fantastic Four to be a pop-cultural landmark, the comic book equivalent of Citizen Kane or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In his history of American comic books, From Aargh! to Zap! (1991), the cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman—inventor of the self-referential comic Mad and no friend of Lee, with whom he had worked at Timely in the 1940s—more prosaically explained its novelty. The Fantastic Four “combined melodramatic punch with extravagant drawings in a way that no other comic book had ever done. Exploding as it did in a field almost completely lacking in vitality, [it] became a national sensation.” Given the group’s quarrelsomeness with one another and angsty ambivalence about their own superpowers, the series had aspects of soap opera. It also sparked an essentially unresolvable debate among fans as to whether Lee or Kirby was the principal author.

By the third issue, Lee was promoting The Fantastic Four as “The Greatest Comic Magazine in the World!!” It was followed in 1962 by The Incredible Hulk, featuring a nuclear scientist transformed, à la Jekyll and Hyde, into a tormented monster not unlike the Thing, and then by the brawny Norse god Thor. (Both were drawn and almost certainly conceived by Kirby, who identified with the Hulk and did more for Norse mythology than any artist since Fritz Lang, if not Richard Wagner.) They were followed by the most famous Marvel creation, Spider-Man, whose debut as the cover story in Amazing Fantasy was, according to Leibovitz, the best-selling comic book of the 1960s. DC’s lachrymose Superboy notwithstanding, previous superheroes, if not their sidekicks, were almost always grown men (or, more rarely, grown women). Spider-Man was a teenage nerd, an insecure, lower-middle-class kid given an arachnid power to scale buildings and trap villains in his web.

Spidey—as Lee encouraged fans to call him—was drawn in a relatively ascetic expressionist style and largely written by the reclusive Steve Ditko. Himself a teenaged comic book devotee as well as a follower of Ayn Rand, Ditko was also responsible for a second great hero, the master occultist Doctor Strange. Other characters arrived in 1963, including two more superhero ensembles, the mutant X-Men and the Avengers (whose members included the Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man), both drawn by Kirby and written (or perhaps outlined) by Lee. The so-called Marvel Method involved the brainstorming of a story idea between Lee and the artist, who turned these ideas into a storyboard, complete with notes for dialogue. Lee would then provide the narrative voice by editing and elaborating on the artist’s notes.

In addition to Kirby’s visual élan and Lee’s gift for facetious rhetorical embellishment, Marvel Comics had the benefit of Lee’s genius for promotion. Under his guidance, Marvel marketed not only their characters but the men who created them. Channeling the hyperventilating tone of Golden Age radio serials, Lee was Marvel’s spokesman, giving credit to and bestowing colorful soubriquets on the artists, including himself, at the beginning of each story. The first issue of The Incredible Hulk announced a new letters page. Marvel readers were encouraged to participate in what amounted to a mass cult that Lee called “the Merry Marvel Marching Society.” Such strategies were not new. Walt Disney had created a Mickey Mouse Club. Mad magazine and the EC horror comics that preceded it directly addressed their readers, presenting the staff writers and cartoonists as a wacky artistic collective. But Marvel fandom was promoted as something like a cause. Paradoxically, the comics were mass culture as counterculture.

As with the science fiction pulps of the 1930s, Marvel’s letters page inspired discussion and prompted explication. Declaring and addressing a “brand new breed of reader,” Marvel made heroic nerds and made nerds heroic. As noted by Matt Yockey in his introduction to the scholarly anthology Make Ours Marvel, “Marvel’s success in the 1960s was strongly dependent on its constant self-promotion as an iconoclastic publishing house, its stable of outsider heroes, and its address to readers as collaborators.” Moreover, the comic books were self-reflexive—Lee and Kirby both appeared as themselves in issue 10 of The Fantastic Four. In another issue, as the Thing and the Human Torch flee across a collapsing dam pursued by a deadly iron ball, the Thing jokes that “this is so stupid it could only happen in a comic book.”

Even more importantly, the comics were mutually referential. Early in his career, Spider-Man attempts to join the Fantastic Four (and is disappointed to learn that it is a nonprofit group). Marvel was less a series of discrete publications or superheroes than a virtual universe with its own laws and history. (Conveniently, most of the superheroes seemed to live in New York City.)

