Stan Lee has alternately been reviled and revered for his contributions to the comic world. Now in his 90s, Stan Lee uses this documentary to be surprisingly frank about what happened, what didn’t happen, and share his side of the story amidst rumors of bankruptcy, his failure to share credit with other creators, and his legacy as an author.
Lee makes a point of emphasizing that he is a writer — not a comic book artist — which is noteworthy in itself. Authors have slowly become more prominent in the world of comics, but it’s easy to understand how fans have often conflated Lee’s legacy as a “creator” with actually drawing the comic. This has serious implications in determining who actually created Spider-Man and other iconic superheroes Lee helped invent — it was almost always a group effort between the artist and author. Whether or not Lee gave credit where credit is due is moot now — he makes it clear, complete with signed letters, that he feels that the accolades should be shared. Lee is one of the few creators still living, and thus is the beneficiary of the comic creator legacy simply by outliving his peers.
In the early days it’s clear the comic book industry was a haphazard affair, and Lee survived a series of turbulent changes due to his tenacity and charm. He is dogged in producing ideas — many of which, it’s clear in his later years, weren’t always good — but he sells them with such affable charm that even his bad ideas are hard to resist. In a nascent comic book industry, Lee threw everything at comics and used what stuck.
Lee’s most important contribution is likely his insistence that superheroes have normal, everyday problems. In the world of grim-and-gritty Batman it’s hard to imagine a world that isn’t grounded in reality, but back when Lee entered the comic book industry Spider-Man’s issues with his girlfriend and family were novel. Lee’s humanity — shared in touching detail by his wife’s travails with childbirth — shaped the heroes we know today.
It’s also easy to see how Lee might overshadow other creators. Like Gary Gygax of Dungeons & Dragons, Lee was a showman who loved his soapbox, and moved to Hollywood to continue the natural evolution of his brand from comics to television. He had mixed success, but making the jump to cartoons introduced legions of fans (me included) to Marvel characters and Stan Lee’s voice introducing each show with breathless wonder.
Lee’s legacy is no longer extricable from the evolution of comic books. As a man, Lee has some obvious flaws, but it’s thanks to him — and the other creators he mentions in passing — that we have the comic books of today. This is perhaps Lee’s final soap box, and it’s a fine conclusion to a great story. He’s earned it.
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