Comics, wrote Marvel editor Tom Brevoort in 2007, “tend to be a young man’s game”. It was true, he contended, for film and TV production, and comics were no different. And even more so than for artists, Brevoort added, it was writers that were most likely to fall foul of premature obsolescence. One day, they were hot. The next, the dumper loomed. That had long been the way things stood. It was a proposition that Mark Millar seemed to become more and more preoccupied with during the first decade of the new century. The Big Two superhero comic was, he said to the Glasgow Evening Times in 2008;
“a young guy’s thing … All the smart guys move on by 45. That’s the time to get off.”
Two years later, to Matt McAllister at Future Movies, Millar explained that there was “a shelf life” in the industry. Having recently turned 40, he discussed a recent realisation that Marvel Comics co-founder Stan Lee had written “most of his good stuff between the ages of 42 and 46”. It was an indisputably fair point. Lee had indeed been at his height in the period in the Sixties between 1961’s Fantastic Four #1 & 1966’s Fantastic Four #54, during which he co-created all of his most substantial and successful Marvel characters, from the Fantastic Four to Spider-Man, The X-Men to The Avengers, Daredevil to the Black Panther, and many more. The debate about the degree to which Lee and his remarkable artistic partners Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko contributed to their many and remarkable creations still rages. But Lee’s central and irreplaceable role where the invention of the Marvel Universe from ground up over those years is concerned is beyond doubt.
It was a late and remarkable flowering from a man who’d previously spent decades as a highly competent journeyman writer and editor at a bottom-feeding publisher. But it was a brief span of glory too. The further from that period Lee travelled, the more he had to rely upon his skills as an industry insider and his self-crafted celebrity status. His ever-rarer post-Sixties comic stories never came close to attracting the success, affection, and respect accorded to his finest work from the first half of the previous decade.
It would be as foolish as it would be inaccurate to suggest that Lee’s long later career lacked for achievement, success and acclaim. Yet when it came to the quality of work that could be defined as undeniably great, Lee’s race was indeed pretty much run by the summer of 1966.
By 2010, Millar had already been a professional comics writer for more than 20 years, and a remarkably successful one for a decade. But if even Stan Lee’s best years as a writer made for far too short a season, then how much more of a career would the established industry allow Mark Millar, who had long acclaimed Lee as a creator and role model, to have?
Millar and Lee’s paths had occasionally crossed. There exists an utterly charming photograph of Mark Millar meeting Stan Lee at a November 15th 1991 early evening book signing in Glasgow’s Forbidden Planet. The picture’s backdrop is of shelves of horror and science-fiction books, including many of the Stephen King novels that Millar adored. Before those volumes the two men stand. Lee’s right arm clasps an absolutely beaming Millar, the young man’s gleeful face reddening with what comes across as unadulterated happiness. Looking very much of the period with his hair neatly cropped just above his ears, a magenta shirt buttoned right up to the collar, a dark jacket and belted jeans, Millar appears more like a well turned out first-year Sixth Form student than a comics professional in his early Twenties. But then, Millar has often looked younger than his years in his photographs. Yet here, such is his apparent delight, the impression given is that all traces of his age have slipped away with the joy of meeting Lee. As a counterpoint to the young writer’s then-growing reputation in the period as being more-cynical-than-thou, there could be no more telling image. Yes, photographs can of course lie, but it’s hard to believe that a shot this exuberant could be anything other than what it seems. Millar hadn’t merely sought out Stan Lee on what records define as a very cold city-centre Friday evening. He was, the evidence insists, delighting in Lee’s presence, and that during a period when Lee’s standing amongst forward-looking hardcore UK comics fans was notably more qualified than it would later become.
Though Millar rarely mentioned Lee in interviews prior to being hired by Marvel in 2001, the relatively few references he made about him in the Nineties were exceptionally fond. He could recall, for example, being allowed to stay home by his mother from primary school in the mid Seventies to watch a Stan Lee live appearance on the Seventies BBC lunchtime magazine show Pebble Mill At Mill. (In the days before videos, matter-of-fact repeats and online archives, a programme that wasn’t caught live was rarely caught at all.) From both seeing Lee and encountering him on the page, Millar has repeatedly said, he came to understand that comic books were actively crafted rather than simply appearing ready made. Comics were constructed, just as Millar had, in his youthful fashion, been striving to make his own little cartoon tales at home. The form wasn’t just a reader’s hobby then. It could be a job too, and, as Lee’s presence on the TV screen helped testify, it was a job that was, by all appearances, highly rewarding. Quite simply, Lee’s life looked an awful lot of fun. The primary school-aged Millar’s conception of what a writer’s existence involved would, as the years passed, draw off a series of media sources. From the 1968-1973 ITV sitcom Father Dear Father, for example, Millar happily absorded the idea that writers lived as the character of author Patrick Glover did, embedded in Hampstead affluence and surrounded by beautiful women. But in the context of comics, Millar would associate Stan Lee with oppurtunity, success and, after the fashion of a comics fan, glory too.
