R.I.P. Stan Lee

By Zack Quaintance — Stan Lee died today at the age of 95, having helped create and—perhaps more importantly—entrench in the culture nearly a dozen comic book superheroes among the most famous fictional characters on the planet today.

Stan Lee was also Marvel’s face and editor-in-chief during the company’s rise to prominence throughout the 1960s and on. He created heroes, built a universe, and found a way to market it all to the world. Here’s a list of the properties he had a hand in shaping, all of whom have now appeared in massive big budget Hollywood movies:

  • Spider-Man (w/Steve Ditko)

  • The X-Men (w/Jack Kirby)

  • The Fantastic Four (w/Jack Kirby)

  • Iron Man (w/Larry Lieber, Don Heck, and Jack Kirby)

  • Black Panther (w/Jack Kirby)

  • Thor (w/Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby)

  • Doctor Strange (w/Steve Ditko)

  • The Hulk (w/Jack Kirby)

  • Daredevil (w/Bill Everett)

  • Ant-Man (w/Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby)

I never met Stan Lee, nor do I have anything all that pressing to add to today’s conversations about his legacy or passing. I do, however, have my own experiences with the man as an icon as well as with his work, and in the interest of shared grief and mourning, I’d like to share those with all of you now.

My own first experience with Stan Lee as a personality was likely in the page’s of a Marvel comic book I bought (or had bought for me by my mom) in the mid-90s, a random issue of Uncanny X-Men or Amazing Spider-Man, in which his old Stan’s Soapbox column still ran. It had a little cartoon version of Stan at the top, smiling with his dark glasses and big mustache at the reader as his alliterative enthusiastic text took hold below. It started with Hi, Heroes! Or, Hi, True Believers! Always. And it ended, of course, with Excelsior! I read every word, at least twice. That was just how I consumed comics in those early days, keeping them stacked in a shoebox beside my bed. Stan Lee, I soon noticed, was the same name that presented these stories at the start of the issues, the same name listed as the characters’ co-creator.

I intrinsically knew he must be important, the boss of this whole shebang. I knew it in the way that you can only ascertain certain knowledge as a youth, some mix of naive assumption and osmosis special to kids. And while I didn’t quite realize this at the time, there was something in Stan’s attitude and writing (even if he wasn’t always doing the column himself by then) that made me feel included, part of a special secret, that made me feel less alone. And more than creativity or marketing or vision, I think that was Stan’s real gift, the ability to unite disparate folks under a banner of shared enthusiasm and positivity.

Indeed, the characters Stan helped create, mold, and spread were often bearers of important and formative ethos—with great power, comes great responsibility, or discriminating against those different than you is a path toward compounding hate—foundational lessons for us all, to be sure. It was, however, Stan’s relentless enthusiasm that would shape my character more directly, lingering with me as I developed my own approach to consuming and creating media as I aged. Even today as I interact with friends and strangers online, discussing movies, books, comics, or life, I often ask myself how Stan might respond, and that little exercise does wonders to inform my tone.

Now, I realize I’m framing this all a bit solipsistically, and that many others—indeed, much of 1960s culture—feel the same way, perhaps with more direct and concrete examples of how Stan Lee and his creations informed their lives. I know too that his legacy is likely to be a complex one, controversial. I’m not here to discuss that, not even a little bit, certainly not today. Today I only want to talk about how this loss feels, independent of the contrarian or analytical.    

Stan Lee is gone now and it hurts. There’s an old writing adage that says the invisible last line of any and all stories is and nothing was ever the same again...in my career I’ve done journalism and I’ve written short fiction, going back now about a decade, and I’m starting to write comic books too (hopefully with greater frequency soon). I always think about that invisible last line as I head toward endings. Because of Stan, though, I often tack on an addendum...and nothing was ever the same again. Excelsior!

R.I.P., Mr. Lee, and thank you for all that you created, all that you built, all that you’ve left to make us better.

Here are some other things I find inspirational about Stan Lee:

  • Stan’s major success came relatively late in life, with Fantastic Four #1 publishing when he was roughly 39.

  • Stan had serious literary ambitions, but he still put his all into comics, for the most part, using the medium as an outlet for real art.

  • Stan was as interested in public speaking as he was in writing, seeing the intrinsic connection between the two.

  • His positivity, his positivity, his positivity.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase. He also writes comics and is currently working hard to complete one.

