Excelsior! The Authorship of Stan ‘The Man’ Lee

Excelsior! The Authorship of Stan ‘The Man’ Lee

A Story by spence

An essay arguing the case for the authorship status of Stan Lee.


Excelsior! The Authorship of Stan ‘The Man’ Lee


In the somewhat surreal and impossible worlds of superhero fiction, protagonists, antagonists and supporting casts of characters are generally collaborative creative developments of successive artists and writers. In turn, all that is contained within most mainstream titles is almost exclusively publisher owned and trade marked property to which new individuals and collaborations, as company employees, are periodically assigned.


This interchangeably creative input, subsequent cumulative narrative, plot and character development inevitably trumping creator ownership; together with the added stigma traditionally attached to comic books as low-art or paraliterature, ‘badly drawn, badly written and badly printed,’ Sterling North [1940] as quoted by Levitz, [2009, p.274], and their purported negative influence on readers, ‘1954… Fredric Wertham’s… ‘Seduction of the Innocent’ claimed… morally suspect… contributing to juvenile delinquency… subsequent public outcry… congressional hearings’ [Wolk, 2007] gives us not only a brief historical overview of, and struggles within, an industry, but of the possible causal factors prompting academics to raise objections to denoting individual authorship within the medium.


Is it at all possible then to ascribe authorship to any particular individual working in the field of sequential art, past or present?


 While ‘there is currently no comics canon, or definitive collection of auteurs’ [Duncan/Smith 2009] the purpose of this essay is to attribute facets of authorship/auteur theory to the contributions Stan ‘The Man’ Lee has made to the narrative paradigms and cultural significance of American comic books and the influence he has had on the sequential art industry as a whole.


Born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28th 1922, of Romanian-Jew parentage, in New York, the story of Stan Lee is an enduring ‘rags to riches’ tale. What begins as a fledgling career, ‘the best known figure in… comics… was in his mid-teens when he began sharpening pencils and getting donuts as an assistant editor’ [Levitz, 2009] metamorphosis’s into the creative force behind the Marvel Universe and some of the most successful superhero franchises around today.


The case for Lee’s claim to authorship begins in earnest in 1961 and is ironically due to the success of arch-rival, DC Comics.


Throughout the steep post war decline in popularity that followed the superhero Golden Age, (‘when the war was over the enemy was beaten; we didn’t need superheroes any more’, John Steranko [2005] C.B.S.U), and the moral crusading of Wertham culminating in self-censorship to appease populist ‘anti-comic’ rhetoric, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and updated versions of Flash and Green Lantern saw DC retain the majority of the genre’s readership.


Meanwhile Marvel struggled on, reintroducing wartime heroes in new cold war ‘commie bashing’ roles as an attempt to reinvigorate the patriotic tropes and iconography that popularised superheroes the decade before. When DC editor Julian Swartz cemented the company’s return to the business of superhero worship with the introduction of The Justice League of America the response of Marvel Comics counterpart Martin Goodman handed our hero the task of creating a super-team of their own.


It was a challenge the writer met with gusto.


With the encouragement of his wife, Joan: ‘why don’t you just once do a book how you would like to do it instead of the way they want you to do it?’ as quoted by Stan Lee (C.B.S.U, 2005) he abandoned both historical idealised characterisation and contemporary ludic prose in favour of a more naturalistic approach when he and collaborator Jack Kirby created the nuanced and conflicting personas of The Fantastic Four.


Although superhero storylines traditionally dealt with contemporaneous social, political and economic issues, the Great Depression and World War Two especially, the characters were one dimensional, infallible ideal’s driven by narratives akin to Herculean labours in their myopic transposition of reality into ink on the page.


All this was about to change; to iconoclastic effect.


Soon more fantastical sci-fi, space race, existentially shaped characters such as Spider-man, The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man were born. Together with powerhouse pantheons such as The Avengers and X-Men they became the mainstay of an emerging Marvel Universe ‘that DC and practically every other comic book publisher would eventually imitate’ [Ryall, Tipton 2009]. Revitalised Golden Age heroes like Captain America, antiquated legends such as The Mighty Thor and his Nordic folklore associates were also incorporated into the time, space and dimension spanning genre, many growing in popularity and celebrity until they became the established names they are today.


DC’s boom levelled out in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s as the increasingly intricate Marvel Universe gained cultural significance and commercial momentum enough to overtake the clean-cut dimensions of their rivals.


‘… it was the voices of the characters that made Marvel heroes more alive than DC’s- the humour and angst of Spider-man, the depression of Ben Grimm, the cool confidence of Captain America, the tortured soul of the Silver Surfer…’ [Ryall/Tipton, 2009]


By incorporating aspects of human nature into a backdrop of current affairs, often through intentionally allegorical and metaphorical avant-garde narrative, plot and story, thereby setting new precedents, Lee not only encouraged readers to more readily identify with the characters, but to consider the wider socio-political connotations inherent in these personal investments, while simultaneously, and perhaps unintentionally, providing a platform for greater stretches of literary and artistic imagination.


