In the comics world there are few artists bigger than the characters and worlds that they created, but Stan Lee is probably the biggest. The list of heroes he helped invent is virtually never-ending – Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Black Panther, Doctor Strange, the list goes on – but Lee was himself a remarkable personality who transcended the medium, perhaps precisely because he was so passionate about inflaming the imaginations of his readers. Taschen’s book, The Stan Lee Story, explores his life and times as perhaps the most important promoter and proponent of fantasy storytelling in the history of comic books, through the incisive eye of author Roy Thomas.
Via email, Thomas recently spoke with Nerdist about the creation of this one-of-a-kind, encyclopedic book, which features reprints of some of Lee’s most iconic work, from his earliest contributions to smaller publishers to the heights of his success as the face of Marvel, and later, POW Entertainment. Additionally, Taschen and Marvel provided an amazing collection of exclusive images not only from Thomas’ book, but Lee’s incredible work. (See our gallery below!)
Stan is very well known as the genial and enthusiastic face of comicsdom. What was your aim in creating and culling information for this book?
Stan wasn’t interested in having the book be a real biography, and, really, neither was I. There’s just enough biography therein to frame his actions and achievements. I consider this a “career biography.”
What did you discover about him that you feel like was key to his ability to create and develop these stories that have become bedrock for characters and even storytelling conventions?
He was a talented man–not an original genius, perhaps, but one who, when the right circumstances presented themselves, had the skill (and the drive) to forge a small line of failing comics into a Marvel universe. Naturally, he did not do this without the important help of a number of artists, especially in the early days, particularly Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko… but his was the vision that tied everything together so that the 8 or 10 or 20 or however many titles there might be at any given moment formed a world, not just a mass of mostly unrelated series like DC’s comics of the day.
What were your biggest impressions of Stan either before or during the research process and how if at all did they change?
Until recent years, I hadn’t really realized the extent to which Stan had, at one time, wanted to be an actor… so I began the book with that. There were many little surprises along the way… including Stan’s account (whether it’s to be believed fully or not is something else again) of how he maneuvered Marvel into letting him move to L.A., which I do know he had long wanted to do. In fact, back in 1974, he had once brought up to me the possibility of his moving the whole Marvel operation to Florida.
Was there a favorite era, story or book of his that was particularly fun to explore or you think deserves more attention?
I think the Marvel (Timely/Atlas) horror and science-fiction comics are particularly worth revisiting; they were definitely a cut above the (low) average for the field in the early 1950s, partly in terms of writing and certainly in terms of artwork. Harvey had art just as good–but its stories, I felt when I read them recently, were decidedly lackluster. Only EC and perhaps one or two others here and there produced horror comics that were better than Timely’s.
His relationships with other creative leaders were often complicated. How eager or reluctant were you to include or explore that within the book?
I think “who did what” will be argued as long as there’s anyone alive who still cares. As I mention in the book, I believe that there can be a general consensus that, as time went along, Stan handed over more and more control of the precise story plotting to the artist (albeit subject to his editorial veto or restructuring), partly because he felt that his dialogue–not the precise words or rhythms, but the philosophy behind them–was Marvel’s secret weapon. He was aware that Marvel worked best when powerful artistic storytellers like [Jack] Kirby, [Steve] Ditko, and [John] Romita were doing the artwork, but the fact remains that he was able to achieve quite satisfactory results with lesser (though of course still talented) artists like Don Heck and Dick Ayers in the early days. One can argue that he might get too much credit in the case of any one story–but if anyone questions that he was the ultimate pop-culture genius who conceived the Marvel Universe and held it together, first by the force of his own personality and ideas and later by the way he inspired the editors-in-chief and writers (and even artists) who followed his lead, I believe that person’s views are not worthy of serious consideration.
As you recount, Lee said he wasn’t a “legacy” kind of guy. But what do you think is that legacy, above perhaps creating these beloved characters?
Stan’s legacy is the Marvel Universe–and everything that has flowed, or will flow, therefrom. Enjoy more images from the amazing book below!
Image: ©Marvel/Courtesy of TASCHEN.