Fantastic Four #1 (1961) and the Birth of the Marvel Universe

Fantastic Four #1 (1961) is universally recognized as a landmark comic and, in many ways, the start of the Marvel Universe.

By Theron Couch — The Fantastic Four returned to comics this week for the first time in years, following the 2015 event Secret Wars, which essentially ended with Reed and Sue Richards, as well as their children, wandering off the rebuild the multiverse. Without an ongoing title staring Marvel’s First Family, comics just haven’t felt the same. One could even argue there would be no Marvel Universe without The Fantastic Four, the first of many memorable characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  

With all that in mind, it’s worth checking out the original Fantastic Four #1 from 1961, taking a closer look at how Lee and Kirby did it the first time.

Fantastic Four #1 (1961): The Story

Fantastic Four #1 opens with a call to action: Mr. Fantastic has sent the signal for the Fantastic Four to assemble. Sue, Ben, and Johnny each abandon what they’re doing and race back to headquarters. As the team arrives, the story flashes back to their origin, wherein an ambitious Reed Richards wants to initiate a mission to space. To do so, the foursome sneak aboard a rocket and launch. This trip has unintended consequences, with cosmic rays granting different powers to each of them. Realizing that they are more effective as a team than they are apart, they return to Earth and become The Fantastic Four, using their powers in tandem to benefit mankind.

Once the flashback has ended, the team is off to Monster Isle, where they believe someone is causing cave-ins across the world. This someone is revealed to be the Mole Man, who intends to launch his monsters all over the planet. Fortunately, The Fantastic Four are able to seal the Mole Man away forever, ending his threat.

Fantastic Four #1 (1961): The Art

Kirby’s art in Fantastic Four #1 deserves much praise, which is unsurprising given that this is The King, Jack Kirby. His work here delivers a dynamic opening sequence that showcases the powers of all four main characters. He packs a great deal of visual information on every page with layouts that often exceed six panels. What always strikes me about Kirby’s art—and which is on display in full here—is his ability to convey characters’ emotions through facial expressions. Doing so continues to elude many comic artists even today, and Kirby—whether it is images of the main characters or random soldiers never to be seen again—knocks this trick business out of the park in every panel.

Fantastic Four #1 (1961): The Writing

Writing wise, Fantastic Four #1 is every bit a story from a bygone era. Lee pens an origin for a four-person team as well as an adventure that begins and concludes in the space of one issue, rather than standing as the first part of an arc designed to fill a trade paperback. Fantastic Four #1 has much in common with other Marvel comics of its time, wherein Stan Lee created memorable characters starring in plots that are almost afterthoughts. Indeed, the final battle with the Mole Man is handled in one page and conveyed almost entirely through narration, rather than stunning visuals or complex dialogue. This is a comic book that definitely tells rather than shows. Despite these quaint characteristics, however, Lee displays surprising sophistication in how he tells the story.

The pages in Fantastic Four (1961) all feature more than 9 panels, a stark contrast to today's often less-dense superhero comics.

Fantastic Four #1 begins, as I noted at the start, in media res with Mr. Fantastic sending out a call for the whole Fantastic Four to assemble. Brief vignettes show each character making their way to headquarters; en route they are put in positions to showcase their powers for the reader. Once the team has assembled, but before the crisis is revealed, the story flashes back to the team’s origin, which cements the relationships between characters and reveals their motives while simultaneously building suspense for whatever threat forced the team to be called together. Following the origin story, the team goes on its mission to Monster Isle only to be split up, which allows for the story to be intercut, preserving the suspense for as long as possible before revealing the Mole Man’s origin and, finally, taking readers through the final battle.

Overall, Fantastic Four #1 is undoubtedly a product of its time. It’s almost hard to take seriously a comic book that features Ben Grimm wearing a rain slicker to a place called Monster Isle, subsequently taking the rain slicker off before fighting a monster, and then putting it back on until he comes upon the next monster. Yet, the way its plot unfolds is also without question an influence on later comics that routinely use time—including flashbacks and intercuts—to tell stories, a technique that was novel back when this issue was first published. The five pages devoted to the team’s origin could almost have been left out, given the action-packed opening Lee and Kirby delivered. In spite of all that, this is just a well-designed comic book, easily one of the best I’ve read from the period, and one that I’d put up against many modern origin issues.