As well as writing the bulk of the stories for publication, Lee maintained a dialogue with his readership by means of overseeing the letters page. In this way he familiarised himself to the consumers of comic book fiction in a reciprocal manner hitherto unknown in the world of literature; even initiating a siege mentality from his ‘Soap Box’ column that purposefully closed ranks against the common enemy of DC, ‘The Distinguished Competition’ . Each Soap Box column concluded with the exclamation ‘Excelsior!’


This ‘catchphrase’ became a memorable meme- a battle cry for readers denoting exclusive membership of a force united against a tribal rival. Shamelessly promoting Marvel at conventions and setting up fan clubs also helped build the cult of Stan Lee until his name was virtually synonymous with Marvel. From imagining characters into life a half century and more ago his name can be found on the guest credits of many cinematic and television adaptations.


‘It was the development of Stan Lee as a public persona that led to his eventual positions as president, publisher and finally chairman emeritus of Marvel’ [Duncan/Smith 2009]


That the scope and longevity of Stan Lee’s work and influence is unparalleled is arguably confirmed in the following quote;


Once regarded as one of the lower forms of mass entertainment, comic books are today widely considered to be potentially capable of profound expression as both literary and visual art forms’ Nancy Dziedric and Scot Peacock, Literary Critics, [1997] as quoted by Levitz [2009, p. 1]


In many ways this ‘singular hypothesis’ represents a microcosm of a wider discourse on the literary and artistic value of comic books, while simultaneously acting as a catch-all of the main themes of an authorship/auteur debate. In this context it is equally a shout for further recognising works of visual narrative/sequential art by merit of their content and popularity as culturally significant, innovative works of literature.


By way of analogising revelatory aspects of this historical struggle for recognition consider Douglas Wolks’ summative solution in his book ‘Reading Comics’ [2007], ‘the way to get a place at the table of high culture is to pull up a chair and say something interesting’.


Stan Lee’s individual efforts, intentional and otherwise, not only laid the foundations for the evolution of the quasi-pseudo-realities superheroes subsist in, but granted writers and artists of a supposedly ‘low-art’ medium unprecedented, if limited access to the banquet at which this artisan table is set. His work foreshadowed and forged opportunities for fellows of the medium to qualify their claims to fame and high culture status.


 ‘… virtually every mainstream comic now lists it creators’ names on the cover, hoping to capitalise on star power or build it’, [Wolk 2007]






Barclay, T (2011). The Literary Worth of Comics. [online] Available at  http://www.comicbookmovie.com/news/?a=46171 [accessed 03/02/2013]


Baserap, C, J.  (2012). American History X(-Men) Issue #1�"First Genesis: The Socio-Political Origins and Parallels of Marvel’s Mutants [online] Available at http://www.nerdtopiacast.com/2013/01/03/american-history-x-men-issue-1-first-genesis-socio-political-origins-parallels-marvels-mutants/ [accessed 03/02/2013]


“C.B.S.U”: The History Channel, (2005). A&E Home Video: “Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked” [online] Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bwuIwt4pRNI [accessed 02/02/2013]


ComicBookDB.com (2005-2013). Stan Lee- The Man; Stanley Martin Leiber [online] Available at http://comicbookdb.com/creator.php?ID=98 [accessed 03/02/2013]


Duncan, R & Smith, MJ. (2009). The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture. Continuum: New York


Grant, B, K. (2008) Auteurs and Authorship: a film reader. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford


Lyubansky, M: Operation Black Vote (2010). The Radical Politics of X-Men [online] Available at http://www.obv.org.uk/node/4601 [accessed 03/02/2013]


Pustz, MJ. (1999). Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. University Press of Mississippi


Ryall, T & Tipton, S. (2009). Comic Books 101: the history, methods and madness. Impact Books: Canada


Wolk, D. (2007). Reading Comics: how graphic novels work and what they mean. Da Capo Press: USA




© 2013 spence

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Hi spence,

What an interesting write. We see so few essays on WC, I thought they didn't exist here. There's no category for an essay, for example. And what interesting facts and viewpoint that you bring to the table. Do I think comics can be high-art? Yes, of course. Comics have played a huge part in shaping our culture. The very fact that you can build an industry on this, shows that people value this, and not just kids. And now comics are making big movie dollars. These characters capture us and our imagination.

This was greatly enjoyed. Nice writing, spence. A rare 98 rating from me.

Best regards,


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Grimsby, United Kingdom

Just returning to WritersCafe after a couple of years in the wilderness of life. I'm a 40 year old (until December 2013, at least) father of two, former youth and community worker, sometime socio-pol.. more..