Now that Stan Lee’s death has sunk in, the conversation turns to his legacy which considering that some of his obituaries are crediting him with the likes of Captain America, the time for this to be made clear is now.
The first thing to be said is that Lee’s position in comics is unquestioned. Without Lee, comics today would be very, very different and as for Marvel, they’d have went bust without Lee’s work in the 60’s. There also isn’t any question that Stan Lee helped create iconic characters now worth billions or that his dialogue helped sell Marvel Comics, or that he was a very nice man as anyone who met him can testify to.
No, the issue lies with ownership. Stan was always the publishers nephew and an exceptional companyman for Marvel even during the times he wasn’t welcome in the 90’s in the company he helped build.Stan claimed ownership of everything to the point where it became a joke in recent years.that Stan would have claimed credit for the Bible if he was around.
The issue of ownership is important because while Stan was alive he never gave people like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko the credit they deserved. Sure, he’d give them credit for being great artists but never actually the credit they wanted, and because when Stan was interviewed especially after the 70s, it’d be no more than a promo film for Stan/Marvel, journalism failed. Except one time when Jonathan Ross interviewed him.
One of the reasons Lee’s claims to have essentially thought all the Marvel characters up and then gave them to an artist to fill out is nonsense, is partly because we can look at Lee’s post and pre peak-Marvel output and see how thin it is creatively. She-Hulk amounts to Lee’s one lasting post Jack Kirby/Ditko/etc creation. The main reason is the weight of evidence from not only co-creators but those staff who worked at Marvel, not to mention artists who came in after the peak 63-66 period of Marvel.
The site Comic Book Historians has an excellent listing of Stan’s, well, bravado and liberal application of what he created, and it’s pretty damning. Also in the week of Stan’s death, Howard Chaykin’s splendid history of comics, Hey Kids! Comics. released it’s fourth issue…
This issue deals largely with its version of Stan Lee. Its pretty brutal in places. Funky Flashman levels of brutal.It’s also essential reading as Chaykin’s comic is a telling of all those stories creators tell each other that never hit the history books…
So what’s Stan’s legacy? Is he a jocular grandad who built a universe from an amazing spurt of creativity over six years or was he always the companyman working to ensure the creations now worth billions stayed safe with the company? Was he someone who could make a wee boy’s year by signing a Hulk comic for him or was he someone who didn’t especially care about giving his co-creators the credit they deserved?
Fact is, it’s all of the above. Stan’s legacy is going to be a complex, and probably messy one. The truth is comics wouldn’t be the same without him, but the truth is also he wasn’t the creator he made himself out to be and that complexity is going to make some people reappraise Stan, but that’s probably a good thing. If it gets the names of Stan’s co-workers out there and helps give a more accurate picture of Marvel’s Silver Age before all the men and women involved pass away then that’s a good thing and that can be Stan’s legacy.