Theron Couch is a writer, blogger, and comic book reviewer. His first novel, The Loyalty of Pawns, is available on Amazon. You can also follow him on Twitter at @theroncouch.

FLASHBACK: Amazing Spider-Man #1

At the time of the character's creation, there was little expectation that Spider-Man would be more than a fad.

By Theron Couch — Would you believe Stan Lee once wrote two stories for a first issue and couldn’t even keep his main character’s name straight? Such was 1963’s Amazing Spider-Man #1, which was published in a different era of comics. Back then, comics didn't tell the same sort of long-term stories that developed over years. The established pattern was fads. Readers would buy horror for a while, then westerns, then war, and so on. These fads came and went so often that few expected Spider-Man to last. Yet, here we are. Decades later and Spider-Man is Marvel's flagship character, a true icon despite his humble—almost rudimentary—beginnings.

This Wednesday, a new writer will takeover Amazing Spider-Man for the first time in roughly a decade, as the creative team of Nick Spencer and Ryan Ottley debuts on the title. In preparation, I'd like to look today at that same comic's very first issue. Amazing Spider-Man #1 tells two stories that effectively pick up at the end of the character’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15. Uncle Ben is dead, and Peter feels a need to provide for Aunt May. Unfortunately, J. Jonah Jameson has, via newspaper editorials and public addresses, turned the public against Spider-Man. No one will pay him for performances. Amidst this, Jameson’s astronaut son is going into space in a new capsule. The guidance system falls off, and only Spider-Man can get on the capsule to reattach it as it plummets toward Earth. Peter is certain this act of bravery will show the public he is no menace, but Jameson twists events to blame the accident on Spider-Man.

The second story begins with Spider-Man breaking into Fantastic Four headquarters, hoping to show-off his abilities and get a paid position. Unfortunately, the FF don’t have paid positions, so Spider-Man leaves, which makes him vulnerable to a frame job by the Chameleon, who has stolen secret plans for the reds. Spider-Man, initially the patsy, saves the day, but this confusion further fuels public belief that he’s a menace. The issue ends with our hero wishing he’d never gotten powers.

Spider-Man as drawn by co-creator Steve Ditko was less muscle-bound than the version we often see today.

Today, Amazing Spider-Man #1 stands as a fascinating look at an iconic character’s past. Steve Ditko’s art established lasting looks for many characters, including Jameson’s trademark mustache and Spider-Man’s distinctive costume, but Ditko also portrayed Peter Park and Spider-Man in a very different way than most contemporary artists. For starters, this character is truly built like a teenager; Peter is lean rather than musclebound, and that shows even when he’s in costume. Peter is also frequently angry in both stories, as conveyed by his facial expressions. Anger is a rare look for Peter. As for the action, the big difference is that web swinging isn’t a thing yet, and Spider-Man walks across his webs like a tightrope.

More memorable than Ditko’s contribution to the different feel, though, is Stan Lee’s. In the first story of the issue, the character is Peter Parker; in the second story his name is Peter Palmer. His characterization is also inconsistent. Sometimes he’s sympathetic—when he worries about supporting Aunt May—and other times he’s confrontational, insulting, and antagonistic, especially during Spider-Man’s encounter with the Fantastic Four. Throughout the story, Peter consistently looks to use his powers as a means to an end, rather than a purpose in and of itself. This issue doesn’t even have a hint of the weight of responsibility at the heart of Spider-Man stories today. In some ways, Lee’s Peter Parker is unrecognizable to modern readers.

That the character could be so different is hardly surprising, though. Lee and Ditko were producing Marvel’s next big thing at a time when comics rarely lasted for years, let alone decades. Lee and Ditko were simply trying to captivate their audience for as long as possible. It didn’t matter that Lee couldn’t keep his protagonists’ name straight, so long as he entertained readers. It also didn’t matter that Peter was sullen or antagonistic or confrontational—this new Spider-Man character was exciting, and, besides, who knew what he would do next?

Today, Spider-Man comics are produced with the assumption that they’ll always be produced. Therefore care is taken to keep the product high in quality and the themes—especially the responsibility theme—consistent. It’s fun and refreshing to go back to a time before Spider-Man was SPIDER-MAN. Responsibility is still Peter’s motivation; beyond that, though, he’s almost another person. Then again, he was named Peter Palmer in the beginning, so perhaps he actually was another person.

