Excelsior! – Honoring a Lifetime of Stan Lee’s Work

December 28, 2022, marks the 100th Anniversary of Stan Lee’s birth, so it is fitting that the last post of the year delves into his remarkable life and work.

Lee’s papers are among the American Heritage Center’s most popular collections. Stan Lee was born Stanley M. Lieber on December 28, 1922, in Manhattan, New York. As a young boy, Lee was a voracious reader, enchanted with everything from pulp magazines to Shakespeare. Lee’s father was a dress cutter but had trouble finding work during the Great Depression. Consequently, as a teenager, Lee helped to support his family with a number of odd jobs. He sold newspaper subscriptions and worked as a movie theater usher. He delivered sandwiches in the Rockefeller Center and worked as an office boy for a trouser manufacturing company. But Lee’s true loves were writing and acting. He wrote for his high school magazine, The Magpie and won essay contests run by the New York Herald Tribune. He had dreams of becoming a great American novelist. Then, after graduating from high school, he joined the Works Progress Administration Federal Theater Project as an amateur actor – but acting didn’t pay the bills.

By 1939, Lee had found a job at Timely Comics, where he worked as an office boy, tasked with running errands, sweeping floors, filling inkwells and proofreading. He was paid $12 a week and, according to Lee “it seemed like a fortune.” Before long, he was acting as editor for Timely and contributing captions to artists’ drawings. His first credited work was dialog for “The Traitor’s Revenge,” a Captain America No. 3 comic, in 1941. Embarrassed to be writing low-brow comic books, he adopted the pen name “Stan Lee,” a play on his first name. His real name was to be saved for more important work.

Caught up in the spirit of patriotism during World War II, he volunteered for the Army in 1942. Lee was first assigned to the Signal Corps and trained in stringing up telecommunications wires and climbing telephone poles. Then the Army discovered his creative talents and reassigned him to a division that produced Army training films and publications.

Stan Lee inking a cartoon while serving in the U.S. Army, 1943. Box 7, Stan Lee papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

While the war raged on, Lee was never deployed overseas. He continued to work for Timely Comics on the weekends, receiving writing assignments by mail. Much to his relief, he was released from military service in 1945. He was so delighted to be out of the Army that he burned his uniform.

In 1947, Lee met Joan Boocock, an English hat model, in New York City. For Stan, it was love at first sight. But there was a complication – Joan was already married. Stan convinced her to fly to Reno, Nevada for a quickie divorce. Stan and Joan were married in Reno the same day that the divorce was finalized.

During the remainder of the 1940s and through the 1950s, Lee churned out dozens of comic books a month. There were westerns, war stories, monster, and romance comics. Lee wrote them all but chafed at the guidance he was receiving from his publisher to limit dialogue and avoid words that were more than two syllables long. Most comic books were written for readers under the age of fifteen. Stan was on the verge of quitting the comics business. But Joan, who wasn’t a comics fan herself, advised him to write the sort of dialog he was longing for. She said, “So what’ll they do, fire you?”

Her advice couldn’t have been more prescient. Timely Comics was facing competition from DC Comics which had just introduced the Justice League of America. In response, Lee and artist Jack Kirby worked together to create the Fantastic Four in 1961. The Fantastic Four, comprised of Mister Fantastic (alter ego of Dr. Reed Richards), Invisible Girl (alter ego of Susan Storm), Human Torch (alter ego of Johnny Storm), and The Thing (alter ego of Ben Grimm), were an immediate success. Fan letters poured in.

First page of the first issue of The Fantastic Four comic book, 1961. Box 113, Stan Lee papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Fantastic Four spoke with the kind of dialog Lee found interesting and, initially, dressed in street clothes. Fans loved the more sophisticated writing but objected to the lack of superhero costumes. So, in the second issue Lee relented and created a storyline in which the Invisible Girl designed costumes for the Fantastic Four. As Lee wrote succeeding issues of the Fantastic Four, each character became fully developed, with human traits and believable reactions. They fought, had neuroses and foibles and were sarcastic. It was a comic book industry breakthrough.

Lee followed up with the creation of the Incredible Hulk in May 1962 and, in collaboration with artist Steve Ditko, penned Spider-Man just one month later. Spider-Man represented even more of a departure from traditional superheroes. Lee decided to give Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker, the attributes of an average guy. Taking inspiration from his own life as a teenager, Lee explained, “He’s a guy who wears glasses, he’s not strong, he’s a bookworm, he’s not that popular with girls, he has acne.” Lee faced opposition from his publisher, who said it was the worst idea he had ever heard. “People hate spiders, and it sounds too much like Superman,” his publisher said. Lee persevered and Spider-Man went on to become the world’s most popular comics superhero.

Cover of a Spider-Man DVD. Box 127, Stan Lee papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Before long, Timely Comics had rebranded itself as Marvel Comics. Readership doubled and soon doubled again. Suddenly college students and older adults were reading Spider-Man and other Marvel comic books. While younger readers still enjoyed the colorful costumes, action and excitement Marvel comics offered, older readers appreciated the satire, storylines, subplots, and college-level vocabulary that Lee included.

By the mid 1960s, Stan and Joan had moved from New York City to Long Island, New York, to raise their daughter. Stan worked from home on a regular basis, often poolside in the back yard and sometimes dressed only in his swimming trunks. He was concerned about developing a pot belly like some of his writer friends, so he fashioned a standing desk for himself by stacking two tables together and propping his portable Remington typewriter on top. Using a two-finger typing method, he pecked out storylines and dialog and created more than two dozen superheroes and nearly a dozen new villains.

