Guest Blog: Jeff McLaughlin on Stan Lee
Comics fans around the world mourned Stan Lee's death on November 12, 2018. Lee's extensive contributions to the world of comics have long solidified him as a pop culture legend. In honor of what would have been Stan Lee's 96th birthday, we asked Jeff McLaughlin, editor of Stan Lee: Conversations, to weigh in. Below, McLaughlin discusses Lee's creativity and his personal experiences with the icon.
Stan Lee was an incredible 95-years-old when he passed away. I was extremely sad because when someone gets that old it becomes almost as if they will be around forever. Stan was almost always around for me–first under the guise of the omnipresent “Stan Lee: Presents” and one of the driving forces behind so many Marvel comic books that I read as a teenager, then as a subject for Stan Lee: Conversations, and immediately after our first face-to-face meeting as a friend. He wasn’t so much a grandfather figure but rather the “family uncle.” You know the type, he was the fellow who always had a smile and a joke and gave you a pat on the back when you needed it. “Family uncles” are often better at their job than some real uncles.
I can’t think of a more well-known 20th century pop culture figure than Stan Lee. Heck, he was around for most of the 20th century! The only comparable person is Walt Disney, but I put Stan above him for a number of reasons. Disney has been gone a very long time (I remember watching him introduce his TV show back in the 1960s before his death in 1966), and when I say “Disney” now I think “Corporation.” When I say “Marvel,” I think “Stan Lee” even though he hasn’t really been connected to them for ages. When you say “Stan Lee,” well, I bet you start thinking about all your favorite comic book characters, his movie cameos, or perhaps his distinctive voice. I suspect you are also taken back to a specific time when you read your first Fantastic Four or Hulk or Spider-Man or Dr. Strange. Stan parented all of them (FYI, it takes more than one parent to create offspring).
Tens if not hundreds of millions of people hear the name ‘Stan Lee’ and think icon. When I say the name, hear the name, or see products he was involved with, I only think: my friend.
I wonder if you knew about all of his creativity. He was always a man on a mission: constantly working on new ideas. It was as if he couldn’t stop. Digging through his archived papers at the University of Wyoming (Why Wyoming? Because that is where Jack Benny’s private papers are held and “if it was good enough for him, it’s good enough for me!’ Stan told me once.) I came across oodles of scribbled notes and I wasn’t sure what to make of them: “Write a story about a turtle”; “Write a story about a shopping mall.” Really? A shopping mall? What could happen in a shopping mall that would be anything interesting? Oh wait, it could be anything! George Romeo had zombies in one, and Kevin Smith had Mallrats (which of course we know Stan was in!)
I’m sure many of you have heard of the ‘Marvel Method’ whereby Stan would present the artists with the outline of a story and the artists would go back to their drawing boards and build their pages. The pages would be returned and Stan would fill in the dialogue. This method has been a bone of contention for many people in terms of exactly how much input each person had on the finished product, but here’s a sample of one synopsis I came across in the archives.
It’s well known that what he did was to him just a job at the beginning. If Spidey didn’t work, he’d move on to the next character, and then on again. He’d write Westerns when Westerns were in, Horror when that was popular and so forth. It was a business, and he needed to continually make new products that would sell. He also had newspaper comic strips about cute animals like Mrs. Lyon’s Cubs. He had photo magazines, like Blushing Blurbs, with funny captions.
He wrote social commentaries about the world – both implicitly through his comic book stories but also more directly in his Soapbox and when he’d gab about the “Marvel Bullpen” (which really didn’t exist in the form we readers imagined it as).
He tried doing screenplays, sometimes using the characters that he and Kirby or Ditko had created. None of them made it to the screen but the correspondence between him and the famous directors involved does make for great reading. (You’ll find examples of these letters in The Stan Lee Universe edited by Danny Fingeroth and Roy Thomas.)
Here are the opening pages of his Silver Surfer movie that you probably haven’t seen before:
Notice the way Stan’s words appear on the page–they aren’t in the standard script format. They have the look and feel of poetry. Stan wrote poetry–not a lot perhaps but there was one that he was especially proud of. He asked me if I could do him a favor as he considered it his most important unpublished work: would I print “God Woke” in Stan Lee: Conversations? Would I? Well, Stan could have asked me any favor in the world and I would have done it of course! I saw this request not only as a favor to him, but as a huge favor to me–because it revealed to me what he thought about the book project and more importantly what he thought about me. So he gave me a DVD were he had recited it, and I listened to him over and over so that I could transcribe it. Here’s a bit of it.
But there’s another poem I found in his papers. I don’t know if or where it has been printed before but I think it’s a fine tribute not just to “Stan the Man” but Stan, the man. I hope you reflect upon what he has to say. I know I did, and do.
Jeff McLaughlin is associate professor of philosophy at Thompson Rivers University. He is editor of Graphic Novels as Philosophy, Comics as Philosophy, and Stan Lee: Conversations, all published by University Press of Mississippi.