Stan Lee Essay - Critical Essays

Lee, Stan


Stan Lee 1922–

(Born Stanley Lieber) American comic strip writer, editor, and publisher.

Lee's creation of comic book characters and situations with both relevancy and depth has been instrumental in revitalizing the comic book industry. His characters, such as the Amazing Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and Doctor Strange, are invested with super powers and human problems. Their super powers are sometimes natural, as in the case of the Fantastic Four, whose members are able to turn into fire, become invisible, throw out force fields, or stretch. Other times, the powers are the result of unsuccessful scientific experiments, as with Peter Parker, who can use his web-spinning abilities at will to become Spider-Man, or David Banner, who uncontrollably changes into the monstrous Hulk and uses his immense strength to aid innocent victims.

Spider-Man is perhaps Lee's most popular character. He has a special appeal for young people since his counterpart, Peter Parker, is himself a teenager who is still subject to adult authority. Parker has all the problems of the average high school senior, but as Spider-Man he is the superior of any middle-aged person. Readers are able to empathize and sympathize with him, as well as appreciate the excitement of his adventures.

Lee bases his stories on contemporary themes: the heroes battle drug pushers, organized crime, and racial bigotry. His sophisticated plots are centered around the age-old conflict of good against evil, the villains always defeated by their morally upright adversaries. All of these factors have generated new interest in the comics among more mature readers and critics generally agree that Lee's contributions to the comic book have made the genre more acceptable as a legitimate art form.

Robin Green

Marvelmania is a subculture, a living-breathing-changing-happening art form, a fantasy world in which millions live, some of them most of the time. The fans participate in the process of creating the comic fantasy world. They send in their ideas and criticisms and Stan listens to them. The comic world has a language and logic of its own, even a whole technology that works for it, and the books have to be consistent, letters will pour in about a mistake. (p. 31)

Stan Lee revolutionized the comic book industry ten years ago by deciding to let his superheroes live in the real world: his real world. He made Spiderman a neurotic, guilt-ridden, insecure superhero with romantic problems, financial problems, sinus attacks and fits of insecurity, embarrassed about appearing in public in a costume. Lately Spiderman's life has become almost unbearable. Peter Parker is committed to his role of Spiderman, fighter for justice and good, and yet it is this role which has alienated him from the world he seeks to help. His girl Gwen hates Spiderman for killing her father, and he's so busy playing "Web-Spinner" he hasn't time for anyone who really matters, like his Aunt May who smothers him with motherly attention and can't be told about his secret identity because she would die of a heart attack. The public thinks he is a thief and murderer. He can't win. If he should forsake his super-powers and try to be just Peter Parker, he feels guilty for not fighting crime and doing the good he knows he can do. (p. 34)

Robin Green, "Face Front Clap Your Hands! You're on the Winning Team!" in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 91, September 16, 1971, pp. 29-32, 34.

Arthur Asa Berger

The machines and monsters found in The Fantastic Four have direct relevance to the relationship existing between technology and American culture, a subject of considerable importance. A glance at The Fantastic Four shows that the creators of these works are fascinated with large, hulklike creatures as well as fantastic machines. The pages abound with "Hulks" and "Things"—grotesques which are unnatural in shape and appearance—ugly, fantastic and incongruous.

On the visual level alone the grotesque is significant. Its ugliness is an affront to society and suggests that something is wrong with the social order. Just as a caricature is an attack on an individual, by means of distorting some feature of a person (while keeping resemblance), so is a grotesque an attack upon society. The distortion and ugliness of the grotesque symbolizes all that is wrong and ugly in the society which created the grotesque. (pp. 199-200)

[The] various monsters we find in The Fantastic Four provide us with the means for working through our aggressions in a rather sophisticated manner. Comic books are not exactly like films, but they function in much the same way. (p. 202)

In Marvel Comics we find a curious tendency to merge the human and the machine into super-technological entities. The powers of The Fantastic Four tend to be natural: The Thing supposedly has the "greatest human force" in the universe; other members of the team can turn into fire, become invisible, throw out fields of force or stretch—though Reed Richards is himself a scientific genius and can come up with devices to counter the various mad scientists who appear from time to time.

The villains generally cannot match the natural power of The Fantastic Four and are forced to rely on technology. Such is the case with Dr. Doom, whose mother was a witch and who learned strange mystic secrets from Tibet as well as the scientific knowledge of the Western world. Quasimodo, a machine who is made human by The Silver Surfer, and Psychoman are further examples. (pp. 202-03)

Novelists and poets generally see science and technology as a threat to humanity and recoil against it almost in panic. Thus most contemporary utopian novels are dystopies which see societies of the future as totalitarian and antihuman.