Lee had not just developed “a brilliant strategy for next-level storytelling,” Riesman writes, “but an even more brilliant marketing ploy.” Himself something of a silver surfer, catching and riding the next wave, Lee further benefited from a larger cultural shift, predicated on the canonization of the hitherto déclassé. Marvel’s rise coincided with a nostalgic appreciation (as well as a market) for old comic books. Comics were being extolled, not altogether ironically, as America’s authentic mythology. By the time a slightly younger Bronx boy, Jules Feiffer, published his coffee table book The Great Comic Book Heroes in 1965, American painters like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Peter Saul had been taking comic book heroes as their subjects for several years. After Lichtenstein appropriated a Kirby panel from The X-Men for his 1963 painting Image Duplicator, Lee hopped on the bandwagon, proclaiming each new Marvel comic book “A Marvel Pop Art Production.” Meanwhile, Marvel’s revisionist attitude toward superhero-dom was vulgarized by the self-parodic Batman television show that ran for three seasons starting in 1966, its running joke predicated on the absurd spectacle of costumed super creatures capering about in the “real world.”

Batman may have been a Pop Art icon; Spider-Man et al. were something else. In April 1965 the writer Sally Kempton reported on the Marvel phenomenon in a prescient article in The Village Voice: “College students interpret Marvel Comics. A Cornell physics professor has pointed them out to his classes. Beatniks read them.” (True: a few years later, Michael McClure paraphrased an incantatory line—“Before you can pry any secrets from me, you must first find the real me”—from Strange Tales number 130 in his once-scandalous play The Beard. Another beat poet, Ira Cohen, incorporated the Silver Surfer in a handcrafted book of Tibetan woodcuts printed in Kathmandu.) From my perspective as a high school kid in Queens, Kempton’s piece gave the Voice—rather than Marvelcredibility, although I was less taken with my fellow Queens adolescent Spider-Man than with Ditko’s trippy “Master of Black Magic,” Doctor Strange, a denizen of Greenwich Village.

Stan Lee and a Marvel employee in
                        Spider-man costume in the Marvel Productions
                        parking lot

Stan Lee Papers/American Heritage Center/University of Wyoming

Stan Lee and a Marvel employee in the Marvel Productions parking lot, Los Angeles, early 1980s

Some months later, Esquire magazine published a list of the twenty-eight top student icons, which included Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk alongside Bob Dylan, Malcolm X, and Fidel Castro. The next year, Esquire ran eight student exegeses under the subheading “What did Dostoevski know? The true message is carried by Marvel Comics, twelve cents an ish.” The same issue had a piece on a more literary campus craze, namely the passionate enthusiasm for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, which was even more redolent of a reaction to what Max Weber had called the process of “disenchantment”—stripping the world of its gods and demons. (The fanatical devotion prompted by the late-Sixties television show Star Trek is another parallel development.) Without belaboring the point, one can understand the appeal of such fantastic cosmic struggles to those who had grown up in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon. Magical thinking, however campy, was a respite from rational “thinking about the unthinkable.” The same year that poets and beatniks attempted to levitate the Pentagon, the Berkeley-based protest-acid-rock group Country Joe and the Fish threatened to recruit the Fantastic Four and Doctor Strange to rid the world of LBJ. (Marvel being Marvel, the band was rewarded with a cameo in a 1969 issue of Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD.)

Marvel also attracted the attention of European filmmakers. Both biographies recount the story of Federico Fellini sweeping into the Marvel offices (although Riesman churlishly maintains that Lee had no idea who Fellini was, and other Marvel employees supposedly had to alert him to the flamboyant foreigner’s identity). Alain Resnais, a more serious fan not just of Marvel but of comics in general, was keen to collaborate with Lee. The two worked on several projects, including an apocalyptic interplanetary romance and ecological parable involving a garbage heap come to life. Neither came to fruition, but Resnais did give Lee a cameo in his segment of L’An 01, a 1973 anthology film based on the work of the French cartoonist Gébé, the editor in chief of Charlie Hebdo. This was the first but not the last of Lee’s on-screen appearances.

