On December 28, 1922, Stan Lee was born. Lee is a comic book writer and editor, best known for his long career at Marvel Comics, where he helped to innovate and revitalize the superhero genre in the 1960s.
Lee started in the comics industry as an assistant to the artists at Timely Comics, the company that would eventually become Marvel, while he was still a teenager. His duties were unglamorous – filling the inkwells, erasing the pencil marks from finished pages, fetching lunch for the artists. But by the early 1940s, Lee was beginning to write a few stories, and he showed such skill and creativity that he was named the company's editor-in-chief in 1941.
Lee joined the Army Signal Corps during World War II, and was eventually transferred to the Training Film Division, where he helped to write training films and manuals. His official miltary classification was "playwright." Lee returned to his job at Timely after the war, and spent the next fifteen years writing and supervising stories in every comic genre of the time – romance, horror, action, suspense, western.
The superhero genre had faded from prominence in the 1950s, but rival company DC Comics was having some success with revamped versions of its classic characters Batman and Superman. Lee's publisher asked him to create a new superhero team; working with artist Jack Kirby, he came up with the Fantastic Four.
When the Fantastic Four debuted in 1961 (shortly after the company changed its name to Marvel), they were unlike anything comics had seen before. Here was a team of superheroes who fought with one another, who had the same marital and personal problems as ordinary people, who didn't always enjoy the responsibilities of being superheroes.
In conjunction with Kirby and other Marvel artists, Lee created other heroes in the same style. Thor, Daredevil, Iron Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, Spider-Man – these were characters who lived in the modern world and struggled with the same cultural turbulence that their readers faced in the 1960s. Lee would go on to create the first black superhero in mainstream comics, the African king known as the Black Panther, and the first African-American superhero, the Falcon.
Lee's characters continue to be popular today, and have moved beyond the comics to the "Marvel Cinematic Universe," a large series of interrelated movies and TV series. Lee himself is now a recognizable and iconic presence for comic fans, and he makes cameo appearances in most of the Marvel film and TV projects. The Marvel film projects have been so successful that Lee's cameos put him at the top of the global box office list; movies in which he appears have made more money than those of any other actor.
Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon explore Lee's influence on his industry in Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book (e-book, print), and his life and career are covered in the documentary With Great Power (streaming). Lee tells his own story in the memoir Amazing Fantastic Incredible (e-book, e-audio, print), and you can see one of his more recent creations in the comic Chakra the Invincible (e-books).
Also This Week
- January 1, 1923: Ousmane Sembène was born. Sembène was a Senegalese author and film director. His films often deal with the translation to post-colonial society, and with the roles of women in Senegalese culture. Those themes are on display in Sembène's first film, 1966's Black Girl (DVD), and in his 2000 film Faat Kiné (streaming).
- December 26, 1942: Catherine Coulter was born. Coulter is an author of historical romances and suspense thrillers. She says that her career began when she set aside a particularly bad novel and her husband challenged her to do better. The novel she wrote in response was published in 1978; she revised it some years later as The Countess (e-book, print). She has written about 80 novels, most recently the FBI thriller Enigma (e-book, print).
- Dec 31, 1967: The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys played the NFC Championship Game, a game that has come to be known as "the Ice Bowl." The temperature in Green Bay as the game began was -15° F, with a wind chill of about -45° F; by the end of the game, the sun had begun to set, and the wind chill had dropped to -70° F. The referees had to call the game entirely through yelling and hand signals, because their lips would have frozen to their whistles. Several players developed frostbite during the game, and one fan in the stands died from exposure. Chuck Carlson tells the story of the game in Ice Bowl '67 (e-book).
- January 1 is National Bloody Mary Day. The origin of the cocktail is unclear, but most origin stories date from the mid-1930s. The name is equally mysterious; one story says it's named for a waitress who worked at a club called Bucket of Blood, and another says that it derives from a mispronunciation of "Vladimir," supposedly the customer who first ordered the drink. A Bloody Mary starts with vodka and tomato juice, but beyond that, there are a wide range of possible additions – Worcestershire sauce, celery salt, hot sauce, and citrus juice are common. Two e-books offer a variety of recipes for Bloody Mary variations: Ellen Brown's The Bloody Mary Book and The New Bloody Mary by Vincenzo Marianella and James O. Fraioli.