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“A different kind of hero”

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JUNE 18: Spider-Man creator Stan Lee poses at his office on June 18, 2004 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)

Marvel’s Stan Lee, whose creations revolutionised the comic book industry, photographed
in 2004

The official version goes like this: one day in 1961 Martin Goodman, founder of the comic book publisher Marvel, was playing a friendly game of golf with rival publisher DC’s owner Jack Liebowitz when Liebowitz began bragging about the sales of his new Justice League of America, a title launched in 1960 that combined the company’s marquee heroes – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and the Flash – into one powerful super team. (Both men later insisted they never played golf together.) Another version of the story finds Goodman hitting the links with the head of his distributor, Independent News. Still another story circulated by the freelancers of the day has the crafty Goodman learning the sales information from spies planted within Independent. Whatever the case, the outcome was the same. Goodman returned to his offices at Madison Avenue and 60th Street and ordered his editor, Stan Lee, to dream up a new team of heroes to compete with DC’s.

Goodman released his first comic book in 1939, and Marvel Comics #1, like many books hitting the stands during those years, was designed to emulate the success of DC’s Superman.

Throughout the ’40s and ’50s Marvel jumped from fad to fad, with little originality or leadership in evidence. When crime comics began to take off, Marvel gave readers Lawbreakers Always Lose and All-True Crime. If Looney Tunes and funny animals were the thing, it pushed out Daffy-er, Wacky Duck. When B-Westerns got hot in Hollywood, Marvel rolled out Whip Wilson and The Arizona Kid. The company even published a title called Homer the Happy Ghost that bore more than a passing resemblance to Casper the Friendly Ghost.

The company was the worst kind of imitator. Which brings us to one of the greatest ironies in the history of comics. The copycat notorious for lazily following trends and ripping off other companies suddenly, in 1961, became the most original name in superheroes.

And it did it by knocking off another company. “[Goodman] said, ‘Hey, maybe there’s still a market for superheroes. Why don’t you bring out a team like the Justice League. We could call it the Righteous League or something,’” Lee recalled in 1977. “I worked for him, and I had to do what he wanted, so I was willing to put out a team of superheroes. But I figured I’ll be damned if I’m just going to copy [DC].”

Lee had joined Goodman’s company in 1940 as a teenager, performing whatever tedious jobs needed doing around the office, including proofreading, fetching coffee and running errands. He was made editor in 1941 and had remained ever since, despite having aspirations to become a great novelist. Comics were hardly a prestige business at the time and were considered trashy by some and downright disreputable by others. When strangers asked him what he did for a living, the embarrassed Lee had taken to answering vaguely that he was in “publishing”.

Stan Lee showing a comic strip. American comic-strip writer and publisher Stan Lee (Stanley Martin Lieber) showing a comic strip. 1970s

As DC’s Superman had continued to gain in stature through the years – even landing his own cartoon in 1941 – Lee had been stuck shovelling stories into Goodman’s forgettable magazines, like coal into a furnace. From 1941 to 1961 Lee penned hundreds of quickly dashed-off tales in numerous genres, from romance to Western, all with little job satisfaction.

“Martin felt in those days that our readers were very, very young children or else older people who weren’t too bright or they wouldn’t be reading comics,” Lee said in an audio commentary to the 2006 book Stan Lee’s Amazing Marvel Universe. “I don’t think Martin really had a great deal of respect for the medium, and therefore I was told not to get stories that were too complex, not to dwell on too much dialogue or too much characterisation.” So when Goodman asked for a new superhero team to compete with DC’s Justice League, Lee was determined to do something outside the norm of regular superhero stories, something closer to what he might like to read.

“Just because you have a superpower, that doesn’t mean you might not have dandruff, or trouble with girls, or have trouble paying
your bills”

For this undertaking he had the good sense to tap Jack Kirby as his collaborator. Kirby should need no introduction, but just in case: born in 1917. Grew up on New York’s rough-and-tumble Lower East Side. Self-taught artist with a unique visual style. Would go on to co-create much of the Marvel Universe and is considered by many to be the most influential illustrator the medium has ever seen.

