Stan Lee died last week, November 12, 2018, at the age of 95, five months after Steve Ditko died at the age of 90. We had them both for so long that it felt like we’d always have them and then they were both gone. I have already seen a lot of chat since Stan’s death wondering if he deserved all the accolades and rehashing the rifts between Stan and Steve, between Stan and Jack. Was Stan a great writer? How much input did he actually have with his very creative penciling partners? Is it his fault that so many people think of him as the sole creator of Spider-Man? Could Stan have done anything to liberate artists who were stuck in work-for-hire contracts and couldn’t even get back their own artwork? These are all questions that can be discussed and I do want to defend Stan a bit but that really isn’t what I want to get into.
Instead, I want to turn the clock back to when what you saw on the comic spin rack in the drug store was very different than what you see on comic shop racks today. In the early 1960s, DC comics dominated the field but they were silly, lacking the charm those issues all get in retrospect. There were Archie comics and Harvey comics and Classics Illustrateds and Dells in great profusion. There were war books and monster books and romance books and humor books but nothing to which most adults would give a second look.
I was a kid back then and I was reading all of those comics. They were fun but they were forgettable. The sort of thing you passed around among friends and didn’t worry if you never got back again. But Marvel Comics didn’t feel like that. They felt like something you wanted to show off to your friends and then get back so you could hang on to them and read them again and again.
What made them so treasured? You’ve heard all the reasons…heroes with problems, a unified universe, continued stories, flamboyant characters… but the first thing that drew you in was the artwork. Kirby’s block heroic figures and crazy complex machinery; his grand vistas and collages. Ditko’s floppy footed characters and sense of motion and inspired perspectives. They were like nothing else on the rack. But then you sat down and actually read them and the dialogue was breezy and slangy, the captions were funny and self-aware and the credits made you feel like you were in on the joke with the creators. And that was all Stan. Stan's Bullpen Bulletins and Soapbox and "Excelsior" and "Face Front" and “Nuff Said” and “perish forbid” and Real Frantic One may be almost cringe worthy these days but, back then, they went a long way to establishing a community that broke the bonds of "kids only" and started the slow process of making comics an accepted art form among adults in the US. (As they already were in some other countries.) Without Stan, I probably wouldn't still be reading comics and you probably wouldn't either. Alan Moore and Steve Gerber and Steve Englehart and Neil Gaiman would have found other creative outlets than comic books. Kirby and Ditko would still have done comics but maybe not the New Gods and the Shade the Changing Man without Stan giving them the creative outlet to do Thor and the FF and Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.
So let’s get on our bikes and ride down to the Drug Fair to see what’s on the rack. Let’s snap up the latest Marvels, let’s pick through the older issues flopping over in their wire braces to see if we missed anything last month because if you missed a month, there was nothing to be done about it. You had a gap in your collection. A month can seem a very long time to a kid, anyway, especially when he’s waiting for the latest issue of Spider-Man. But, hey, here it is! Let’s see what Stan and Steve have cooked up. Who’s this lizard in a lab coat? This villain with a fish bowl on his head? Look, the Human Torch is back. And the Sandman. And my favorites, the Enforcers. And who is the Green Goblin anyway? Are we ever going to learn? And how is Spidey going to lift off all that machinery pinning him down in Doc Ock’s underwater hideaway? Each issue felt like something vibrant and new and almost never disappointed. It was a treasure hunt to see if you could grab a hold of your favorite series and each discovery made the treasure hunt worthwhile.
It’s been a long time since those days. I’m in my early 60s now. That’s as hard for me to believe as anything. Because, I’ve got to tell you, it feels like yesterday. Goodbye Stan and Steve. Thank you for everything.