Stan Lee: 15 Essential Comics
From the first appearances of the Amazing Spider-Man to the creation of the Avengers and the Uncanny X-Men
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Stan Lee is largely responsible for the modern superhero – and by extension, one of the architects of contemporary pop culture. It’s not like one Stanley Martin Lieber invented the concept of men in capes; DC’s all-star stable of do-gooders had been around for decades, and Joe Simon’s Hitler-punching war hero Captain America, a hit for Timely Comics (which would eventually morph into Marvel Comics), had thrilled WWII-era kids. But it was Lee – in close creative, if not always properly credited, collaboration with artists such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Gene Colan – that had the revolutionary idea of making them relatable, snippy, occasionally self-centered, neurotic, flawed. Lots of folks told stories of superhumans fighting bad guys that played up the “super” part. Lee was the one who put the “human” part up front.
To honor Lee after his passing at age 95, we look back at 15 comics that helped solidify his legacy as a writer, editor, publisher and the ever-lovin’ public face/personal voice behind Marvel’s evolution from comic-book company into pop juggernaut. From that groundbreaking first Fantastic Four issue to Lee’s mean, green late-act addition to the female superhero canon, these were the issues that helped put Marvel and Stan the Man on the map. Excelsior!
The story is that publisher Martin Goodman came to the writer after a golf game and demanded that he come up with a story involving a team of superheroes. “It took a few days of jotting down a million notes,” Lee is quoted as saying in Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. “I finally came up with four characters that I thought would work well together.” (Jack Kirby disputed this origin story, which would unfortunately become a recurring motif between these two comic-book pioneers.) That quartet – the elastic-limbed Mr. Fantastic, his rocky college buddy the Thing, his see-through sweetheart the Invisible Girl and her fiery brother the Human Torch – would spend part of their first issue bickering with each other and bemoaning their new powers that came courtesy of exposure to cosmic rays. Lee brought these former astronauts down to earth in more ways than one. And in a single story, everything about the way people wrote about superheroes changed. It all begins here.
“I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for the Frankenstein monster,” Lee said when asked about the inspiration behind his not-so-jolly green giant – he’s also namedropped Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as one of the sources for this superhero as well. But even those allusions to old literary/Universal horror monsters don’t do justice to scientist Bruce Banner’s radiation-blasted alter-ego, a brute who comes out and crushes any puny humans in his path. “He’s a man but he turns into a huge super-powerful guy, all muscle and angry-looking,” Lee recalls telling collaborator Jack Kirby. “I want you to draw a monster who’s a little bit sympathetic-looking, who the readers can like.” The result was a empathy-inspiring embodiment of rage and Marvel’s second big hit on newsstands – a Hulk smash, basically.
Every superhero (and/or group of bickering superheroes) needs a proper archnemesis – and with the Fantastic Four‘s fifth issue, Lee and Kirby cooked up a legendary supervillain for the quartet. Meet Victor Von Doom, a former classmate of Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards who’s horribly disfigured in an explosion. He’d eventually make himself a suit of armor complete with a riveted metal mask (Kirby supposedly based him on the figure of Death, hence the cloak) and would turn into a megalomaniacal foil for the Four – and eventually any number of other Marvel Universe do-gooders. When you think of comic-book bad guys, he’s one of the first to spring to mind, although his co-creator eventually felt he had to clear Von Doom’s name. “I never thought he was a villain,” Lee admitted in 2016. “It’s not a crime to want to rule the world. Maybe he’d do a better job at it.”
Lee had been thinking about a teenage superhero – so many comic readers were adolescents, and they deserved to relate to someone besides the sidekicks. He wanted this kid to be “a bumbling real-life teenager … bewildered, insecure, inept, ungainly, and often out of step with those around him. A loser.” Lee had also remembered an old pulp-magazine character called the Spider, who had been a childhood favorite of his; he’d incorporate that into the mix too. His skeptical publisher let him run with the idea in what had been earmarked as the final issue of an anthology series. And with that, Lee and artist Steve Ditko created your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man – and history. Once the story of an angsty high school student named Peter Parker, who’d could climb walls after being bitten by radioactive arachnid and learned that with great power comes great responsibility, hit newsstands, the Spidermania was immediate. Soon, the superhero had his own series and pop-culture icon status. “If his powers are greater than our, so are his problems,” Lee said. “He’s our kind of guy.”