What they came up with was a team of adventurers who gain fantastical powers after flying into space and being bombarded by cosmic rays. Scientist Reed Richards, aka Mr Fantastic, gains the ability to stretch his body like rubber. His girlfriend, Sue Storm, has the power to turn invisible and takes the nickname the Invisible Girl. Her brother, Johnny Storm (the Human Torch), finds himself able to burst into flames and Reed’s friend Ben Grimm (the Thing) is transformed into an orange, rocky monster. It sounds pretty standard, and the set-up had some echoes of a book Kirby had done for DC in 1957, Challengers of the Unknown, about a group of four adventurers who survive a plane crash and tackle missions.

But The Fantastic Four, which hit newsstands in August 1961, had a crucial difference from that DC title as well as almost every other superhero title that had come before. “We tried to inject all kinds of realism, as we call it, into the stories,” Lee said in a 1968 radio interview. “We say to ourselves, just because you have a superpower, that doesn’t mean you might not have dandruff, or trouble with girls, or have trouble paying your bills.”

Kirby and Lee attempted to instil these larger-than-life characters with a bit of humanity, for the first time  giving superheroes real-world problems and anxieties. They became more three-dimensional.

“These are real people who just happen to have superpowers, as opposed to super-powered people who are trying to be real,” long-time Marvel artist and writer John Byrne told Comics Feature in 1984.

In the Fantastic Four’s world, powers did not necessarily lead to happiness; if anything, they were the source of more trouble. The Four react to their newfound abilities like a scene straight out of a body-horror flick. The Thing is miserable being trapped in his rocky, orange form. Sue is terrified when she begins disappearing.

Another innovative touch: the characters squabble with one another like two kids on a long car trip.

“To keep it all from getting too goody-goody, there is always friction between Mr Fantastic and the Thing, with Human Torch siding with Mr F,” Lee wrote in his original 1961 typewritten synopsis for the book. In issue #2 the Thing tussles with both Reed and Johnny, as Sue pleads, “We’ll just destroy ourselves if we keep at each other’s throats! Don’t you see?”

This new way of handling superheroes was revolutionary in large measure because it was completely different from what DC – who had invented the superhero and basically owned the market in 1961 – was doing.

“Lee introduced a different kind of hero at a time when America was entering into a period of historic social upheaval”

“I doubt you can imagine the sheer impact that single comic possessed back there in the comic-starved wastelands of 1961,” Alan Moore, the great British comic writer behind Watchmen, declared of Fantastic Four #3 in a 1983 essay. “To someone who had cut his teeth upon the sanitised niceness of the Justice League of America, this was heady stuff indeed.”

DC’s heroes were blander, steadier, and less likely to be consumed by their emotions. They had fewer human foibles and little characterisation beyond do-gooder, and as a result they felt more like cardboard cutouts than living, breathing people. Back during the 1954 Senate subcommittee hearings, DC adviser Dr Lauretta Bender was asked if she thought Superman was a good influence. “A good influence,” she replied affirmatively. “The children know that Superman will always come out on the right side.” And by the 1960s that was increasingly becoming a problem. DC’s antiseptic heroes were well suited for the conservative ’40s and ’50s, a time when McGraw-Hill produced a workplace educational video entitled The Trouble with Women and Elvis Presley was allowed to be shown on TV only from the waist up.

But by the following decade America was changing. An unpopular war in Vietnam was escalating, changing many Americans’ notions of their country’s righteousness. Civil rights protests were flaring across the country. East Germany slapped up the Berlin Wall, and nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union seemed closer than ever. America was retreating from the relative safety of the ’50s and moving into a more volatile age. And certain readers were in search of a modern brand of storytelling that felt more sophisticated, more of
the moment.

Lee and his collaborators, whether through good sense or sheer luck, managed to introduce a different kind of hero at a time when America was entering into a period of historic social upheaval. Who wants to read about a gee-whiz cop hero when you can see the real police every night on the news beating African-Americans in the streets? How can you not roll your eyes at a Superman story in which the hero uses his virtually unlimited power to figure out how many jelly beans a mystery jar contains?

