Gerry Conway on Stan Lee

LB’S NOTE: Comic book legend in his own right (or as “Conway’s Corner” puts it “minor pop culture ‘icon'”) and longtime friend and co-worker Gerry Conway voices an opinion with which I wholeheartedly agree:

Stan the Man
by Gerry Conway

Since the news of Stan Lee’s death I’ve wanted to write something meaningful about my own feelings for him, what he represented to me as a creator and as a human being, and what kind of impact his life had on my life. For many reasons (I was dislocated by the Woolsley Fire and haven’t fully settled down since our return) I haven’t had a chance to give such an in-depth appraisal much thought. Honestly, I doubt I could do a full appraisal of Stan’s importance in my life even under the best of circumstances. His work and presence as an icon and as a human being helped form who I am today. To write a full appreciation of Stan I’d have to write my autobiography.

Among my most vivid childhood memories is my discovery of the Fantastic Four with issue 4, the first appearance of the Sub-Mariner. I was nine years old, and I’d been a comic book reader for years at that point. I knew about Superman, I knew about Batman, I’d read the early issues of Justice League. I was a compulsive reader, voracious (still am)– devoting hours a day to books and stories and comics and even my parents’ newspapers. (Both my parents were avid readers. My dad read science fiction, my mom loved mysteries.) I vividly recall the astonished joy I felt when my mom took me to our local library and got me my first library card. I was six, I think, and the reality of a roomful of books just for kids seemed like a gift from heaven. I won all the reading awards at school– any competition for reading the most books in a year was over as far as I was concerned the first week. By nine, I’d already graduated from “age appropriate” books for pre-teens to Heinlein’s juveniles, Asimov’s robot stories, and the collected Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle. I was a total reading nerd.

And then came Fantastic Four.

I’ve never been hit by lightning but I have to imagine the shock might be similar to what I experienced reading that early adventure of Reed Richards, Sue Storm, her kid brother Johnny, and Ben Grimm. If you weren’t a comic book reader at that time you cannot imagine the impact those stories had. There’s nothing comparable in the modern reader’s experience of comics– nothing remotely as transformative. (To be fair, I suppose both “The Dark Knight Returns” and “Watchmen” come close, but both remarkable works built on prior tradition and were perhaps a fulfillment of potential and creative expectations. The Fantastic Four was _sui generis_.) Over a series of perhaps five issues, a single year, Stan and Jack Kirby transformed superhero comics in an act of creative alchemy similar to transmuting lead into gold, and just as unlikely.

They also changed my life. Because Stan credited himself as writer and Jack as artist, he opened my nine year old eyes to a possibility I’d never really considered before: I could be something called a comic book “writer” or “artist.”

Think about that, for a moment. Before Stan regularly began giving credits to writers and artists, comics (with a few exceptions) were produced anonymously. Who wrote and drew Superman? Who wrote and drew Donald Duck? Who wrote and drew Archie? Who knew? (Serious older fans knew, of course, but as far as the average reader or disinterested bystander knew, most comics popped into existence spontaneously, like flowers, or in some eyes, weeds.)

Stan did more than create a fictional universe, more than create an approach to superhero storytelling and mythology– he created the concept of comic book story creation itself. Through his promotion of the Marvel Bullpen, with his identification of the creative personalities who wrote and drew Marvel’s books, he sparked the idea that writing and drawing comics was something ordinary people did every day. (Yes, yes, to a degree Bill Gaines had done something similar with EC Comic’s in-house fan pages, but let’s be honest, EC never had the overwhelming impact on a mass audience that Marvel had later.) He made the creation of comic book stories something anyone could aspire to do _as a potential career_.

That’s huge. It gave rise to a generation of creative talent whose ambition was to create comics. Prior to the 1960s, writing and drawing comic books wasn’t something any writer or artist generally aspired to (obviously there were exceptions). Almost every professional comic book artist was an aspiring newspaper syndicated strip artist or an aspiring magazine illustrator. (Again, there were exceptions.) Almost every professional comic book writer was also a writer for pulp magazines or paperback thrillers. (Edmond Hamilton, Otto Binder, Gardner Fox, so many others– all wrote for the pulps and paperbacks.) Comic book careers weren’t something you aimed to achieve; they were where you ended up when you failed to reach your goal.

