Stan Lee is known as the co-creator of any number of comic book characters: Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, the list goes on and on — there are few characters in Marvel’s back catalog that don’t have his fingerprints on them in some form or another. But perhaps his greatest legacy isn’t the army of superheroes that populate the Marvel Universe, but the way he broke down the barriers between fans and creators on the page during the Marvel revolution of the 1960s.
Lee, who died Monday at 95, was responsible for the addition of creator credits in Marvel’s comic book output, a break from the industry standard at the time — previously, at Marvel as-was, and certainly at other publishers, fans would be required to study art styles or hunt for signatures to identify who drew each issue of their favorite characters, while writers toiled in even deeper obscurity. (What creator names were attached to stories was often a reflection of who had originally invented the characters, as opposed to who had worked on each story.)
It’s not entirely clear why Lee broke away from the norm with his change — was it driven by his own frustrations as a relatively anonymous creator earlier in his career, or simply a move to differentiate his company’s output from the more successful opposition in an attempt to do whatever it took to make the company stand out? — but it was the first phase of what quickly became a mission to humanize Marvel, turning the staff and freelancers behind the scenes into faces and names as recognizable as the colorful characters on the covers.
It took less than a year from the creation of the Fantastic Four — considered by most the starting point for Marvel as it’s recognizable today — for Marvel creators to show up in the pages of the comics themselves; Lee and Jack Kirby are terrorized in Fantastic Four No. 10 when Doctor Doom shows up in their offices, demanding that they call Mr. Fantastic and help set up a trap for the heroes.
Within two years, the real thing followed, with the front cover of 1964’s Marvel Tales Annual No. 1 promising “An actual unretouched photo of virtually every member of our Merry Marvel Bullpen!” as a selling point. The feature was the only all-new material in an issue that was otherwise reprint, but it delivered what was promised: photos of almost every Marvel employee — some, most notably Spider-Man and Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko, were missing, their absence explained with a note that read, “A few of our bullpen buddies were out of town when these pix were taken — so we’ll try to print their pans later on. (A sneaky way to coax you to read all our future issues!)”
If that seemed like an unusual selling point, it was apparently a successful one; the next year saw Marvel launch its “Merry Marvel Marching Society” fan club — for one dollar, fans would receive a membership card, stickers and more, including a flexidisc that featured Marvel staff acting out skits and letting fans hear their voices for the first time.
That same year also saw the launch of Bullpen Bulletins, a recurring one-page feature that would mix publishing announcements and advertisements with gossipy updates about the goings-on at the Marvel offices. “Did you know that our bullpen ramrod, Smilin’ STAN LEE, also authors MONSTERS UNLIMITED as well as YOU DON’T SAY!” one item in December 1965’s debut feature started. “Both are slick paper photo-gag magazines, and Stan the Man seems to have the magic touch — both of those humor sensations seem to sell out as fast as our own Marvel masterpieces — and that’s sayin’ something!” (Although anonymously written, it is believed that Lee was behind the initial installments, making boasts like these all the more shameless.) The feature would continue intermittently for the next four decades.
As a promotional device, it worked; the Marvel offices would receive letters, phone calls and personal visits from fans who considered the creators friends, creating a bond between company and customer that other publishers could only enviously — and, for the most part, less successfully — emulate. (It’s no coincidence that creator credits were adapted by other comic publishers within years of Marvel’s runaway success.)
Beyond that, there was something oddly prescient in the way Lee put artists and audience in faux-communication that predicted the social media era. It’s almost certainly a strange coincidence more than prognostication on Lee’s part — really, who could have seen Twitter or Facebook coming half a century ago? — but in erasing the wall between consumers and creators, Lee didn’t just change the comic book industry, he offered a preview of how all forms of media would operate in the future.