Countdown to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Day 8: Stan Lee

Stan Lee in 2010 at San Diego Comic Con. image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Stan Lee in 2010 at San Diego Comic Con. image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

We’ve been counting down the days to the premiere of my geeky dream come true, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., on September 24 and we’re getting down to the last week. You can find previous posts by clicking on the show’s tag.

At the beginning of the month, I wrote a tribute column to the late Jack “King” Kirby, whose role in creating the Marvel Universe of superheroes is often overlooked to those outside the comic world. But it’s time to talk about Kirby’s creative partner, the man who made “Excelsior!” a catchphrase:

Stan Lee.

Fantastic Four #1 cover
Fantastic Four #1, from 1961, the book that kicked off the Marvel revolution.

As I researched the posts for this countdown, over and over again, I was struck by how very much of the underpinnings of the Marvel Universe were created by Lee and Kirby. What I expected to find was that they laid the foundation and others built on it. That’s partly true. For instance, the X-Men didn’t take off until it was reworked by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum in Giant-Size X-Men #1 in 1975, and then the definitive run by Chris Claremont and John Byrne.

But that is a rare exception and, even there, the original building block was Lee and Kirby.

The movie universe we’re seeing is hugely in debt to Lee and Kirby’s joint imagination.

The Avengers. The Fantastic Four. Spider-Man. Thor. Hulk. Iron Man. Plus, many of their signature villains, such as Loki, Doctor Doom, the Green Goblin, Magneto, and so many of the supporting characters, such as Mary Jane Watson, Jarvis (the Avengers’ butler), Alicia Masters, the Thing’s girlfriend, Pepper Potts, and Betty Ross, among many others.

And, of course, Nick Fury, the Howling Commandos, and S.H.I.E.L.D., including many of the gadgets and tech.

Lee is more known to outside fans, of course, as Marvel’s ambassador for his interviews and his cameo appearances in many films and television shows. He began employment at Timely Comics, which later became Marvel Comics, in 1939, as just an intern. Lee was editor-in-chief in 1941 at the age of just 19, due in a large part to the leave-taking of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby after a dispute over character ownership, and Lee remained employed at Marvel in one form or another until the 1980s.

But he’s most remembered for the Marvel revolution in superheroes that he helped create and guide during the 1960s. Though DC started the resurgence of superheroes in comics with a revitalized Flash to kick off the Silver Age of Comics, it was Marvel that developed a new kind of superhero. DC relied a great deal on archetypes and heroes who were symbols. Marvel heroes were regular, ordinary guys who had to learn how to be superheroes.

The Fantastic Four were mostly a team of explorers who decided to use their powers to help and, in an unusual decision, went public with them. No secret identities. Spider-Man, of course, had to learn “with great power comes great responsibility.” The Hulk was a misunderstood monster. Iron Man was a greedy, selfish weapons manufacturer who had to learn a lesson. The X-Men were mutants who were hated and feared for what they were.

It’s no coincidence that the Marvel hero with the most symbolic importance is Captain America, who was created in the Golden Age of Comics, not during this time period, though Cap’s original co-creator, Kirby (along with Simon), quickly brought him into the new world of heroes by having him thawed from an icy grave.

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So when you sit down to watch the premiere of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. next week, raise a glass to Jack Kirby, who made the pages look wondrous, and to Stan Lee, who imbued his characters with humanity. Perhaps a loud “Excelsior!” would also be appropriate.

Tomorrow, a recommended reading list that collects most of the titles in this countdown for easy reference, and then, we’ll start looking directly at the show itself by giving a spotlight to each of the intrepid secret agents.

Writer, Mom, Geek and Superhero. though usually not all four on the same day. Author of the award-winning Phoenix Institute Superhero series and the steampunk novel, The Curse of the Brimstone Contract.