Photo by Seth Boyes
Though I realize it's a bit of old news at this point, I find it impossible to ignore the passing of comic book titan Stan Lee. Moreover, I find it poetic he passed the day after Veterans Day. Many aren't aware, but Stan the Man (birth name Stanley Lieber) served in the Army during World War II— one of only a few men categorized as playwrights (another being Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss). Lee once said they were only called playwrights because the military didn't know what else to do with them.
I'll admit, I only know this because I've gone down a good number of rabbit holes in my life, driven by a desire to learn more about my preferred brand of sequential art, and Lee's contributions to the industry are undeniable. Now, I don't want to start a fist fight between any fanboys, so I'll hedge that statement by recognizing there was a lot of tension regarding creative rights among Lee and his staff — especially Jack Kirby (and later Todd McFarlane). But I will say this, there would likely be no Kirby or Lee schism among fans if it weren't for Lee's business decisions.
You see, he was one of the first to credit his staff — if not the first to do so. And it wasn't simply a side note. He spotlighted them. It was all about the people. He built the Marvel brand on their talents. He built up their personas as much as the characters on the page. They were given sparkling nicknames like Jack "King" Kirby and jazzy titles like "dazzlin' delineator." Soon people were buying comics because they saw Kirby's name or John Romita's name. Eventually, the group of creative folks at Marvel would be known as "The Bullpen." In the 90s, it became Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee or Mark Bagley the people were after, but the baton was continually passed down, and the folks under Smilin' Stan's leadership were aware of it. You can see their homages to those who came before them in the covers they create.
On the wall of my home office, there are two such covers (actually, high quality reproductions of issues in my collection. You don't keep those things exposed to the open air. That's nuts!) hanging next to each other. On the left, is a 1967 cover drawn by John Romita. On the right, is a 1994 cover drawn by Mark Bagley and Randy Emberlin. Romita took no credit on the exterior of the 1967 cover, but Bagley and Emberlin repurposed his composition decades later, and the 1994 signature reads, "Mark and Randy after Jazzy Johnny."
I find the recognition of the Marvel legacy displayed in this pair of covers even more meaningful now that the label must continue without it's figurehead. You see, both pieces of art (for that is what they are) depict a somber, diverging path between Marvel's now-iconic hero Spider-Man and his alter ego Peter Parker as they cease to be one and the same. The covers were meant to be tantalizing — begging the readers to wonder how a fictional world could continue to turn if Peter no longer wore the mask.
While Stan Lee may not have been in charge of as much at the label as he once was, fans and artists alike are now left wondering how the industry will continue turning without him. That's the hope I see between these two covers. It was never really the end. The legacy continued. And I'm sure Lee's will too. The words he penned for "Stan's Soapbox," a column he wrote for Marvel's periodic "Bullpen Bulletin," have continued to make a resurgence on social media as of late. His thoughts on the real-life evil of bigotry, the need to exemplify morality in stories, the enduring power of love and other applicable topics are still just as relevant today as they were in the '60s and '70s. Even in his senior years, as tension among races swelled as in decades past, he launched the Hands of Respect campaign to do something about it. Again, all dazzling costumes and astonishing alliterations aside, it was about the people for Lee.
And that's a legacy we can all have a hand in perpetuating. So thanks, Stan.
'Nuff said, indeed.
Other columns for which this blogger owes Stan's legacy: