Comic legend Stan Lee takes Troy Bramston behind the famous masks
In the annals of popular culture, few people loom larger than Stan Lee, the creator of superheroes such as Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man and the X-Men that span comic books, television and cinema screens. Lee, who turns 95 next month, has made an indelible imprint on the lives of millions and become almost as famous as the compelling characters he has invented.
But the ever-charming Lee — with his slicked-back hair, moustache and dark glasses — strikes a modest tone when reflecting on his long career.
“I’m just a guy who wrote a lot of those characters,” he tells Review. “The characters are the ones that are supposed to be recognisable. That people recognise me too is rather thrilling and I’m very thankful for it.”
In the 1960s, Lee and collaborators such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and John Romita reinvented the superhero business and ushered in the silver age of comics. Lee’s purple prose was coupled with their vibrant artwork to create a new style of hero.
The astonishing roll-call of characters that Lee co-created transcends generations: the Fantastic Four (1961), Spider-Man (1962), Hulk (1962), Thor (1962), Iron Man (1963), the X-Men (1963), Doctor Strange (1963), the Avengers (1963) and Daredevil (1964).
This runaway success saw Marvel sell more comics than leading publisher DC for the first time. DC had pioneered the golden age of heroes such as Superman (1938), Batman (1939), the Flash (1940), Green Lantern (1940) and Wonder Woman (1941). In the 1960s, they were being reimagined for a new generation.
But Marvel — which had its own golden-age star, Captain America (1941) — took the genre in an entirely new direction. The turning point was the publication of The Fantastic Four in 1961. This team of superheroes, mirroring DC’s Justice League (1960), comprised Mister Fantastic (Reed Richards), the Invisible Woman (Susan Storm), the Human Torch (Johnny Storm) and the Thing (Ben Grimm).
But they were not typical heroes. They were flawed, each with their own worries and selfdoubt, and they argued with each other. In short, they were relatable.
“One of the secrets to Marvel’s success was to make their personal lives as interesting as their superhero identity,” Lee recalls. “Every member of the Fantastic Four was just as interesting as a person as they were as a superhero. And that had not been done in comics before.”
Lee’s characters were brave and courageous, and still fought for truth and justice, but they were also grappling with complex emotions such as anxiety, frustration, anger, disappointment and even love. And they lived in cities where their readers lived, rather than in mythical Gotham or Metropolis.
The storylines were modern. They reflected the age of science and technological advancement. They addressed topical issues, reflected Spiders Amazing Fantasy;
Marvel’s The Stan Lee comic book exclusive, launched last month, main picture; far left, from top, Spider-Man’s first appearance, in the Fantastic Four meet the Hulk; and cells from the original Spider-Man comic