Happy Birthday

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Happy Birthday, Stan Lee, Godfather of Modern Comics

December 28, 2010
by Christopher Coats
Some of the most popular and lasting characters in American comics have emerged from the imagination of Stanley Lieber, aka Stan Lee. His attention to emotion and actual feelings, in a genre dominated by action, has made the man behind Marvel comics among the most successful and widely known figures in comics.

Stan Lee’s Early Days

Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Leiber in New York City on Dec. 28, 1922. He entered the world of comics at a young age, using a family connection to get an entry-level position at Timely Comics, later to be renamed Marvel.

Starting his professional career with a supplement to an issue of “Capitan America,” Lieber decided to use a pen name to spare himself the embarrassment of people recognizing his signature on such juvenile content, signing it simply “Stan Lee.”

Lee’s Comic Book Career

Working alongside artists, Lee helped Marvel compete with its staunchest rival, DC Comics, which had scored a string of successes with legendary figures Superman and Batman. Instead of taking direct inspiration from DC’s success, Lee was inspired to create an alternative to the all-powerful figures that never waned from fighting evil.

Of Superman, Lee remarked, “He was never very interesting to me, because I was never worried about him. And if you’re not worried about the jam your hero is in, there’s no excitement.”

Seemingly bored by the single-minded mission of DC characters, Lee grew frustrated with the direction of comic books as his career moved into its second decade. He wanted to create characters with a dash of humanity; figures that readers could relate to directly, rather than necessarily look up to. He considered quitting, but his wife convinced him to write one more book the way he wanted to.

His breakthrough came in 1961 with the creation of “The Fantastic Four,” a super-powered team to rival the DC’s “Justice League” with a focus on how real people might react if they woke up one day to find themselves extraordinary.

An enormous success, “The Fantastic Four” saved Marvel and signaled the beginning of a new era of comics, as Lee led the art form in a new direction, featuring regular people, with flaws, doubts and vulnerabilities. Lee brought superheroes back to life by bringing them down to earth.

Two years later, Lee would approach his editors with another idea that nearly did not make the cut. His boss told him that readers found the idea of spiders “distasteful,” so Lee was forced to insert his new young hero in wherever he could.

With the unsuccessful series “Amazing Fantasy” reaching an end after 14 issues, Lee slipped the story of an awkward young science student whose run-in with a radioactive spider gave him superpowers into the 15th, and possibly final issue.

Billed as the “Hero that could be you,” “The Amazing Spiderman” was one of Marvel’s most successful characters, with the “Amazing Fantasy” #15 becoming one of their biggest sellers.

Sparking a series of his own, Spiderman represented everything Lee sought to create in comics. A seemingly weak and unsure alter ego, Peter Parker faced the same insecurities and challenges most of Lee’s readers faced.

With the epic lesson, “With great power, comes great responsibility,” Lee’s Spiderman became an instant classic, inspiring decades of creativity, including various series, movies and television shows.

In the years that followed, Lee took the helm at Marvel, creating a roster of heroes including The Hulk, Ironman, Dr. Strange and the X-Men, as well as introducing some of the first African-American superheroes—Luke Cage and The Falcon.

Throughout it all, Lee’s characters retained the same humanity and real-world settings that he had created to counter the spectacular abilities of heroes like Superman and his home of Metropolis. Only occasionally would Lee pen a character that defied reality, such as the Silver Surfer, who acted as more of a conscience or philosophical observer to humanity.

The Rest of the Story

Still active and creative at the age of 86, Lee received the National Medal of Arts and the National Humanities from President Bush, capping a career spanning most of the 20th century.

Still active within Marvel, Lee also founded POW! Entertainment, and can routinely be seen in cameo appearances in the slew of big screen adaptations that have been made of his characters over the past few years.

Married since 1947, Lee still lives with his wife Joan.

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