Fantastic Four was an immediate success. Lee and Kirby’s new style of superhero struck a nerve, particularly among more mature and seasoned readers. “Great art, terrific characters and a more adult approach to the stories than any other mag,” reader Len Blake wrote in a letter published in Fantastic Four #4. “You are definitely starting a new trend in comics – stories about characters who act like real people, not just lily-white do-gooders who would insult the average reader’s intelligence.”

Clearly Marvel was onto something, and in the months that followed, Lee and his collaborators would unveil more heroes within the groundbreaking mould of the Fantastic Four. They were often regular people on whom great responsibility had been imposed, and they were left struggling with their new abilities and how best to use them.

The Hulk, introduced by Lee and Kirby in 1962, was scientist Bruce Banner who had been blasted by a gamma-ray bomb after rushing to save a teenager who’d mistakenly wandered onto the test field. He then spontaneously began transforming into an angry monster who could smash anything in his wake. As with the Fantastic Four characters, Banner is conflicted about his newfound powers, breaking down in tears in the debut issue over what he’s become.

Spider-Man made his debut in Amazing Fantasy #15, cover dated August 1962. The character was a collaboration between Lee and Steve Ditko, a frequent freelancer for Marvel whose style veered toward the oddball. His characters were gawky and weird, making him the perfect choice for developing the story of nerdy Peter Parker, a hapless high school brainiac who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains super-strength and agility. Though the teen’s new status hardly solves all his problems. “Sometimes, I hate my Spider-Man powers,” the hero whined in one early issue. “Sometimes I wish I were just like any normal teen-ager.”

Legend has it that Goodman loathed spiders and initially balked at publishing the story before finally allowing it to run in Amazing Fantasy, a title that was set to be cancelled anyway.

By 1963 Marvel also had Ant-Man, Thor and mystical sorcerer Dr Strange in its bullpen. Iron Man, debuting in March 1963, provided a test for this modern way of storytelling. As Lee tells it, he wanted to create a character whom readers of the day would find, on the surface, unappealing. And what could be more unappealing at the height of the Cold War than a wealthy, arrogant weapons manufacturer? Like the heroes who came before him, Iron Man (written by Stan’s brother Larry Lieber and drawn by Don Heck) also took off.

“Marvel is a cornucopia of fantasy, a wild idea, a swashbuckling attitude, an escape from the humdrum and prosaic”

“Marvel’s success was about storytelling and putting a mirror up to the real world for not just kids but a growing group of adults who were tired of the DC traditional characters saying the same things as they did in the ’40s and the ’50s: ‘Good Grief!’” John Romita Sr, Marvel’s longtime art director, says. What Lee and his gang had done was bring the antihero to comics. Marvel’s new line began growing in leaps and bounds. The publisher sold some 18.9 million magazines in 1960. By 1964 that number had exploded to 27.7 million. “Marvels sell fast! Marvels sell out!” a 1965 trade ad touted. “When fans EYE them, they BUY them!”

Marvel allowed a lone editor, Stan Lee, to oversee an entire line of comic books, imposing a singular vision and voice on every title. In that sense, if you liked one Marvel magazine, chances are you’d like another. Marvel was finally emerging as a cohesive brand. Because Lee had been in charge of this newly emerging superhero line from its inception, he was able to build something special. A coherent universe. And that Marvel universe proved to be a huge selling point for the company through the 1960s and beyond.

“Marvel is a cornucopia of fantasy, a wild idea, a swashbuckling attitude, an escape from the humdrum and prosaic,” Lee would write, summing up what Marvel was all about. “It’s… a literate celebration of unbridled creativity, coupled with a touch of rebellion and an insolent desire to spit in the eye of the dragon.”

This piece is an edited extract from Reed Tucker’s Slugfest: Inside the Epic, 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC published by Little, Brown 

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