If you’re not a major comic book fan — if you only know about superheroes from the movies — then Stan Lee has probably always seemed kind of like a cool uncle-grampa, a gray-haired icon who blazed the trail for cheeky geek self-awareness by adopting a late-life career as a cameo superstar. If you are a comics fan, then Lee is a paradoxical figure. He was a walking, talking advertisement for the notion that comics could be cool long before Comic-Con conquered Hollywood; he gave Marvel its ’70s swagger. But he also left a trail of angry collaborators — big, important names like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko — some of whom would go to their grave claiming that Lee’s actual contributions to iconic characters like Fantastic Four and Spider-Man were less than substantial. (Here’s Kirby in a landmark Comics Journal interview from the early ’90s: “Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything! I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything.”)
Lee will receive a special Vanguard award from the Producers Guild in January, and the press release announcing the award claims that he “has exerted more influence over the comic book industry than anyone in history,” which is probably true, but it also claims that he “created or co-created 90 percent of Marvel’s most recognized comic characters.” We’ll never actually know the truth of those collaborations — like great modern American success stories, the truth has been lost in a neverending quagmire of lawsuits. (If this were The Social Network, you could argue that he was the Sean Parker of Marvel. Which isn’t a bad thing: Without Sean Parker, Facebook wouldn’t be Facebook.)
What is certain is that Lee has been a pivotal figure in the neverending expansion of the comics industry into every realm of multimedia. As noted in the same press release, Lee turned Spider-Man into a syndicated comic strip; pushed Spidey and the Hulk onto TV in the ’70s; made the X-Men into a cartoon; and has an executive producer credit on basically every Marvel movie ever made. Even his late-period flailing ventures — NHL-sponsored hockey superheroes, ill-fated gubernatorial hagiographies, the Pamela Anderson stripper cartoon — possess a candy-colored PR swagger: You want to listen to Lee make the elevator pitch. If you want to find people who are more pivotal in creating the modern era of all-encompassing multimedia brands, you have to start talking about people like George Lucas, or Walt Disney.
Lee will probably give a great speech when he wins the award. He’s always been good at talking, especially when he’s talking about his favorite subject, his greatest invention, the one character that we absolutely know for certain he’s 100 percent responsible for creating: Himself.
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