In August 1961, two middle-aged Jewish New Yorkers, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, launched a new superhero comic book for the company that would become Marvel Comics and called it The Fantastic Four. In less than two years, working with either Kirby or Steve Ditko, Lee also co-created Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Wasp, Doctor Strange, Nick Fury, the X-Men and the Avengers. Over the past 20 years, movies based on those characters alone have grossed more than $30 billion (three times more than the Star Wars franchise) and Lee made jovial cameo appearances in all of them. When he died in 2018, millions of children born in the 21st century mourned a man born during the Harding administration.
The newsstand comic book and the 7in single are the two quintessential artefacts of postwar pop culture: cheap, disposable formats whose contents sometimes proved immortal. The closest analogue to Lee’s Marvel is Berry Gordy’s Motown. Both men were tireless self-promoters, with a flair for finding (and losing) talent and a genius for reading the pulse of 1960s youth. The crucial difference was money. While Motown’s hit-makers were set up for life, the comic book industry was piratically exploitative, with publishers retaining ownership of the characters and paying flat rates instead of royalties. Lee himself called it ‘the worst market… on the face of the Earth for creative talent’. The real currency was credit, and that’s where Lee’s legacy gets complicated. ‘One’s entire conception of Stan rests on whether or not you think he truly was the originator of this world-changing pantheon,’ writes Abraham Riesman in an introduction that’s as tantalising as one of Lee’s cover blurbs. Was he a true visionary, or a liar and a thief?
Lee made the biographer’s job difficult by being a wildly unreliable narrator of his own story.