On Stan Lee

by Erik Day
















During the 2012 Savannah Film Festival, comic book legend Stan Lee visited the Savannah College of Art and Design to receive a lifetime achievement award, at which he affirmed “I deserve this 100%!” The following morning he joined audience members for a Q&A after a screening of The Amazing Spider-Man, the latest filmic adaptation taken from one of his stories. When asked by an eager fan, “Of all the great characters you have created, who is your all-time favorite?” Mr. Lee responded emphatically and without hesitation, “That would HAVE to be Spider-Man!” The recent film release is the fourth cinematic entry based on the character, as well as a reboot of the franchise.

To date, there have been seventeen feature-length films based on characters and stories attributed to Stan Lee. Considering that “in his half a century with the company, [Lee has] contributed more to the Marvel Universe” than any other creative at the publishing house, it is even more significant that there have been another fourteen films produced based on characters either created by or developed at Marvel while under the helm of Lee.[1] In fact, an estimated $3.3 billion has been spent since 1986 adapting stories and characters created by Stan Lee and his associates at Marvel. Over the next three years it is estimated that an additional one billion dollars or more will be spent adapting Marvel titles. While there have been a number of films based on non-Marvel characters (Superman and Batman for example), the ratio of Marvel titles has far surpassed all other comic book adaptations. These figures reveal Stan Lee as the stand alone 20th century comic book master: the ultimate experimentalist.

In Old Masters and Young Geniuses, David Galenson proposes a number of calculable methodologies (e.g., auction sale price of an artwork, critical reception of a work, number of times an artwork is reproduced for publication in a scholarly text, etc) to assess an artist’s significance.[2] A copy of Amazing Fantasy #15, the first appearance of Spider-Man, recently sold at auction for an astounding $1,100,000.[3]  Although this data alone hints at the cultural significance of Lee, we must acknowledge that comic collectible sales are strongly influenced by print run, scarcity of issue, social context, and other factors that have less impact on painting or other singular art forms.

Perhaps the best methodology for determining Stan Lee’s signifcance as a 20th century artist would consider the screenplay adaptability of his stories and characters. Beginning inauspiciouscly with Howard the Duck in 1986, and looking far to the future with both Ant Man and Guardians of the Galaxy scheduled for release in 2015, the range of comic book story adaptation extends even further.  While the adaptation of the Marvel Universe clearly began with Stan Lee, it will not end with him.

Galenson offers another compelling term of analysis by categorizing artists as either experimentalists or conceptualists. The two categories “are distinguished not by their importance, for both are prominently represented among the greatest artists of the era. They are distinguished instead by the methods by which they arrive at their major contributions.”[4] While experimentalists are motivated by aesthetic criteria, conceptualists are motivated by the desire to communicate specific ideas or emotions.  Often, conceptualists become satisfied after successfully communicating their message, leading to a brief career of brilliance.  In contrast, experimentalists typically invest a lifetime into solving a single vague problem, or refining its solution.

When we apply Galenson’s ideas to comic book, we will see that Stan Lee is an experimentalist—perhaps the greatest ever working in the ninth art. Furthermore, we discover that the creators of the first two Golden Age comic book superhero superstars, Superman and Batman who were born twenty-plus years before Stan Lee’s Silver Age characters, were conceptualists whose brilliance was short-lived. In contrast, Lee’s procedures are clearly tentative and incremental, as was Marvel’s foray into superhero storytelling in the 1960s. Stan Lee repeats himself “painting” the same subject (superheroes) many times, and gradually changing the treatment in an experimental process of trial and error. While many of his superheroes and super-villains are successes, many more are failures, left in the dollar bin of your local comic book store. Stan Lee wrote the stories month by month, without planning far ahead, and like all experimentalists, was frustrated by the failures. But with his ongoing experimentation and subsequent successes, Stan Lee would change the world of comics, and film, forever.

Published December 3, 2012.


[1] Les Daniels, Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1991), 225.

[2] David Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[3] “Spider-Man comic nets 1.1 million dollars.” The Independent. March 9, 2011, accessed Nov. 30, 2012, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books


[4] Galenson, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, 4.

After working in animation for a decade and teaching digital media for seven years, Erik Day returned to SCAD to complete an MFA in Animation. His areas of interest include the history of the following: animation, visual effects, comic books, and electronic games. His thesis is exploring insect anthropomorphization in animated feature films.