Stan Lee posing with some of his comics. Box 7, Stan Lee papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

About writing, Lee said, “I love to dream up stories, but I hate to write – writing them is a bore – so because of that I write very, very quickly because I want to get through with it fast!” The speed with which Lee wrote sometimes contributed to mistakes that ultimately appeared in Marvel comics, but Lee wasn’t fazed by the misprints. He encouraged fans to write-in to report errors, make complaints or just to ask questions. Marvel didn’t have a budget for prizes so in Lee’s tongue-in-cheek fashion, he created a “no-prize” prize for a lucky letter writer each month. The “no-prize” was, as promised, not a prize – instead it was a specially designed empty envelope Lee sent out to fans. Lee called it “the most sought-after item in Comicdom, because it’s one of the few things that is totally valueless and without one redeeming feature!”

“No-prize” envelope from Marvel Entertainment Group, 1996. Box 127, Stan Lee papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Lee developed what is now known as the Marvel method of comic book writing. After brainstorming with an artist, he composed a few paragraphs describing the storyline. Using Lee’s storyline, the artists created drawings to tell the story visually. Finally, Lee added in the text for the speech and thought bubbles to complete the comic. Thought bubbles were integral to his work, as they helped readers understand the inner life of his many characters.

Stan Lee became Marvel Comic’s “master-mind writer and editor.” He partnered with artists in the creation of now legendary characters such as Black Panther, Thor, Doctor Strange, Silver Surfer, the X-Men and more. Lee injected humor into his comic books and was eager to have a connection with his fans. He added a credits section to Marvel comic books, where he wrote things like, “Written with passion by Stan Lee! Drawn with enthusiasm by Jack Kirby!” And he created a “Stan’s Soapbox” column, where he addressed fans directly and signed off with his trademark slogan “Excelsior!” In an interview Stan, whose marriage to Joan had further solidified his love of all things English, explained that excelsior was an old English word meaning upward and onward to greater glory. It was fitting. Stan’s star was rising. He became a regularly featured speaker on college campuses.

Program cover for Stan Lee’s lecture at the University of Texas, October 29, 2003. Box 105, Stan Lee papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

He was interviewed by dozens of magazines and newspapers and became a regular at comics conventions. By 1972, he was named publisher at Marvel and was the company’s very public face.

Lee delighted in discussing his creative process and answering fan questions. When asked why he gave so many of his characters’ alter-egos alliterative names (just a few examples include Bruce Banner, Peter Parker, Reed Richards, and Susan Storm), Lee explained that he had “the world’s worst memory” and that the alliterative names aided his recall when he had so many characters to keep track of. Fans were eager to know how Lee came up with the idea for the Hulk. Lee revealed that he had been inspired by both the movie Frankenstein and the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Originally the Hulk was to have had grey skin. But grey printed inconsistently in comic book form – sometimes it appeared as black, other times as light blue. Lee wanted to make the Hulk distinctive and realized that no other comic book character had green skin. So, working with artist Jack Kirby, the green-skinned Hulk was born.

Cover of The Incredible Hulk DVD. Box 127, Stan Lee papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In 1980, as Marvel Comics characters made their way into movies and television, Stan and Joan relocated from New York to West Hollywood, California. Stan had given up on writing the great American novel and was instead a tycoon of the comic book industry. Ironically, in the end, it was Joan who became the novelist, writing The Pleasure Palace, a modern romance, in 1987. Stan eventually left Marvel and formed Stan Lee Media and then POW! (Purveyors of Wonder) Entertainment. He evolved with the times, launching StanLee.net in 1999, a one-stop on-line community hub for comic book fans. And he finally returned to his love of acting, making cameo appearances in more than 40 films featuring Marvel characters.

In 2008 his work took a non-partisan political turn. He wrote the satirical Election Daze, which Lee billed as “a light-hearted look at our lovable laughable leaders.” He captioned photos of politicians of the day for a 96-page book. With thought and dialog bubbles, he poked fun at everyone from George W. Bush to Hilary Clinton. Stan got a kick out of putting words into politicians’ mouths. He said it was the easiest book he had ever written.

Cover of Stan Lee’s Election Daze, 2008. Box 127, Stan Lee papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In 2011 Lee was awarded a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. His life’s work has been lauded by fans around the world. He has been granted honorary degrees, given the keys to cities, and received letters from presidents. He even coined expressions that have entered the popular vernacular like Spider-Man’s famous line, “with great power must also come great responsibility.” After a long, full life, Stan Lee passed away on November 12, 2018, less than two years after the death of his beloved wife Joan.

Comprised of nearly 200 boxes, Stan Lee’s papers give insights into the personality of the man behind many of Marvel’s best loved comic book heroes and villains. Celebrate the 100th anniversary of Stan Lee’s birth and learn more about the life of the writer who “humanized” superheroes by reading the Stan Lee papers at the American Heritage Center.

Lee’s papers are also featured on the Wyoming History Day (WHD) website under “Theme and Topics.” WHD, administered by the AHC, occurs every year in April or May. It is part of National History Day, which is a year-long education program that engages students in grades 6-12 in the process of discovery and interpretation of historical topics. The national contest occurs in June.

In 2020, the AHC received funding from the IMLS CARES Act Grants for Museums and Libraries for a two-year project to digitize the Center’s primary sources related to each year’s History Day theme. Since that time, the AHC has provided resources from 61 collections on 16 topics with more on the way. And the website’s uses go beyond History Day. You may see valuable information on a topic you’re researching. Check it out!

Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.


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1 Response to Excelsior! – Honoring a Lifetime of Stan Lee’s Work

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