Stan Lee is dead. I always knew those four words would become a reality someday, but it’s still heartbreaking to accept. This week, fans across all circles of pop culture mourn in grievance of a comic book icon equally as famous as his characters. Most writers are lucky to create one memorable hero; Lee made dozens, including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and the X-Men.

Stan Lee

These characters were “people first and superheroes second,” imbued with personal flaws and grievances that made their personal lives just as compelling as the super battles. They also existed in a shared universe built on long-term continuity and realistic fantasy. It was the kind of marketing that rewarded continuous comic purchasing and attachment to the characters. These stories would gradually evolve with the times, building a world that reflected our own rather than a fantasy setting of one-dimensional morality.

Lee introduced themes of political activism into his stories and Soapboxes when mainstream newspapers struggled to condemn bigotry. His mustache and voice were felt not just in Marvel movie cameos, but cartoons and video games as well. To many generations of readers, his superheroes are the equivalent of mythological gods and Camelot-era knights, quite literally in Thor’s case. And it all began with a little team called the Fantastic Four.

Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes

Stan Lee almost quit the industry before his big break in 1961. The 39-year old writer was unhappy working at Marvel Comics (originally Timely and later Atlas Comics), and he especially hated how the characters were written. No depth, no flaws — everyone was practically a virtuous pillar of heroism. DC had its expansive Silver Age cast, but Marvel was struggling to even make Captain America relevant again.

FANTASTIC FOUR #1, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Then Marvel owner Martin Goodman came to Lee with a request. Sales for JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA were quite impressive, and Goodman thought the market could use a rival super team. Lee, tasked with writing the comic, received some words of encouragement from his wife Joan: “why don’t you write one book the way you’d like to do it.” So Lee created a unique team of heroes unlike anything other.

The Fantastic Four were, to put it lightly, a dysfunctional family with superpowers. They never concealed identities from the public and bickered with each other both at home and on missions. Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic) and Susan Storm (the Invisible Woman) had relationship problems, usually due to Reed’s scientific aloofness. Johnny Storm (the Human Torch), the team’s youngest member, was an arrogant hothead prone to making rash mistakes. He was nothing like the Robins of that era.

But Ben Grimm (aka the Thing) was the most unique character. Transformed into a rock-like being with super strength, Grimm’s new monstrous appearance alienated him from society. He was cynical and self-loathing, viewing himself as a “freak” despite having a heart of gold. Even though the Hulk would adopt that archetype a year later, the Thing was the first instance of superpowers negatively affecting a hero’s personal life.

A New Age of Heroes

When the first issue of THE FANTASTIC FOUR debuted, it was truly one of a kind. The plot is pure Silver Age weirdness: the Four thwart a blind subterranean villain dubbed “the Mole Man” from destroying Earth’s atomic plants as part of a world domination scheme. But the pathos Stan Lee infused into his characters was surprisingly complex, particularly with the Thing. Fans ate it up and demanded Lee and Jack Kirby give them more.

Doctor Doom, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

That “more” would soon include a number of now-iconic characters from the Marvel universe. The shape-shifting Skrulls would become primary antagonists in storylines like “KREE/SKRULL WAR” and “SECRET INVASION.” Namor the Sub-Mariner, one of Marvel’s earliest Golden-Age characters, returned as an anti-hero bent on destroying the surface world for their polluting ways. The Silver Surfer, herald of the planet-devouring Galactus, was a powerful, yet tragic Christ-like figure whose encounters with Earth gradually restored his humanity.

And of course, there was Doctor Doom. A far cry from the mustache-twirling antics of the Red Skull, the monarch of Latveria had a certain elegance to his villainy. Equal parts mad scientist, medieval lord, and mystic genius, Doom’s personality was just as prideful as it is was megalomaniacal. Yet where most villains boast about ruling the world, Doom actually made you believe he could pull such a feat off. It’s this supreme competence, combined with his twisted moral code, that would make Doom one of the all-time great comic book villains. He’s literally the only villain who, as Stan Lee put it, could evade punishment from attempted global domination on the basis of diplomatic immunity.

Remembering the “First Family”

The Fantastic Four, Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment

Looking back on Stan Lee’s early comics, the bond he formed with readers is a remarkable feat. For over fifty years these characters remained relevant in the pop culture landscape thanks to their identifiable personalities. No one has Marvel superpowers, but anyone could relate to Spider-Man because we’ve all been Peter Parker at some point.

It’s a shame that the Fantastic Four, Lee’s breakout hit, struggle to retain this relevancy. I’d argue that the movies are partially to blame. As one of the earliest licensed titles Marvel sold to Hollywood, none of FANTASTIC FOUR’s three remakes have seen critical success. Only the 2005 film, starring a pre-MCU Chris Evans, came the closest to a “passable” origin story and even its narrative was lackluster. Without any control over the character’s property rights, Marvel simply distanced the Fantastic Four from their universe.

At least until recently. With the loss of Lee and Steve Ditko earlier this year, it’s fitting that 2018 saw the release of a FANTASTIC FOUR reboot comic. While currently three issues long, this comic reintroduces all the features expected from the Marvel franchise. Absurd scientific concepts, incredible intergalactic worlds, sci-fi exploration, and, of course, family drama. A slow building drama where, after years of being apart and presumed dead, the Four finally reunite with each other and members of the Marvel universe to save the world. And to that I say: it’s about damn clobberin time.

Young Stan Lee

Thank you, Fantastic Four

Without this First Family, there would be no Spider-Man. No Incredible Hulk. No Black Panther, no Iron Man, no Ant-Man. Stan Lee took a gamble with themes and concepts that he believed audiences would want to see in superheroes to create these characters. In the end, it paid off beyond his wildest dreams. Thanks to the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee’s complex legacy as a writer, creator and real-life superhero will live on forever.

Excelsior indeed.

One Comment

  1. Sue Greenebaum Wasserman

    Sue Greenebaum Wasserman

    November 17, 2018 at 5:16 pm

    Beautiful tribute!


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