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Real-life Hero’s Journey–Stan Lee and the Fantastic Four

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Ever since his high school graduation twenty years earlier, Stan Lee had spent his days, and often his nights, churning out comics at an incredible pace. The publisher of the company, Martin Goodman, was always in pursuit of the quick and easy dollar, and believed the best way to earn money fast was to jump on the trend bandwagon and produce derivative comics. If a competitor’s product was selling well, he directed Lee to produce a similar product. Lee was constantly chasing fading trends and producing uninspiring work at high speed. And worst of all, he could see the once-popular comic industry collapsing around him as people tired of the same old narrative arcs.

Much of Lee’s incredible work ethic was influenced by his early childhood. Lee grew up during the Depression and had witnessed how his father’s struggle with unemployment and his mother’s disillusionment tore apart their family, and wanted to avoid a similar fate for his own family at all costs. Lee was terrified of losing his job, and did whatever Goodman told him to do, and that meant churning out knock-off comics.  At age 38, Lee realized that he had never listened to his own heart, had never made anything he could be proud of, and it was ripping him apart from the inside.

No matter the consequences, Lee was dying by inches. He had to make a choice. Goodman was family (his uncle’s wife’s brother), and Lee had always been a loyal, devoted employee, but the thought of producing what he called “merry little monster yarns” and bland teen romances for the rest of his life was more than he could stand. He decided to create something amazing, something powerful, something he could be proud of, and leave the industry behind with a roar.

Fully expecting to be fired when his comic hit the stands, Lee wrote the script for a new type of superhero story—one where the characters were ordinary people, a family, who had to cope with suddenly being blessed (or cursed?) with superpowers. He knew the combination of ordinary folks placed in extraordinary circumstances and still having to work out everyday issues would be irresistible to readers. He called his new comic series The Fantastic Four.

After getting the story blocked out, Lee went to a longtime colleague, brilliant yet irascible artist Jack Kirby, and announced he had an unauthorized project he was working on and Jack was “the best guy to draw it.” Kirby was also fed up with derivative and uninspiring assignments. He’d recently come back to Goodman’s company after spending years with DC Comics, and he too was prepared to risk his job to take on a worthwhile comic series. Although they argued more than they ever agreed, the two geniuses worked incredibly well together, and Kirby saw the potential in Lee’s new idea and began to envision the comic panels he could create.

Lee knew Goodman would never wander into the work area and discover what he and Kirby were up to—sometimes the staff didn’t see Goodman for months at a time—but the Comics Magazine Association of America, the comic censoring organization, was another matter. Lee couldn’t allow his magnum opus to end up in the rubbish bin before anyone had a chance to read it simply because it violated the Comics Code Authority. The censors didn’t take umbrage to anything Lee had written, but did stipulate that the Human Torch character should never burn anything but inanimate objects; Lee was happy to comply.

Over the next few weeks, Lee and Kirby brought the first issue of the four-issue series The Fantastic Four to life, and Lee remembered thinking when they sent it to the presses, “Ok, that’s it. I’m going to get fired.” Neither expected the comic to be a huge success, but both were gratified to know that they had completed a project worthy of their talents and produced something of substance.

Both Kirby and Lee knew that they had at least four months before Goodman realized what they’d done. Because the publishing and distribution schedules were so drawn-out, it took months before the sales figures would trickle in, but what did trickle, and then flood, into their offices was something neither had expected—fan mail. Prior to The Fantastic Four, the only mail Lee had received was the occasional refund request for a defective comic. Now the comics department was overwhelmed by the response from young readers.

For future issues of The Fantastic Four, Lee created a column in the back space of the comic and answered fan mail, beginning what became a long-running conversation between comic creator and reader. When the sales figures finally began to appear, it was obvious that Kirby and Lee didn’t have to worry about keeping their jobs. Goodman was ecstatic.

Lee’s bold decision had changed the rules of the game. He was no longer a follower, he was a trendsetter, and the reading public was desperate to get its hands on more of his and Kirby’s best work. His courageous move set a new heading for the flagging comics industry and ushered in a new golden age for what eventually became Marvel Comics.

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