Why Stan Lee almost quit
Stan Lee was done. After spending more than a decade toiling away in the comics industry following World War II, he was ready to quit.
How many proto-Twilight Zone sci-fi parables could one guy crank out, month after month, especially in an era when comics were controversial publications, literally vilified by fanatically conservative crusaders? What was he going to do next, and how was he ever going to care again? The year was 1961, and Stan Lee - possibly at the urging of his wife Joan - decided to just do what he wanted. If he was done, why not go out doing his own thing?
He, along with his frequent collaborator on 1950s monster stories Jack "The King" Kirby, created The Fantastic Four. With Lee on words and Kirby on art, this dynamic duo revitalised a genre that had fallen into slapstick nonsense following their WWII heyday, the era that gave readers Captain America, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Without the war to focus their heroism, superheroes became overtly cartoonish. Lee and Kirby did away with that; Fantastic Four #1 was unlike any superhero comic of its time.
The quartet were people first: the too smart for his own good Reed Richards, the fiery show-off Johnny Storm, the gruff and tortured Ben Grimm, and the woman Sue Storm (writing women wasn't Lee's strong suit, to say the least). They were all superheroes second, and those first few issues of FF treated the quartet more like survivors in a horror story than do-gooders. That was Lee's way to guarantee the comic would sell, since superhero comics had fallen out of favour while horror comics rose in popularity.
And then it happened, on the cover of Fantastic Four #3 (cover-dated March 1962): the FF in their blue team uniforms, zooming through a skyline in their tub-shaped Fantasticar, a barely noticeable "MC" in the top right corner. Superheroes were back because Lee and Kirby had reinvented them.
That "MC" stood for Marvel Comics. This is what people forget: Fantastic Four #1 predated Marvel officially donning the moniker Marvel Comics. That's how big of an impact Stan Lee had on Marvel Comics - he was the writer and the editor-in-chief of Marvel before Marvel was even Marvel.
I've lived in this world for 26 of my 34 years, ever since I first tuned in to the X-Men animated TV series in 1992. When I was in school, those characters made me feel good about being different. They were, no exaggeration, my only friends.
As I grew up, I got to see the world fall in love with superheroes. I saw the first X-Men movie at a cinema at midnight in the summer of 2000, a movie theatre that wasn't even sure why anyone would want to see this weird movie so late on a Thursday night. Then I got a job actually working in comics journalism, a career path that I stayed on for almost a decade. I watched The Avengers shatter box office records from a rock concert of a midnight screening, alongside a dozen of my closest friends and 100 other screaming fans.
I've read Marvel Comics every single month, every single week of my life since 1992. I never stepped away, and for that entire time - going from a fan to an industry professional to an adult more enthusiastic about these characters than ever - Stan Lee has been more than a constant. He's been the constant.
His name was used to introduce every one of the comics I read as a kid ("Stan Lee presents … X-Force!" even though Stan Lee had zero idea who Shatterstar was, you know it). He was in every single Marvel movie; spotting him in that beach scene in X-Men felt like the most esoteric game of Where's Wally, looking for a guy no one knew to look for. I'd see him at conventions regularly, whether it was the hotel show I went to in Nashville when I was in 5th grade (where Stan "The Man" Lee signed an X-Men collection for me), or at any of the shows I worked at as an adult, brushing past Lee's security team on crowded show floors or seeing him stroll through the hotel lobby. He was just everywhere.
And it's not until right now, letting the news of his passing sink in, that I realise the entire world I live in, the entire pop culture world we live in, all sprang forth from Stan Lee's brain (along with the mighty pens and pencils of masters like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko).
The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Ant-Man, Iron Man, the Wasp, Black Panther, Hawkeye, the original X-Men (including Magneto), Doctor Doom, Spider-Man - the foundation of the most compelling mythology currently unfolding was laid by this one guy who was absolutely done with it in 1961. I look at my life and how it's been shaped by these characters Lee created, and moulded by the hundreds of artists and writers who came after him, and it's staggering. Right now, as I type this, action figures of Stan Lee creations Daredevil, Black Widow, Thor, and Jean Grey watch me type. His legacy is with me, physically, every day.
And then I look at the way I know this guy has impacted everyone around me, from my co-workers who are equally wrecked as me, to my husband who grew up with a crush on Cyclops and is now legally obligated to participate in hours of post-movie analysis after we watch movies that feature Stan Lee cameos. I look at my nephews who went through X-Men and Spider-Man phases of their own, and now line up to see movies starring Lee's co-creations. I look at how playing these Avengers, a team Lee co-created with Jack Kirby, has catapulted actors like Chris Evans and Mark Ruffalo onto the A-list - and how they use that fame to advocate for actual superheroic justice. I look at how Black Panther, a character Lee and Kirby introduced halfway through their genre-redefining Fantastic Four run, went from being a character who flew under the radar for 50 years to being the hands-down biggest superhero in America this year, inspiring millions of kids who have never seen a hero exactly like that who looks exactly like them.
This is the house of ideas that Stan Lee built, the blueprints he scribbled on loose paper and handed to expert architects like Kirby and Ditko (and Bill Everett and Don Heck). It was his idea to do superheroes the way he wanted to do them, to show them not as gods but as flawed people. It was his idea to take the kid sidekick and make him the star named Spider-Man. It was his idea to turn the Civil Rights movement into the mutant metaphor in X-Men. It was his marketing savvy that knew he could promote his lesser-selling superhero comics by having them cross over with the Fantastic Four, thus creating a shared superhero universe - the Marvel Universe - that is still going 57 years later. This is the legacy he leaves behind - jobs created, myths told and retold, imaginations inspired, childhoods saved, friends made, memories cherished.
Stan Lee changed the world after he decided he was done, and now the world will never, ever be done with Stan Lee.