This is due, in part, to a bias in our higher arts, which have traditionally looked toward nature for a source of inspiration and wisdom. The Fantastic Four reflect a much different attitude toward science. Although the various villains are able to use science and technology for their evil purposes, they are always defeated by heroes who are superior morally and technologically. Rather than refusing to see the possibilities opened by technology, literary forms such as comic books use science for their subject...

(The entire section is 1197 words.)

David Kunzle

[The] interest of Stan Lee's anthology of the comics he himself writes, lies primarily in the light shed on the psychology of the comics producer. The spirit in which Lee discusses the evolution of his comics is similar to that in which he originally made them. He thinks of himself as mover and destroyer, god of the media and the childish imagination. With genial bluster and biblical phrases, he simultaneously regenerates, distorts and parodies ancient mythological material. The creative self-consciousness is manifested in the Marvel comics through various devices to establish esthetic distance between the product on the one hand, and its creators and consumers on the other. Narcissus withdraws, the better to jump into his own reflection. But this is accompanied by an extraordinary degree of self-deception. Lee candidly states his purpose (which is that of so many other comics producers), "to relieve the awesome affliction that threatens us all: the endlessly spreading virus of too much reality in a world that is losing its legends." In fact it is the comics' manichaeistic dissociation of myth (good) from reality (bad), and their ignorance or denial of that vast historical process by which myth grows out of reality, which is the "awesome affliction" threatening our culture.

Comics historians … take as their task the dispelling of the illusion that comics are "pure entertainment" irrelevant to social reality. One can shoot Lee's claims to "pure mythic fantasy" clear out of the sky simply by pointing to the stereotype he rehases even now of vicious Communist spies trying to steal US secrets and take over the world. Elsewhere he casually has "America's mighty defense structure" unleash its "fantastic arsenal" at an "unidentified" (thus not necessarily enemy) missile. Marvel's almost abstract joy in the physical destruction of bodies and things is a reflection of a greater and more sinister reality, that of the adult media's attitude to our recent wars. (p. 27)

David Kunzle, "Self-Conscious Comics," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 173, No. 3, July 19, 1975, pp. 26-7.∗

Salvatore Mondello

Why did Spider-Man merit such a large, diverse, and enthusiastic audience, including many college students? From the start, Spider-Man was given unique characteristics for a superhero, human characteristics and problems with which readers could identify. He always finds it hard to make ends meet…. [As] Peter Parker, he must work for a pittance as a part-time photographer for The Daily Bugle. That newspaper's publisher, J. Jonah Jameson, pays him little for his action-filled photographs of Spider-Man in deadly combat with supervillains. And, to add insult to injury, Jameson detests Spider-Man, considering him a glory-hound and criminal.

The Amazing Spider-Man has found an enthusiastic young audience because it deals fundamentally with titanic battles between a teenage superhero and middle-aged supervillains—an impressive rogues' gallery which includes such memorable knaves and grotesques as the Vulture, Doc Ock, the Sandman, Kraven the Hunter, Electro, the Evil Enforcers, Mysterio, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion, the Rino, the Shocker, the Kingpin, the Lizard, Hammerhead, and the Jackal, names which shake the very soul of every True Believer. With each battle between Spider-Man and one of his tormentors, we enter the realm of high adventure, knowing full well that the hero's victory will only be temporary, for the villain will return time and again to haunt and pursue him.

Many of the supervillains degenerate into knaves as a result of scientific accidents. (p. 233)

Now Spider-Man himself is the result of a scientific mishap. But what is incontrovertible is that the accident brought out Peter's best attributes, including his willingness to question power and to assume public responsibilities, while the accidents which befell the others brought out their evil side. We must especially ask why the sensitive Dr. Connors becomes a misanthropic grotesque [the Chameleon] while the less sophisticated Peter Parker becomes a crusader for social justice.

The answer is found in the age of the protagonists. The Amazing Spider-Man appeals to the young. As Peter Parker, he must accept abuse from Jameson, must not miss any more classes or his teacher will fail him, must call his cloying Aunt May to assure her he will take his vitamin pills. And what has he gained from all this? An ulcer. But as Spider-Man, he is the superior of any middle-aged person. He can swing freely with his webbing from rooftop to rooftop without giving his aunt a second thought, or he can playfully suspend himself on his webbing outside Jameson's office window and taunt him mercilessly. Through Spider-Man, Stan Lee has brought redemption to America's Peter Parkers.