Lee had been looking for superhero fodder when it occurred to him: Why limit yourself to teenagers bitten by radioactive spiders when you could dip into ancient mythology? “How do you make someone stronger than the strongest person?” he recalled in Excelsior. “Don’t make him human — make him a god.” So Lee went back to the Norse legends of old and introduced the world the God of Thunder in this Journey Into Mystery story, in which physician Donald Blake finds a mysterious walking stick and, with one strike, is transformed into a blond-tressed deity with a winged helmet and one helluva hammer. The character would soon get his own title, join the Avengers and help usher in a whole pantheon of celestial beings from the realm of Asgard into the imaginations of countless young readers.
Long before Black Sabbath introduced the world to someone “who traveled time/for the future of mankind,” there was Tony Stark, a billionaire ladies’ man who defended mankind inside a weaponized supersuit that helped keep him alive. “It was a challenge,” Lee told the crowd during a 2013 convention appearance. “All the young people were against war, they hated big business … I thought, just for fun, let me see if I can come up with a hero who makes munitions and is very wealthy, to see if it could work.” It did, which resulted in the character going from a guest appearance in Tales of Suspense to his own title ASAP. Lee has claimed that Iron Man was one of the few “strips” where he was never satisfied with how the armor looked. But he’s also said that Stark’s alter-ego is one of his favorite creations, and it’s impossible to think of the Marvel Universe (or the MCU) without him.
Artist Steve Ditko conceived the idea of a talented, arrogant surgeon who ended up traveling to the Far East and becoming a Sorcerer Supreme; it was Lee’s idea to change the character’s name from “Mr. Strange” to “Doctor Strange,” since the former sounded too close to the Fantastic Four’s Mr. Fantastic. And it was Lee who wrote the good doctor’s first appearance in Strange Tales #110, which told of a “different kind of superhero … Master of Black Magic!” and was more loosely based, per Lee, on the radio character Chandu the Magician. The character would later be upgraded to “Master of the Mystic Arts” and, thanks to Lee’s dimension-hopping stories and Ditko’s mind-altering artwork, introduce a distinctly psychedelic tinge to the Marvel Universe.
So what do you do once you’ve established a shared universe of some serious superhero heavy hitters? You assemble them together as the Avengers. “If the happy hordes of Marveldom enjoyed seeing our heroes together,” Lee said in an intro to an Avengers trade-paperback collection, “why not get a team where a number of them could join forces each issue?” Soon, Lee and Kirby gave the company their own in-house version of DC’s Justice League, with an all-star lineup – Hulk! Thor! Iron Man! Ant-Man and the Wasp! – banding together to fight supervillains en masse. Other famous MCU players would join the team and battle tons of bad guys over the years, but this first five-person team-up against Thor’s evil brother Loki is where, per Lee’s opening-page disclaimer, “the first of a series of star-studded book-length super-epics featuring Earth’s mightiest superheroes” starts.
Lee has said that he envisioned this group of genetically gifted (or cursed) characters because he had exhausted his imagination re: coming up with new ways to turn everyday schmoes into superheroes. (“Why not just make ’em mutants?” he was quoted as saying.) So he and Kirby came up with the idea of youngsters with colorful names — Cyclops, Iceman, Marvel Girl, Beast — who were being trained and schooled by the bald telepath Charles Xavier, a.k.a. Professor X. But by emphasizing the fact that the very things that made them superheroes also made them outcasts, misunderstood and shunned by society for their differences, Lee had also come up with a potent metaphor for all sorts of groups plagued by social prejudices. It would become not only one of the most topical titles over the years, but also one of the most popular — a lasting testament to Lee’s humanistic impulses as a writer.
