The outpouring of tributes to Stan Lee, the legendary comics writer, editor, and former chairman of Marvel Comics, who died in November at age 95, was a fitting coda to his long and influential publishing career. The tributes to Lee came from across the entertainment landscape, including from the stars of Marvel’s blockbusters films and from such comics creators as DC’s Jim Lee, Neil Gaiman, Jody Houser, Tom King, and Gail Simone, as well as from others from every corner of the comics publishing world.
But the passing of Lee is felt most intensely at Marvel Comics, which changed the course of American superhero comics as well as American popular culture. Indeed, Lee’s passing serves as a reminder of “the Marvel age of comics”—Lee’s own term for the 1960s, when innovative, wildly popular Marvel comics, including the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and Thor, were first released. His death also shows his lasting influence on the Marvel brand at a time when the North American comics marketplace is once again going through a period of creative change and consumer transformation.
Marvel chief creative officer Joe Quesada, a comics artist, writer, and—like Lee—a former Marvel editor-in-chief, spoke with PW about Lee’s influence on Quesada’s time in the position, and on the legacy of Lee’s innovation at Marvel Comics.
“My dad gave me my first Marvel comic when I was maybe eight to 12 years old, but later, Stan became my surrogate father,” Quesada said. “The grandiose storytelling tradition of Stan, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and all the others was hugely influential and imaginative. Stan’s influence permeates every brick of the building that houses Marvel.”
Lee collaborated with a long list of talented writers and artists to cocreate many of Marvel’s most beloved superhero characters. He rose to prominence in the 1960s, when, much like today, comics and the demographics of the fans who read them were changing. It was Lee’s charisma, promotional vision, and complex characterizations—revealing superheroes with emotional conflicts and personal problems, acting amid the larger social issues of the time—that set Marvel comics apart from those of other publishers of the time.
Quesada said that Lee’s creative persona—funny and down-to-earth, and able to communicate to a young audience in an engaging, flip style—defined his influence as a publisher and as a creator.
Marvel comic books of the 1960s (this reporter was a young fan in those years and remembers them well) featured “Stan’s Soapbox” and “Bullpen Bulletins.” They offered lively editorial updates that included social commentary directed at the fans, written in Lee’s inimitable and bombastic colloquial style.
“Stan’s Soapbox and editorials were unheard of at the time,” Quesada said. “He talked about civil rights, women’s rights, and the world in general. I believed the comics were about my world and my generation, and that affected me. When I was kid reading a Marvel comic, it felt like the heroes were talking to me. Stan would break the fourth wall. He was self-effacing about himself and about Marvel. Stan Lee was the greatest character Stan ever created.”
Over the past year, despite the success of the movies based on its titles, Marvel comics sales have been down, and the company is regrouping under a new editor-in-chief, C.B. Cebulski. “We’ve had our ups and downs in recent years,” Quesada admitted. “Stan always talked to our audience and made them a part of the creative process of our storytelling. Our problem was that there wasn’t a voice for a while.”
But Marvel is an industry leader in American comics, and the house is never down for long. Sven Larsen, director of licensed publishing for Marvel Entertainment, offered a glimpse of how Lee’s Marvel legacy plays out in its book publishing program. He said there’s a “misconception” that Marvel’s book-format publishing is not targeting growth categories, such as middle grade and YA graphic novels. “Marvel has a multipronged strategy that addresses those growth categories,” he noted.
The house just released four middle grade graphic novel trade paperback collections tied to the forthcoming animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—which features the various versions of Spider-Man all brought together in the film: Miles Morales, the Afro-Latino Spidey; Spider-Gwen, an alternate-Earth girl Spidey; Peter Parker, the original Spidey—and a story collection of Spider-Man villains. Larsen said Marvel publishes about 35–40 trade paperback collections per month aimed at adults and young readers. And each month, about 20 graphic novels (in a 6” x 9” format) are released for the middle grade/YA, retail, library, and education markets, he added. The house has also entered into a partnership with IDW to produce a series of monthlies and trade paperbacks aimed at young readers that will feature Marvel characters.
In addition to its young reader collections, Larsen noted Marvel’s “legacy” publishing—titles culled from “our 80 years of publishing that should be packaged in book formats.” He said these titles include Marvel’s “high-end collectible editions,” such as King Size Kirby, an oversize hardcover ($100, 800 pages) that collects classic works by Lee and Kirby, and Kirby Is Fantastic, a similar ($100, 400-page) hardcover collection of Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four stories, coming in 2019. Legacy titles also include collections of Marvel works packaged in a variety of book formats at different price points.
“Stan Lee was a pioneer in comics trade book collections.” Larsen said. “He worked with Simon & Schuster to publish quite a few collections of Marvel classic works in the 1970s. Stan looked to expand the audience for comics, and he loved the book market.”
Marvel Masterworks, a series of hardcovers and paperbacks that gather works dating back to the 1940s, began publishing in the late ’80s and features well over 200 volumes. And Larsen was quick to note that Lee’s classic title How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, created with artist John Buscema, was first published in 1978 by S&S and has never gone out of print.
Next year will mark Marvel’s 80th anniversary. Look for Marvel Decades, a series of eight trade paperback volumes that highlight the best of Marvel’s storytelling by decade, beginning with the 1950s.
Much like other comics publishers these days, Marvel has attracted a host of notable prose authors who are eager to write comics and also happen to be longtime comics fans—among them Ta-Nehisi Coates (Black Panther), Eve Ewing (Ironheart), Nnedi Okorafor (Shuri), and Rainbow Rowell (Runaways). “We’ve sold more than 300,000 copies of the trade paperback edition of Coates’s Black Panther,” Larsen said. Indeed, 52 years after Lee and Kirby created the Black Panther, the character is more popular than ever.
“Stan had a map for success that he left for us,” Quesada said. “He created a Marvel brand lifestyle years before that whole concept had been invented, and he kind of left it in a drawer for us to use. It’s still working.”