Yesterday marked the passing of a giant of creativity. Stan Lee, one of the architects of not just the Marvel universe, but of the modern super hero, died at the ripe age of 95. It was devastating despite its concrete anticipation – the Man had been having health issues over the years, and combined with the ravages of old age saw him open to being swindled and exploited. Yet in spite of all that, he was still Smilin’ Stan Lee, purveyor of articulate soapbox opinions and lover of a good story.
Yet, to me, Stan Lee wasn’t just the gleaming symbol atop a shining empire of entertainment. To me, Stan Lee was the model of failure.
Stanley Lieber had high aspirations growing up in a family whose patriarch had trouble supporting them financially. A lover of film, he would dream of being an actor, a director, or a writer, and even let his mind wander to the possibilities of becoming a lawyer or ad man. But with a family in need of money, Stan schlepped away at monotonous jobs in his youth: He delivered sandwiches. He sorted papers as an office boy. He did odd jobs that required more strength than thought. He was a grinder, making ends meet to keep his family fed.
Yet that didn’t mean he neglected his studies. Stan attended DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx until 1939, and in his spare time worked more of those small jobs like, writing obituaries for a news service and press releases for the National Tuberculosis Center. He even went on to join the Federal Theatre Project, a federally funded arts program that U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had originally created during the Great Depression.
A Job is a Job
After several years of fruitless toils, Stan applied for a job at a comic book company. This was an opportunity that made itself known due to familial connections: Timely Comics need an intern, which was owned by one of his cousin’s husbands – a man named Robbie Solomon. Comic books, at that point in history, weren’t the artistic pieces of literature we know and love today. In fact, they were frowned upon as mostly fluff for kids and addle-minded adults. But a job was a job, and Stan needed cash.
It wasn’t much, but it was a job that could utilize his skillset. In the offices Stan was mostly limited to gopher work – he’d fetch coffee for the creative, refill the ink pots of the artists, and in general do the work nobody had time for. He toiled away as an assistant, sacrificing his dreams for the sake of making money, but over time his love of creating was fostered here, and his dogged persistence paid off.
Stan’s first real opportunity in comics began with some fill-in work: he provided lettering for an issue of the Captain America comic, “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge.” He managed a few other backup stories with Timely, and even some single issues. Yet, with his career trajectory rising, Stan still felt a need to serve his country. At 19 years old he joined the United States military.
In the military Stan was assigned to the Signal Corps and trained to install phone lines. However, the army eventually became aware of his background in publishing, was given the job title “playwright.” The Drive has a fascinating article on Lee’s time in the army, especially with how crucial they viewed his talents. In fact, the army only listed nine total soldiers with the same job description.
Bored and Old
When the war was over he returned to Timely, now called Atlas Comics. He plugged away, writing more and more stories that didn’t fulfill his creative spirit. It was a gig that paid too well to quit, but it did nothing to nourish that ache inside of him to do more. In fact, he was embarrassed by a lot of his work in comics, and instead of using his birth name of Stanley Lieber he resorted to using the pen name “Stan Lee.” He had grand plans of becoming a novelist, and didn’t want the stink of comics on his name.
But time kept passing, and Stan became more and more disillusioned with his career. He would feel so despondent that he would complain to his wife Joanie, articulating the cage he felt he was in: he was bored and felt too old to write comics. He wanted to quit and take a stab at writing books. Stan Lee was 39, and ready to pack it in.
Stan Lee didn't create the Fantastic Four until he was 39. Everything we know about Stan Lee, his entire world-changing body of work, occurred in the second half of his long life.— Brett White (@brettwhite) November 12, 2018
I’m sure you know the rest of the story: his incredible, patient, and supportive spouse encouraged him to do something to nurture his imagination. He, along with Jack Kirby, put out the Fantastic Four in 1961, and began to alter the world’s perception of sequential art. He helped to create characters and stories that would grasp the imagination of millions. He is a bastion of enthusiasm for pop art for this day and many years hereafter.
But, Stan failed repeatedly. He had to utilize many different routes that many folks would claim as failure, would make someone seem like they can’t hold a job, or that they’re stuck in a dead-end.
He worked in the food service industry.
He did temp work.
He got a job through family.
He was an assistant.
He had to stop a job right when it was finally paying off.
He was stuck in a job that left him hollow.
All those took place over roughly 20 years.
I am 37 years old. I’ve had brief stints in print journalism, radio, admissions, customer service, and many more. We didn’t start the Court of Nerds until I was in my early 30’s. There are times when I felt depression settle on my shoulders like a heavy cloak, and times when I had to wait until my children were asleep so I could cry. And yet, it’s the thought of Stan Lee that often helps me keep going.
I remember how many career changes he had. How he would be embarrassed of the work he was doing. How he felt unfulfilled, and how he felt like there had to be more to his life. I think of what he must have gone through, and I feel empathy. I feel a connection to him.
Stan Lee was indeed a titan in our world of Nerdary. He casts a longer shadow than most, and his fingerprints are all over some of the biggest movies and books of all time. But this isn’t the Stan Lee that means the most to me. I prefer a Stan Lee who, while pushing fucking forty years old, looked at the support his wife and kids and friends gave him, and he said, “Let’s try something different.”
Stan was a failure for a long, long time. But my god, what a wonderful, caring, inspirational failure.
Rest in Peace, Stanley. And thank you.