Lee was a friendly person, and performing was central to his persona. Indeed, after Ditko left Marvel in 1966 and Kirby defected to DC four years later, the only character Lee continued to develop was “Stan Lee” (by then his legal name). He made scores of campus appearances and in January 1972 booked himself into Carnegie Hall for a one-night-only live show. Riesman describes the event, conceived as a tribute to Lee’s genius, as a humiliating disaster in which Marvel employees were drafted to dance in Fantastic Four costumes while artists drew and the great man read aloud. Despite prompting, the bored audience declined to join him in singing “The Merry Marvel Marching Song.” Leibovitz prefers to concentrate on the poem Lee wrote for the occasion and recited onstage with his wife and daughter, an ambitious doggerel dithyramb called “God Woke” that pondered the relationship between a creator and his creations.

Riesman and Leibovitz cover much the same ground, but to read their books simultaneously is to invite whiplash. Leibovitz, who draws heavily on Lee’s autobiographical writing, is worshipful. Riesman is relentlessly debunking, if not desecrating. Leibovitz credits Lee with reawakening “America’s moral imagination.” Riesman hammers on the notion of Lee as a credit thief. Published as part of Yale’s Jewish Lives series, Leibovitz’s book presents Lee as the contemporary equivalent of Harold Bloom’s J: Spider-Man is “a direct descendant” of Cain, Mr. Fantastic is “a nuclear age Hasid,” Iron Man embodies “a stern reminder, drawn from the core of Jewish theology, that redemption comes only when human beings get together and pursue common goals.” With regard to The Fantastic Four, Leibovitz writes, “anyone with even a hint of familiarity with the Bible would recognize the pattern of the flawed and conflicted leaders wrestling with their stiff-necked people.” Lee’s comic books are like Bob Dylan’s songs, “an ongoing dialogue with the artist that mirrors the ancient Talmudic logic of constant conversation.”

Riesman makes no such elevated claims, although he may be said to contribute to the conversation when he notes that, while Lee’s immigrant parents were observant Jews, Lee himself “felt no kinship with the Jewish community and was allergic to the very idea of religion.” Riesman is most insistent in questioning Lee’s integrity, specifically with regard to Kirby, considering it “very possible, maybe even probable, that the characters and plots Stan was famous for all sprang from the brain and pen of Kirby,” adding that “it’s already provable that Stan lied blatantly and often about Kirby’s contribution to their comics together.”

Leibovitz attributes a pintele yid to Kirby as well, writing that his 1940s creation Captain America “suggests a deeply Jewish sensibility coming to the fore, a sensibility rarely before seen in comics,” while Riesman waxes biblical in cautioning that the reasonable assumption that Lee and Kirby were jointly responsible for the creation of the Fantastic Four and other Marvel characters is a “Solomonic splitting of the baby.” Perhaps the two biographies should switch titles. Stan Lee: A Life in Comics is the work of an acolyte, while True Believer, titled after Lee’s term of address for Marvel fans, has the thunderous sweep of a Kirby epic, beginning with the Romanian pogrom that traumatized Lee’s young father and ending with the pitiful Götterdämmerung of Lee’s last quarter-century.

True Believer’s final third is dedicated to this slow cataclysm. The comic book market collapsed in 1995. Marvel declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and Lee retired as publisher, remaining as chairman emeritus with an annual salary of $1 million. In 1998 he created Stan Lee Media (SLM) in association with a practiced con artist and convicted felon named Peter Paul, who promoted SLM as “the successor to Disney as a global lifestyle-brand content creator, producer, marketing and distribution company.” Paul was sketchy, but so was Lee, who essentially sold his own intellectual property twice, assigning his work to SLM in perpetuity even while negotiating a deal with Marvel to forgo the same rights, titles, and interests.

As the titular head of SLM, Lee created a new fan club, SCUZZLE, and brainstormed a cartoon character, Stan’s Evil Clone. He took warm but fruitless meetings with fellow pop luminaries like Michael Jackson and Francis Ford Coppola as SLM entertained objectively terrible plans to expand into India, enter a partnership with professional wrestling, promote SCUZZLE features like “the Grooviest Girl-Friend of the Week,” and make movies about supermodels. “There was always a deal pending,” one SLM employee told Riesman, “but the deals never materialized.” One can view this as a pathetic attempt at what Warhol called “business art” or perhaps the failure of Lee’s magic touch. Kirby compared Lee to Sammy Glick, the unscrupulous go-getter of Budd Schulberg’s Hollywood novel What Makes Sammy Run? But in his final years, Lee seems more like Arthur Miller’s tragic Willy Loman, a salesman desperate to be liked.

