We all know how much Stan Lee meant to the world. There are few figures in the twentieth century that have had as significant an impact on popular culture as had the Forever Face of Marvel Comics. While he modestly downplayed his contributions to society, Stan’s indelible mark on history has given, without question, joy and inspiration to several generations of fans and followers. And will continue to do so for generations to come.
I can’t properly enumerate all the ways in which his enthusiasm, his vision, and his words have influenced me. Without his contributions to the industry, I may never have become the avid devotee of the medium that I am today, and my lifelong Marvel fandom owes everything to his prolific output and creative genius. Stan’s larger-than-life personality is matched by a portfolio of characters that transcend comics, themselves becoming a vital part of our social fabric, and many of whom have meant a great deal to me personally.
So as a small means of tribute, here is the first in a series of reflections on some of my favorite Stan Lee co-creations, and the related comic book issues that recollect childhood excitement and have earned lasting admiration.
Amazing Spider-Man #50
It really began for me with Peter Parker. I can’t remember how old I was when I thumbed through my first Spider-Man comic — no more than five for sure — but I do have vivid memories of watching that old syndicated cartoon on a tiny tube television from the floor of my family living room. I had committed the “does whatever a spider can” theme song to memory, and convinced two kindergarten classmates to perform it with me at a school-wide talent show. The only things I remember from that performance is that my two friends didn’t sing a word (boy did they look stupid standing next me, closed-lipped) and my folks didn’t try to talk me out of wearing my Spider-Man Underoos over my corduroys (damn, I must’ve looked cool).
Spidey is also the only comic book character whose comics first came into my life courtesy of Stan Lee’s stories. As opposed to The Avengers or X-Men, who didn’t happen to me until the Dave Micheline or Chris Claremont days, I’m pretty sure my first Spider-Man comics experiences were in Marvel Tales reprints of the Lee and John Romita run. I remember one hand-me-down copy of a Kingpin story (which, as I found out years later, was a reprint of Amazing #51) that was particularly well worn and often read.
For Christmas of my eighth grade year, my dad surprised the hell out of me with two collections of the newly published Marvel Masterworks series: one of The Avengers, and the other of Amazing Spider-Man. Thirty bucks for any comic, even a beautifully remastered and curated hardcover, was completely beyond my comprehension. Especially considering how often I had to fight with my folks over how much of my allowance went into buying monthly books.
A side note, and a confession: my mom used to keep careful tabs on how much I spent at my local comic book shop, Best of Both Worlds on Haight Street. The only way to circumvent the tyrannical limit of $10/month was to have my friend Raymond order comics through the mail, from the still-in-operation Westfield Comics out of Wisconsin, and then pay him on the sly with money skimmed from other sources. Sorry, Mom.
My appreciation for Lee & Ditko’s seminal formative years deepened, but I still identified more closely to the Romita run. As the years passed, I filled in the gaps around that Marvel Tales reprint, and read Amazing Spider-Man #50 for the first time. Despite being well aware that Spidey does, indeed, pick up his costume again and continues to fight crime in now three monthly titles (Web of Spider-Man was just coming out!), I couldn’t help but feel a pang of angst when Peter tosses his duds into a dank alley trash can, and walks away thinking those thoughts that no teenager wants to admit.
…the years have a way of slipping by… of changing the world about us… and every boy… sooner or later… must put away his toys… and become… a man!
It dawned on me in high school that Stan’s florid prose was largely to blame for an overuse of ellipses in my otherwise solid writing. But I elevated that single splash page from ASM #50 in my esteem for another reason. As I dug into Frank Miller back issues and tried to make sense of Alan Moore and Los. Bros. Hernandez, I attempted to become, for the first time, a student of the medium, and not just a fan of superhero “toys.” In college, when a generous comparative literature professor entertained my request to off-road the thesis paper options with an examination of funnybooks (she made the mistake of assigning Maus, after which I bombarded her with comics-as-art propaganda), I zeroed in on the significance of taking full-page art, almost always reserved for epic scenes of bombast and fisticuffs, and instead highlighting the dramatic impact of, in essence, discarding that convention.
The meteoric rise in popularity of Marvel Comics in the 1960’s had a lot to do with the humanization of their characters. Their readership aged with the comics, and by the late-60’s a majority of the company’s fans were college-aged. We were growing up, and our toys, while maybe not set aside, were definitely changing. Despite the fact that comics creators in Europe and Japan had already been pushing the medium further into respectability for years, a younger me steadfastly supported the idea that the superhero genre should not be trivialized. To this day, I fondly trace back the roots of mature superhero stories to Stan Lee himself, too often the parodied paragon of everything juvenile in the capes n’ tights universe, and this single issue of one my favorite comic books.