But Lee tried to do more than that, and The Amazing Spider-Man was used skillfully to bridge the generation gap which was tearing the nation apart in the late sixties and early seventies. He introduced Captain George Stacy, a retired policeman who understood teenagers, all this at a time when our more radical youth were calling cops "fascist pigs." He introduced Joe Robertson, a black journalist, who also tried to relate to young people and who fought for responsible reporting of the news at a time when many Americans believed our journalists were concerned only with sensational headlines calculated more to sell newspapers than to report events accurately. The Amazing Spider-Man was intended to find an irenic solution to the challenges facing America.

While many novelists have bemoaned the growing pervasiveness of urbanization and technology upon American society, The Amazing Spider-Man treats these as controllable forces. Spider-Man does not work in some fictionalized urban centers like Metropolis or Gotham City, but lives and goes to school in New York City. He is New York's Tarzan swinging from rooftop to rooftop as the Lord of the Jungle swings from tree to tree. (p. 234)

Spider-Man deals with supervillains possessing considerable technological skills. He manages to more than hold his own against their mechanical devices. On occasion, he uses technology to fight technology. Discovering that the Vulture can fly because he has harnessed magnetic power, Spider-Man invents an anti-magnetic inverter. At other times, he relies on Yankee ingenuity or just plain common sense to thwart the nefarious designs of his enemies. He once defeated the mighty Electro by spraying him with a water...

(The entire section is 1829 words.)

Peter Freedberger

Stan Lee, the industry's reigning superstar, has provided an interesting look into the inner workings of the Marvel machinery in Bring on the Bad Guys. The formula stories themselves are an exercise in overkill, containing more than anyone except the most fanatic comic book buff would want to know about the origins, fixations, and feeding habits of the Marvel villains. Like the comics they come from, these stories are filled with the adolescent enthusiasm that is Marvel's stock in trade, but the machinations never keep up with the fast-moving art work and soon become repetitive and boring, bogged down in the formula of their own success. Both the stories and the background info preceding them are obsessively...

(The entire section is 193 words.)

Stan Lee

It was vitally important to me that Spider-man be the kind of character with whom any ordinary Joe could identify….

Our villains would no longer necessarily be the epitome of evil incarnate; our heroes had not only feet of clay, but kneecaps and thighbones as well.

But how could the reader learn what motivated them?… Those of you who are steeped in Marvel lore, who have faithfully followed the adventures of our amazing arachnid, how well you know our penchant for thought baloons wherever we have the slightest millimeter of empty space within a panel. Our characters soliloquize enough to make Hamlet seem like a raging extravert. Never before have comic books exhibited such...

(The entire section is 657 words.)

Cyrisse Jaffee

Only one or two of the Super-women represented here [in The Superhero Women] could qualify as independent, liberated, untraditional heroines. Lyra the Femizon, for instance, is a princess who lives in a future world where women rule and, yet, she must fall in love with a man "with fire in [his] veins" in order to become "a woman—fulfilled." The concluding line in the episode: "What good is a kingdom … which has no king." Although all the heroines possess unusual powers and physical prowess, the dialogue, plot, and especially the artwork (the women are generally described as gorgeous or luscious) all too often fall into the same clichés and stereotypes that Lee asks readers to believe no longer exist in the...

(The entire section is 163 words.)

Patty Campbell

Stan Lee's Superhero Women is a collection from Marvel Comics that provides some glorious role models for young women's fantasies. Ms. Marvel, Hela, Red Sonja, Lyra the Femizon, Shanna the She-Devil, Medusa—all of them use their awesome power without shame….

It could be argued that these superheroes are sex objects for boys rather than role models for girls. They have long legs, neatly rounded rumps, taut muscular bellies, and enormous sculptured breasts—but their male counterparts have amazing bodies, too, and nobody ever accused them of being sex objects. In a naive way these comic superheroes are idealized human beings, and while their sexuality is exaggerated, so are their muscles....

(The entire section is 157 words.)

Meghan Powell

[The] universe Lee helped bring into being is the one filled with the utterly fantastic, yet very human characters of Marvel superhero-dom.

Like the Amazing Spider-Man, web-slinging crimefighter with a problem. The Incredible Hulk, rampaging green Hyde to a meek scientist's Dr. Jekyll. The Silver Surfer, lyrical space rider trapped on the mad mudball that is Planet Earth. And Dr. Strange, magician and mystic fighting other-dimensional menaces….

Marvel characters change. They age, graduate from school, marry, divorce, have kids. Sometimes, they die. Always they remain fallible and human, whether or not they can send out optic beams, read minds, climb walls or whip up storms. Though...

(The entire section is 167 words.)