It can be said of Stan Lee, as of Christopher Wren, that if you want to see his monument, you should just look around yourself. The superhero concepts that dominate cinema and TV today could not even have been conceived without him. And that is because of one specific thing that Lee, himself, invented. We know that he worked with creative giants such as Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, the King of comics - people well able to create their own masterpieces. But the one thing that can be traced back to Lee is the concept of “continuity”: that all the heroes in his company live and move in the same time and space, may meet and interact with each other, and that what is done in one series (e.g. one particular villain suffering a humiliating and perhaps life-changing defeat) can have effect in all the others.
In comics, of course, this device has often become constrictive and overwrought. It is, however, at the heart of Kevin Feige’s Marvel movie universe, and of many of the TV superhero series. Without Lee’s original idea, Feige would never have conceived the interrelated Marvel movie franchise - the most successful and influential series of movies in the history of the art. It is right that each movie should contain a cameo of Lee, because it was Lee, specifically, who had the idea that made it all possible.
That is hardly his only merit. Lee has often been blamed for taking credit for the work of others, but in so far as that was the case - and nobody denies that the comic book industry treated artists execrably - that was the fault of how the industry had been set up, long before Lee had any position in it, and by people some of whom had mafia backgrounds. Jack Kirby and several other cartoonists have been treated in ways that disgrace business and America; but then, so had Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster at the very start of the story. The birth of the business of comic books, and the superhero genre, had been in fraud and malpractice - the creators of Superman had been issued cheques which contained acts of surrender of their right to their characters, so that they could not be paid without at the same time being swindled out of their own creations. Stan Lee had not yet entered comics when this took place.
The truth is however that in so far as Lee innovated within this corrupt industry, to that extent he was working to improve the position of the creative artists. He was the first to give detailed credits at the start of each story; and he was responsible for letters pages of unprecedented length, literacy and faithfulness. Just as he credited writers and artists, so he gave the exact names and addresses of each letter writer, which did much to start comics fandom. The overall result, in spite of the cheap format and paper and ads, showed a belief that Lee and Marvel were doing work that deserved attention and respect. It was wise marketing, but it was more than just marketing: in spite of the occasional boastfulness, of the overwrought English and poor word choices, and of the inevitably cheap format, it reflected the reality of what was going on. Marvel was something special, and it was so because of Stan Lee’s editorial choices.
First and foremost, Lee, was the best art director in his generation - even though his title was never art director. His eye for drawing talent was nearly flawless; only Don Heck, of the Lee generation of long-term artists at Marvel, can be said not to be a success, and Heck was in fact a capable illustrator who simply did not suit the superhero genre. Every one of his choices worked out, otherwise: John Romita, John Buscema, Gene Colan, John and Marie Severin, Dan Adkins, Gil Kane. And not only were they good choices, they became better - and more like themselves - as they went on working at Marvel. John Romita, Gene Colan, Gil Kane, all worked themselves more and more in their distinctive styles. The most groundless charge ever brought against Lee was that he required people to imitate Kirby. Any glimpse at any page of any of his artists will show that no such thing happened. Indeed, practically the opposite did. Lee did twice hire artists who were visibly imitating Kirby: one of them was Jim Steranko, the other was Barry Smith. Both of them took no more than a year or two to move far away from the Kirby imitation and into styles that were not only wholly individual but absolutely outstanding. How it was that he saw their potential, we may never know.
As a writer, I don’t feel like praising him as highly. He could do funny down-to-earth language with the best of them, but his frequent efforts at elevated language are mostly rather embarrassing, and his stories have a tendency to the simple-minded and sentimental. However, he did have one absolutely fundamental talent: he knew what would work. Time and again, when looking at his disagreements with Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, one has to remark that Ditko’s or Kirby’s idea may have more intellectual dignity - but Lee’s would fly better with readers. For instance, Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man had been facing a mysterious masked crime-lord who had been cutting a swath through New York’s underground. When it comes to the revelation, Ditko wanted to make him someone whom nobody had heard of before. This would certainly have been more like life and less like an ancient melodrama in whch the climax shows the masked villain unveiling and revealing himself as the hero’s long-lost brother, lover, or relative. And in this Ditko was right, and Lee was to that extent disingenous when he answered: “What you have a story where the hero sticks to walls and can lift a Buick, and you want realistic?” But Lee was right in a deeper sense. The super-hero genre inevitably personalizes all conflicts - look at how the movie Captain America: Civil War makes a conflict about the powers and limits of the state into a face-to-face battle between a dozen superheroes. And we can still see the point, but the superhero genre requires a face or a mask to express the ideas. Lee clearly understood this, which is one reason why he so rarely had flops.
That is not the only way in which I want to define, and to that extent limit, my praise of Stan Lee. You can never forget the he spent thirty years coasting in a second-rate comics publisher, and fifty years basically living on his record. His important and foundational years go, at best, from 1962 to 1968. And yet these years are so important that one can safely say that Stan Lee is one of the most important figures in the history of American arts, and of the few of whom it may seriously be said that he changed the world.