Joe Simon’s red, white and blue superhero had been inspiring patriotism since the 1940s, when he showed up on the cover of a comic punching Hitler in the face. Lee’s connection with Captain America goes back to that period, in fact — he helped fill in text for an early Cap’n story back when he was 19 years old, during the pre-Marvel Timely Comics era. When it came time to populate the roster of Marvel’s Silver Age heroes, it only seemed natural for Lee to reach back to the Golden Age and drop the WWII era back into the mix. He wrote a story in which Steve Rogers was found in an ice block (where he’d been lying in suspended animation in the Atlantic Ocean) and thawed out just in time to join the Avengers — and the modern age of comic-book superheroes.
“Can you guess why Daredevil is different from all other crime-fighters … ?” asked the cover of the Man Without Fear’s debut issue. He’s blind, for one thing; for another, per Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, he was also the product of Lee asking Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett to come up with a hero based on the name “Daredevil,” which another comics company had lost the trademark to — and to do it quick. The result was a yellow-and-red do-gooder with devil horns, who had lost his sight as a child and, thanks to his heightened other senses, was cleaning up Hell’s Kitchen one thug at a time. And the story Lee wrote, which kicks off with an illegal-card-game brawl in the Lower West Side helped set the foundation for what would become one of the more morally conflicted urban superheroes in the Marvel Universe.
Every amazing hero needs an equally great villain — and Lee served up an iconic one for his friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. According to Steve Ditko, Lee had envisioned the character originally as some sort of mythological demon, and the artist changed the conception to a guy in a suit. But neither had disclosed who the identity of the man in the terrifying mask who’d been tormenting the webslinger, and Lee decided to make him someone Parker knew personally. (As with many interactions between the writer and artist, this who-created-who story has been disputed.) The Goblin turned out to be Harry Osborn, father of Peter’s best friend Norman, which added a whole other level of Freudian psychology to this archenemy.
In 1965, you had James Bond fighting bad guys and evil spies on the big screen, and shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. thrilling TV viewers. So Lee started wondering if Marvel shouldn’t come up with an espionage organization of their own. He also remembered a character he created for a WWII comic he and Kirby had done a few years earlier, about Sgt. Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos. “I thought, just for fun, I’m going to bring Fury back again,” he said in a 2005 interview. “But it’s now years later … I’m going to make him a colonel and I’m going to make him the head of a secret military outfit.” The result was this Strange Tales story in which the cigar-chomping Fury is now an agent of Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage and Law-Enforcement Division — better known as S.H.I.E.L.D. Even after the appetite for secret agents and cool gadgets subsided, he’d prove to be a popular character in the decades to come.
Kids who might have been intrigued by the guest star on the cover of this FF issue — a mysterious figure clad head to toe in black — and plunked down their change might not have realized they were picking up a piece of history. Once the Four land in the fictional African nation of Wakanda to thank a chieftain for giving them a cutting-edge flying craft, they encounter the Black Panther. Combat ensues. And then right before the end of the story, he takes off his mask … and reveals that he is the first black superhero to grace the pages of a comic. Lee mentioned in a 2011 interview that he was mainly inspired by a jungle-pulp adventure story in creating the Panther, but he and Kirby also gave the African character a sense of dignity and his country access to gamechanging technology that went far beyond some sort of Tarzan-style retro goof. The result, as witnessed by this year’s blockbuster, was a hero for the ages.
Lee did not invent the shiny cosmic emissary, alas — he was created by artist Jack Kirby for his debut in Fantastic Four #48. But when the guy who hung ten for planet-eater Galactus got his own solo series in 1968, Lee began writing up the character as a moody, almost Christ-like figure — an interpretation that helped turn the Silver Surfer from a supporting character to a cult favorite. Some folks have identified the character’s fretting over ecological concerns and man’s inhumanity to man as some of the earliest attempts to tackle social issues in the form, as well as displaying some of Lee’s deepest, most introspective writing of the era.