Theron Couch is a writer, blogger, and comic book reviewer. His first novel, The Loyalty of Pawns, is available on Amazon. You can also follow him on Twitter at @theroncouch.

Top 5 Avengers Eras: A Look at Avengers Teams of the Past

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By Alex Wedderien The Avengers may be a massive name in comics and entertainment now, but that wasn’t always the case. Created in the early ‘60s as a way to fill a slot left by a late issue of Daredevil, The Avengers are a product of Stan Lee smashing together some of Marvel’s most popular heroes to form the company’s first super team. From those humble beginnings, the team grew from plucky upstarts to comic book icons.  

Now the basis for a multi-billion dollar movie franchise and a major part of Marvel’s most-recent publishing initiative under comic scribe Jason Aaron, The Avengers look to be in good hands for years to come.

In looking ahead, though, it’s important to also remember comics are a unique medium, and along with their headstrong march into the future, they always keep an eye on the past. With that bright future for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in mind, I'm taking a look today at The Avengers of the past, specifically at the best lineups of years gone by. These are the five bestin my humble opinion of course.

5. The Late '80s Avengers

By the late 80s, The Avengers team was in flux. Taking over for a beloved run which featured what many people feel is the definitive Avengers lineup, Roger Stern and John Buscema decided to mix in some lesser-known heroes to give their book a new dynamic.

Boasting a lineup that featured Monica Rambeau, Black Knight, Dr. Druid, and Namor among the likes of veteran Avengers Captain America and Thor, the run also includes classic storylines like Avengers Under Siege, which sees a Helmut Zemo-led Masters of Evil destroy Avengers Mansion.

4. The West Coast Avengers

If Avengers is the cooler older brother, West Coast Avengers was definitely the scrappier younger brother. Born in the early ‘80s, West Coast Avengers became the first ever spinoff of The Avengers, as well as an answer to the question, Why are all superheroes in New York City?

Based in Los Angeles and featuring a unique roster, the West Coast team was lead by Hawkeye and comprised of Wonder Man, Tigra, Mockingbird, Jim Rhodes’ Iron Man, and eventually even Moon Knight. West Coast Avengers served as a breath of fresh air alongside an Avengers lineup that had remained pretty consistent for the past decade, but by no means were they an inferior version of the main team.

Throughout their 10-year run, the West Coast team battled important Avengers foes like Ultron before it was eventually folded back into the main lineup.  

3. The Late '60s/Early '70s Avengers

Being the follow-up to a beloved debut run can be daunting, but when the duo you’re following is Jack Kirby and Stan Lee it might as well be an impossible task. That’s just what Roy Thomas, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Sal and John Buscema walked into with their late ‘60s/early ‘70s run on Avengers.

When it was all said and done, however, they would create one of the best Avengers eras of all-time, their greatest villain in Ultron, iconic stories like The Kree/Skrull War and the debut of one of the team's most beloved heroes, the android Vision.

Along the way Thomas and crew would add a returning Scarlet Witch and Hawkeye, as well as the debuts of Hercules, Vision, and Black Panther to the team, leading the small core of heroes to some of their most classic storylines.

2. Captain America Returns

It was clear in the first three issues of The Avengers that Earth’s Mightiest Heroes would need a leader to rally its members. More of a ragtag group than an inspirational team of heroes, the original Avengers were a loose alliance who seemed like they could turn on each other at a moment's notice.   

That all changed with the discovery of the long frozen Captain America, who would shape not only the history of The Avengers, but superhero comics themselves. Almost immediately the team became a unified force under Cap’s tutelage and would go on to become the juggernaut it is today. Simply put, it all started here.

1. New Avengers Vol. 1

New Avengers came directly after the disbandment of the original team in Avengers: Disassembled, and it explored the idea of having a group of characters who had largely never been Avengers previously. Fan Favorites like Spider-Man, Wolverine, Daredevil, Iron First, and Ms. Marvel bolstered the popular lineup that quickly became known for its strong characters and frenetic action.   

Bringing the team back to the forefront in a big way after The Avengers had slipped out of mainstream comics consciousness, New Avengers was the start of The Avengers renaissance that continues to this day.

Alex Wedderien is a writer and pop culture journalist. Find him on Twitter @criticismandwit.