It’s hard to track down exactly what episode of PMAO that was. But Lee’s frequent trips to the UK in the period were always tied to the appearance of new Marvel product. Tellingly, that was only very, very rarely a matter of new stories by Stan Lee. Whether in weekly comicbook reprints from Marvel UK or paperbook collections such as the bestselling and controversial Origins Of Marvel Comics, Lee was typically promoting tales he’d co-created years before. When it came to his UK media blitz in 1976 to raise awareness of the new Captain Britain title, Lee was selling a series he’d had very little to do with at all. That became all the more so as the years passed. In 1991, when Millar and Lee were photographed together, Lee wasn’t even signing a book he’d written himself, in one form or another, but rather, author Les Daniels’ Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades Of The World’s Greatest Comics. (The book did, credit where it’s due, contain a brief and very familiar forward by Lee, but that was all.) Lee was, however, and was to remain, the single most recognisable and widely beloved creator in the history of American mass market comic books. With the passing of time, people who’d never read a comic in their adult lives, and who would never encounter fans’ critical debates about who was and wasn’t responsible for Marvel’s early success, knew in the widest terms who Stan Lee was.
It is often said that Lee loved to visit the UK on his frequent promotional jaunts because they paid for he and his wife Joan to return to Northumberland, where she had been born and lived for her first twenty and so years. It hardly seems a discreditable fact, if fact it is. Marvel Comics, despite its apparently endless cycling in and out of substantial financial troubles over the years, could afford it. Given that Marvel Comics wouldn’t have existed without Lee, such apparent largesse seems the least that the company could do. But given that Marvel owned everything he had co-created for the company, the only creation that Lee would always be able to fully exploit over time was the public image of Stan Lee himself. First in his guise as hip older uncle and then, with the passing of the decades, as genial grand-parent, Lee parlayed himself into a marketable icon. When all else failed, and when even his relations with Marvel Comics as elder statesman and PR representative fractured, Lee still had himself. His various attempts over the years to rekindle his creative career, from lines of comics to screen projects and online ventures, mostly, if not entirely, fell short. But Lee himself always remained a significant property in his own right. Seen from that perspective, even the life of Stan Lee can be read as a case study in how to survive and prosper when a rapacious industry retains total control of a writer’s finest co-creations. It would eventually, tragically, prove to be a cautionary as well as an inspiring tale. That Lee’s final years appear to have involved that very celebrity appeal being exploited by trusted others to the point of appalling abuse underscores how even the fame of the adored can prove to be a two-edged sword.
The question of ownership was one that Lee discussed with Millar when the latter interviewed the former for an SFX magazine piece in 2003. In Millar’s words, it was as if he was getting to speak to Galactus, the mountain-high, planet-devouring alien of Lee and Jack Kirby’s creation. It might be thought that the figure of a cosmic destroyer was an odd one to compare Lee with. But just as Galactus is an unimaginably powerful presence to the characters of Marvel’s planet Earth, so Lee and his achievements seemed to Millar to signify a dwarfing presence that was far, far more than typical and everyday. Awe was, it seems, in play for Millar. And when Lee recommended to his interviewer that he start creating comics properties than he himself rather than Marvel could own, Millar listened.
“Stan said to me, ‘Why are you writing stories for my characters and not your own?’ He didn’t mean it in a bad way, but he was right. After that I went off and did Wanted and Kick-Ass.”
It was hardly a new thought to Millar. The American writer, inker and editor Jimmy Palmiotti had advised him to do the very same. But here the encouragement was being expressed by the oh-so-familiar voice of Stan Lee! The co-founder of Marvel Comics, a lifelong hero of Millar’s, was suggesting to one of Marvel’s current superstars that he not sign away his creations to, yes, Marvel Comics. In Millar’s recollections, this was an absolutely pivotal moment in his career, and it’s one we’ll return to in more detail later.
Ends. Thank you for reading.