Even Stan, prior to the Fantastic Four, felt this way. It’s an essential part of his legend: he wanted to quit comics because he felt it was stifling his creative potential, but his wife, Joan, suggested an alternative. Write the way you want to write. Write what you want to write. Write your own truth.

He did, and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.

When I picked up that issue of Fantastic Four, I was a nine year old boy with typical nine year old boy fantasies about what my life would be. Some were literal fantasies: I’d suggested to my dad a year or so earlier that we could turn the family car into the Batmobile and he could be Batman and I could be Robin and we could fight crime. After he passed on that idea I decided we could be like the Hardy family– he could be a detective and I could be his amateur detective son, either Frank or Joe. Later I became more realistic and figured I could become an actor who played Frank or Joe Hardy in a Hardy Boy movie. In fact, by nine, my most realistic career fantasies involved either becoming an actor or an astronaut, and of the two, astronaut seemed like the more practical choice.

Stan and Marvel Comics gradually showed me a different path, a different possible career. By making comic books cool, by making them creatively enticing, and by making the people who created comics _real_ to readers– Stan created the idea of a career creating comics.

Stan alone did this. We can argue over other aspects of his legacy– debate whether he or his several collaborators were more important in the creation of this character or that piece of mythology– but we can’t argue about this. Without Stan’s promotion of his fellow creatives at Marvel there would have been no lionizing of individual writers and artists in the 1960s. Without that promotion there would have been no visible role models for younger, future creators to emulate. Yes, some of us would still have wanted to create comics– but I’d argue that the massive explosion of talent in the 1970s and later decades had its origin in Stan’s innovative promotion of individual talents during the 1960s.

Nobody aspires to play in a rock band if they’ve never heard of a rock band. The Marvel Bullpen of the 1960s was comicdom’s first rock band.

That was because of Stan.

For me, Stan’s presence in the world gave direction and purpose to my creative life, and my creative life has given meaning and purpose to my personal life. I am the man I am today, and I’ve lived the life I’ve lived, because of him. From the age of nine on, I’ve followed the path I’m on because of Stan Lee. (So much of my personal life is entangled in choices I’ve made as a result of my career it’s impossible for me to separate personal from professional.)

My personal relationship with Stan, which began when I was seventeen years old, is more complex and less enlightening. It’s a truism your heroes always disappoint you, and I was often disappointed by Stan. Yet I never stopped admiring him for his best qualities, his innate goodness, his creative ambition and unparalleled instincts. People often asked me, “What’s Stan really like?” For a long time I had a cynical answer, but in recent years I realized I was wrong. The Stan you saw in the media was, in fact, the real Stan: a sweet, earnest, basically decent man who wanted to do the right thing, who was as astounded by his success as anyone, and who was just modest enough to mock himself to let us know he was in on the joke. I imagine Stan was grateful for the luck of being the right man at the right place at the right time– but it’s true he _was_ the right man. No one else could have done what he did. The qualities of ego and self-interest that I sometimes decried in him were the same qualities needed for him to fulfill the role he played. In typical comic book story telling, his weaknesses were his strengths. And his strengths made him a legend and a leader for all who came after him– particularly me.

This has been a rambling appreciation, I know. Scattered and disjointed. Like I said, trying to describe the impact Stan had on my life would require an autobiography.

When I started thinking about Stan in light of his death I realized, for the first time (and isn’t this psychologically interesting?) that Stan was born just a year after my father. When I met him, as a teenager struggling with my own father as almost all teenage boys do, Stan probably affected me as a surrogate father figure. Unlike my own father, Stan was a symbol of the possibilities of a creative life. He was a role model for creative success, like other older men in my life at the time. But unlike them, he’d been a part of my life since I was nine years old. A surrogate father in fantasy before he partly became one in reality.

Now he’s gone. Part of me goes with him, but the greater part of me, the life I’ve led and built under his influence, remains.

Like so much of the pop culture world we live in, I’m partly Stan’s creation.

‘Nuff said.

Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.