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Since the American superhero comic book made its debut on April 18, 1938, dozens of early writers made their mark on how they should be written. Among these writers, one man made an important impact on the entire comic book industry during the early 1960’s. He revolutionized the way characters behaved in the stories by making them more relatable to the audience that was reading it. Stan Lee’s writing has shaped the way comic books have evolved from simple stories to intricate, more relevant works of literature. Whether it was the loose way that dialogue was used in the pages of the Fantastic Four, or the uncanny use of “real world problems” used in The Amazing Spider-Man, Lee’s style of writing made those characters shine in a new light, making them more three-dimensional than the characters introduced before them.
Superhero comic books were originally introduced during the late 1930’s, beginning with Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster’s Action Comics #1. This issue marked the “Golden Age of Comic Books.” From this issue, all the way to the early 1950’s, characters like Superman, Batman and Robin, Captain Marvel, and Captain America defeated villains varying from low-level gang members to Hitler and the Nazis themselves. What made these characters truly remarkable were that, unlike the cartoon characters established in the newspaper comic strips, they were actual human beings that could do fantastic things that no actual people could do in reality. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked) These characters could fly, had tremendous strength and speed, and had amazing gadgets that could never have existed during the time period.
As commendable as the superheroes of the Golden Age were, they were extremely one-dimensional in terms of their attitudes and behaviors. Superman, for example, was notorious for foiling a bank robber’s plan, beating them up, and throwing them behind bars with little dialogue in between. Even when dialogue was spoken, he would literally state what he was doing and how he was going to do it, right in front of the bad guy. If superheroes were actually to exist, would they ever speak in such a manner? This question would not be answered until the “Silver Age of Comic Books,” beginning in the year 1956 with DC Comics’ Showcase #4. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked)
During the Silver Age of Comics, many, if not all, the Golden Age characters were given extreme makeovers to make them more appealing to the audiences. The Flash and Green Lantern, for instance, were given more stylish, flashy costumes, new interesting powers, and new alter egos. Unfortunately, however, they lacked personality, much like the Supermen or Captain Americas before them. When DC Comics decided to have five of their superheroes form the Justice League of America in the March of 1960, their rivals at Marvel Comics decided to structure a team of superheroes of their own. (Fantastic Four #1)
Martin Goodman, publisher of Marvel Comics since 1939, wanted a writer capable of creating a team of superheroes that could potentially outsell the Justice League of America. Stan Lee, who had been a writer for about twenty years at this point, did not trust Goodman’s judgment on how comic books should be treated. Goodman felt that comic books were for “stupid children” and encouraged Lee to “dumb down” everything he wrote. When Goodman asked for Lee to take on this particular project, Lee had already been contemplating on quitting. Joan, Stan Lee’s wife, advised him that, if he was going to quit, he should write the comic book they way he wanted to. If Goodman were to fire him, it would not have mattered because Lee had already been thinking about quitting anyway. Lee took that advice to heart, and went to work.
Lee came back to Goodman with his idea. It was a story about a group of four people who gained superpowers after a freak accident in space. What made these characters completely different from anything DC or Marvel published was that these characters did not wear costumes. They were based in New York City unlike the Metropolises or Gotham Cities (established in the pages of Superman and Batman, respectively). Finally, these characters possessed “real” personalities. They had real jobs, talked like ordinary people (with the exception of the over-analytic Mr. Fantastic), and they did not have “secret identities,” or alter egos. Stan Lee’s and artist Jack Kirby’s Fantastic Four #1 hit the shelves in the November of 1961, and it sold tremendously. (Fantastic Four #1)
After this milestone of an issue, Lee went on to co-create more characters like The Invincible Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Mighty Thor. Lee’s brightest co-creation, however, did not make his debut until August, 1962 in the pages of Amazing Fantasy. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked) This was a character that Goodman widely protested against because this superhero in particular was a teenage boy in high school. The only characters that were teenagers in comic books were sidekicks like Batman’s Robin, Human Torch’s Toro, or Green Arrow’s Speedy. This teenager was his own superhero, and Goodman felt that this character could never sell well. After Lee came to a compromise, the character would get a single issue in Amazing Fantasy, an already failing title. This issue completely flew off the shelves. Anyone who read comic books absolutely demanded more of this superhero. Stan Lee’s and artist Steve Ditko’s character, Spider-Man, became famous.
Spider-Man is a prime example of how the modern superhero comic came to be. Peter Parker was an ordinary high school sophomore. He was a nerd, he had been bullied, and he was not rich by any stretch of the imagination. He was exactly like the very people reading his comic book. Once he got his superpowers, the fame went to his head and caused a chain reaction that killed his Uncle Ben. He went on to fight for the good of the people of New York City, but maintained his secret identity, because if his enemies were to find out the truth about him, his friends and loved ones would share the fate of Uncle Ben. Lee even managed to give Spider-Man realistic problems even after he became a superhero. Peter had a tiring job at a newspaper, he struggled to get the girl, and he had to constantly balance his normal life and his superhuman responsibilities. Almost every “Modern Age” comic book is written in this particular fashion because it works extremely well.
With the huge successes of the Fantastic Four and The Amazing Spider-Man, Lee and Kirby also introduced the X-Men. (Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked) The X-Men told a story of a group of mutant teenagers that were constantly being hunted and despised because they were not human. Because they were different and misunderstood, they were hated. It was a direct metaphor for essentially every minority in one way or another. In fact, the title featured two mutant leaders who were the very embodiments of civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Professor Charles Xavier wished to deal with mutant issues peacefully while the more rebellious Magneto felt that if the mutants were to survive, they must do things “by any means necessary.” Even after Lee left the title in 1966 (McLaughlin), modern writers such as Chris Claremont, Grant Morrison, and Joss Whedon went on to tell epic stories about the X-Men and their constant battle with a world that fears and hates them.
Modern comic book writers owe Stan Lee and his co-creators much to thank for. Lee’s introduction of characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men influenced the way the entire comic book industry works today. Comic book characters now have three-dimensional personalities; they have relatable troubles to the ordinary men and women that read about them. A great number of them represent something more than a superhuman that fights evil. Because of Stan Lee and his unique style of writing comic books, superheroes continue to be popular sources of entertainment. That is one of the sole reasons they have survived to this day.
Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked. Dir. Steve Kroopnick. Perf. Stan Lee and Neil Gaiman. Triage Entertainment, 2003. Online documentary.
Crowder, Craig. “Fantastic Four.” (Comic, 1961). Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.
McLaughlin, Jeff. “Stan Lee.” Pop Culture Universe: Icons, Idols, Ideas. ABC-CLIO, 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.