Lee was SLM’s single greatest asset, appearing at comic conventions where fans lined up for hours to buy his autograph at $100 a scrawl. Ethical problems arose once Paul became involved in campaign fundraising for Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, and his record was exposed by a Washington Post gossip columnist. Recapitalization proved impossible. SLM suffered from the dot-com contraction and accusations of stock manipulation. By 2001 Paul was out and SLM gave way to the limited liability corporation POW (for “purveyors of wonder”), an entity Riesman bluntly describes as “a largely criminal enterprise” accused of “routinely ripping off investors, lying to shareholders, entering the stock market through an illegitimate merger, and committing bankruptcy fraud.” Even so, Lee continued hatching ideas.

Taken as a whole, POW’s proposals suggest nothing so much as the nightmarish mass-cultural mishmash parodied in Richard Kelly’s mock comic book film Southland Tales. There was Stripperella, an animated cartoon with an ecdysiast secret agent voiced by Pamela Anderson, and a superhero comic starring Ringo Starr. Lee variously floated alliances with Hugh Hefner (Hef’s Superbunnies), Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the National Football League. He endorsed a Stan Lee YouTube channel, a new iteration of the Fantastic Four to be called Stan Lee’s Mighty 7, and a Stan Lee Signature Cologne. Most were nonstarters, the rest were failures—a stark reminder that Lee’s most creative period had been the early 1960s, when, working with Kirby and Ditko, he had developed the Marvel Method.

Still, the brand proved impervious. A flurry of movies based on Marvel characters became hits, notably X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002). Lee had no stake in these, yet thanks to his cameo appearances in subsequent Marvel movies, his attendance at their red-carpet premieres, and his presence at comic book conventions, he would be more celebrated and visible than ever—even though he sued first Marvel and then POW, and his last years were clouded with allegations of elder abuse by caretakers and hangers-on, including his daughter.

Stan Lee’s life was nearly over, yet his time had come. There is a sense in which the so-called Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is the culmination of a trend that is close to half a century old. Established action genres like westerns, war movies, and private-eye films had pretty much lost their relevance by the end of the 1970s. Meanwhile, beginning with Jaws and Star Wars in the mid-1970s, Hollywood became increasingly dependent on blockbusters and franchises, as well as international audiences. The deal was sealed twenty years later with the advent of computer-generated imagery in Jurassic Park and the Pixar animation Toy Story. The cultural cynicism associated with Vietnam and Watergate subsided. Reenchantment—the restoration of the ancient world’s gods and demons—ruled. Fantasy qua fantasy, which is to say the magic of special effects, was the movie industry’s new reality. Harry Potter, Tolkien adaptations, computer animations, and revivals of Superman and Batman dominated the box office for the first dozen years of the new millennium.

In 2009 the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel for $4 billion (just over half of what the company paid for Pixar, although roughly the amount Disney would, three years later, pay George Lucas for the Star Wars franchise) and set about elaborating Marvel’s nascent “cinematic universe,” the movie equivalent of the cross-referenced comic books and self-enclosed world that made Marvel’s reputation. The MCU fully arrived with The Avengers, the box office champion of 2012 and, no less significantly, the first Hollywood production since the events of September 11, 2001, to revel in the truly spectacular, wholesale destruction of Manhattan. Two subsequent MCU productions, Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther, were the number one and two top-grossing films of 2018, the year Lee died.

Perhaps Lee was the Jewish Walt Disney, an internationally known brand whose associated characters lived on beyond the life of their skillful promoter. But a half-century after his death, Disney represented much more than Mickey Mouse or Disneyland. As the Disney Company all but cornered the market in American popular culture—something perhaps beyond Lee’s wildest imaginings—it became so voracious that, like the planet-devouring Galactus, it swallowed the Marvel universe whole.