In New York City, anything is possible! Anything can happen … and it usually does.
— Stan Lee, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends S1E2 (“The Crime of All Centuries”)
Stan Lee was a pest. He liked to irk people and it was one thing I couldn’t take. … He hasn’t changed a bit.
— Jack Kirby, The Comics Journal #134 (Feb. 1990)
There are no two comic creators more fascinating to me than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kirby passed away in 1994, while Lee today is most visible through his perennial cameos in films based on Marvel characters.
Although I had no idea what he looked like until years later, one of my most enduring childhood memories is Stan Lee’s voice. Lee narrated the Saturday morning cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, which I watched religiously. If six-year-old me had tried to imagine the voice of God, the Lord would have been shouting “Excelsior!” at random intervals.
Six-year-old me had already realized that Gotham City and Metropolis weren’t real places (no doubt one of the factors prompting me toward an early distrust of DC Comics), but New York City was real, and Stan Lee was real. New York was where Spider-Man lived, so it must be the coolest place on Earth. And the disembodied, Bronx-inflected voice that inspired awe and comfort on Saturday mornings was, for me, the voice of New York. Anybody who talked like that had to be the coolest person on Earth.
Stan Lee wasn’t God, but he was definitely a New Yorker. For much of 1957 and ’58, he also literally was Marvel Comics, as he was the sole employee left on the company’s payroll following the collapse of their distribution system. Lee had to rebuild Marvel from the ground up, to determine what kind of company it was going to be, what kind of creative environment it was going to foster.
By January 1959, Lee had recruited a stable of collaborators for this enterprise. Among them was veteran artist Jack Kirby, who until recently had been working on a DC title called Challengers of the Unknown. The Challengers were a team of adventurers who survived a plane crash and decided to use their (essentially mundane) abilities for good. On the roster were a scientist, a pilot, a bruiser, a hot-head, and (sometimes) a girl.
At Marvel, most of Lee and Kirby’s early collaborations were formulaic works in which a stuffy scientist and his best gal confronted some extraterrestrial menace to Earth. Giant monsters were Marvel’s bread and butter in those days.
Fantastic Four #1, as monumental as it has become in hindsight, didn’t completely break with hoary formula when it arrived on newsstands in 1961.
Much of it was derivative of other sources. DC Comics had been slowly rebuilding its super-hero line, capping it off in 1960 by launching a team book, Justice League of America. The success of that title convinced Marvel’s owner, Martin Goodman, that super-heroes were back in vogue after a post-WW2 slump. Goodman ordered Lee to come up with a super-hero team book for Marvel.
Lee’s problem was that, unlike DC, Marvel had completely abandoned the super-hero genre after World War II, leaving them without any super-heroes to band together. Kirby’s solution was to create a team of adventurers whose roster included a scientist, a bruiser (who was also a pilot), a hot-head, and a girl.
They survived a rocket crash and decided to use their new superhuman abilities for good (which, in this case, meant fighting a giant monster).
What Lee added to the mix was the same marketing technique that soap operas had been using for decades: introducing enough tension to make the audience want to tune in for the next installment.
Fantastic Four revolved around the characters’ dysfunctions: Sue Storm pined for Reed Richards, but Reed was too engrossed in his work to notice; Sue’s rebellious kid brother, Johnny, resented the older members of the group; Reed’s disfigured best friend, Ben Grimm, blamed Reed for robbing him of a normal life.
The team was on the verge of breaking up every issue. Each member resented the others in some way. This was Days of Our Lives with superpowers.
Justice League of America couldn’t match that level of drama. In fact, Stan Lee’s counterpart at DC, Whitney Ellsworth, had forcibly stamped out Superman and Batman’s early neuroses so that DC’s super-heroes could smile, shake hands, and get along …
… with only the occasional awkward subtext popping up from time to time.
Further distancing DC characters from the reader’s reality was that they all lived in a generic urban setting like Metropolis or Gotham City that lacked any recognizable features aside from its name. In Fantastic Four, Lee initially followed that tradition, setting the book in the fictional Central City. With issue #3, though, the team moved to Manhattan. They now lived in the world outside Stan Lee’s window.
What was there in the Big Apple for the FF? Well, for starters, a sweet skyscraper headquarters,
a classic look that endured for decades,
and an ever-lovin’ flying bathtub.
Stan Lee’s New York teemed with super-heroes. The Avengers were based on the Upper East Side. Daredevil patrolled Hell’s Kitchen. Spider-Man was from Queens. Charles Xavier’s school was in suburban Westchester County. Marvel’s super-heroes protected the same streets that Marvel staffers walked every day.
These fictional characters lived in real neighborhoods and in some cases even had real addresses. Notice how the buzzer for apartment A at 177 Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village has obviously been pushed more than the other buzzers?
Maybe anything was possible in Stan Lee’s New York, but that setting still grounded Marvel’s heroes in real world concerns. Unfortunately, the real world constrained Jack Kirby. While Lee rooted super-heroes in reality, Kirby dreamed of elevating them into the realm of mythology.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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