"If i knew how good i was , i would have asked for a raise"
Stan Lee (1924-2018)
Stan Lee, the famed comic book creator lived a life which was not ordinary. He energised and amplified fiction to a level that it became inspiration for billions of people across the planet.
It is almost impossible to encapsulate a life that almost singlehandedly created "the comic book franchise of Hollywood" as we know today. But i will try to explain how Lee impacted the entertainment business and how his creations became an inspiration for millions of fans.
This post looks at Lee's strategies to build characters ,their "collaborative worlds" and how the TV and movie business changed forever under the stewardship of his creations.
Who is Stan Lee?
Stan Lee born as 'Stanley Martin Leiber' in 1922 in New York to Jewish immigrants grew up in the days of The Great Depression in the US. He also served in the US Army from 1941-45 and also worked repairing telecom equipments. But he always had extraordinary imagination to turn his personal experiences into inspirations for his comic book characters. Lee who began as an apprentice in Timely Comics (the then name of Marvel) in 1939 through a cousin's reference first worked as a part time writer on Captain America comics at the company. He then with a series of collaborations created Earth's most popular superheroes including The Fantastic Four, Spider Man, Iron Man, Thor, Black Panther, most of The Avengers, Hulk, X Men, Wolverine and dozens more. Lee with his core strategy of creating heroes with human problems and having a regular guy's issues challenged the status quo in the comic book business.His creations were'nt that super by any yard stick. Eg Spiderman's alter ego Peter Parker usually lives in a small forgettable area in New York and he survives on doing Pizza deliveries but then he also saved the world!
Lee as Marvel's self promoting maestro popularised the culture of "shared-world superhero storytelling". This phenomenon is the Hollywood as we know today. Without Lee, Hollywood would have not been what it is today.
What is "shared superhero storytelling" ?
In the 1960's when DC Comics was ruling the roost, they had superheroes and groups of superheroes living in their siloed world. Superman and Batman although had Justice League but they would live in their own worlds. In 1960, Lee was assigned to bring his own vision to the Marvel comics as DC was a giant as compared to Marvel. He then went on to create a spectrum of heroes who will have complex lives just like ordinary people, have basic issues of impressing girlfriends, paying the monthly bills etc. They also would team up together to fight the bad guys but also end up fighting up amongst themselves. But then they would also hold on to their superpowers. So a Spider-Man tried to join the Fantastic Four , and Thor’s doctor alter ego once cared for Dr Strange and so on. Then there would be consequences of these crossovers as well spread across multiple titles. All his characters were unique in many ways. But the best example of shared superhero story telling from Lee has to be “The Avengers” universe which converged every tent pole Marvel character into one. With over $6 Billion in box office revenue, The Avengers is the most grossing superhero franchise of all time.
How could he create so many superheroes?
Stan Lee’s hallmark of collaborative superheroes didn’t exist just in his comics. In real life he co created most of his superheroes. During the 1960’s when he created most of work, he would follow which would come to be known as “The Marvel Method” wherein he would describe a plot or idea to an artist, who would return with pages of finished art. After that Lee will fill in the dialogue. This allowed him to oversee Marvel’s entire line of comics all at once. Because so many heroes were all being imagined by himself, the heroes started sharing pages in the comics as well. Soon the ‘collaborative method’ of Lee started a revolution of in the comic book industry.
According to Jatin Verma, Founder of the Comic Con India “ Stan Lee made his superheroes relatable to the fans reading his comic books and he created memorable characters. He might be the force behind the big films and TV Shows but the comic book fans, the people who went to the comic cons and spent the money on books always valued him more than anybody else”
It is true that Lee was the person driving the comic books sales in Marvel but its content was largely unknown outside the West and portions of Asia where comic book reading was a core activity.
It would be safe to say that the Disney acquisition of Marvel made Lee and his characters a household name and face in each and every country across the globe.
In 2008, when “Iron Man” hit the screens, the film ended with a caption “you aren’t the only superhero around” signalling the onset of Captain America and everyone else…..This took the freshly minted (Dark Knight Trilogy)Warner/DC team by surprise and as it turns out today when Marvel has leapfrogged DC by miles. Ever since DC has been re imagining itself unsuccessfully to counter the avalanche of Marvel content on cinema, TV, Netflix and more. Eg. The box office revenue of “Black Panther’ is itself larger than the entire DC Television revenue.
The Creation of a Multi billion dollar licensing business
It can be argued that Stan Lee never directed a film of his heroes and had very little to do with the writing of the Marvel Studios projects. Although he appeared in dozens of films featuring his creations. But when it comes to the powers, facets, look and feel of each of his creations, he created a seminal impact. He also pocketed a cool $10 Million as commission after Disney purchased the Marvel business.
The licensing business of Marvel which has yielded more than $ US 1 Billion in royalties itself is a testament to Lee’s vision and attention to details. A licensed product like a T-shirt, Toy, board game will have people developing the product but it usually centres around the artwork of the superhero. This is where the consumer makes his contact and initiates the purchase. Here Stan Lee becomes even more important as licensing is about the character rather than the film/comic he is in.
According to Jiggy George, President of LIMA India, “After Disney’s acquisition of Marvel, they ensured that they have one movie release every year with a robust licensing program in place. They could have chosen a ‘darkish’ tone to their characters but they chose to make it palatable to the family audience. It all happened because Lee created these exciting characters who had a captive audience in the comic book industry”.
At last count over 50 characters created by him made it to the big screen resulting in over $20 Billion of box office revenue and over $10 Billion of merchandise sales in the last decade alone. If one looks at the movie slate of Marvel/Disney and the online TV schedule itself, one can expect another $5 Billion of minimum revenue.
Building the Stan Lee universe:
Beyond the record books and box office sales, Lee’s characters resonated with real life incidents which he himself experienced. His service in the army forced him to think about the repressed classes of people and after experiencing the Civil Rights movement ,he eventually created the idea behind the “mutant population” in X Men. In “Black Panther”, Lee found hope and inspiration in the tiny Hamlet of Wakanda in Africa. His characters talk of embracing diversity. Lee wanted a unified world and did his bit by creating content which unified audiences globally and inspired many writers and artists.
According to Enrico Marini, the Italy based creator of Batman’s latest rendition “The Dark Prince Charming sums it up ..” Stan Lee maybe dead, but his creations are immortal. Its also his fault that I am doing comics. Many thanks for that”
The world is truly a lesser place as Lee isn’t in it. RIP…….Excelsior!
Note : ( Personal thanks to Mr George, Mr Verma and Mr Marini)
With inputs from