Today, Marvel Comics is known for its massively successful films about superheroes, including Black Panther, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Captain America. And since Disney now owns Marvel’s parent company, it’s not slowing down anytime soon. This weekend, Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson in the titular role, was released in theaters, and the final Avengers film arrives April 26. Disney’s upcoming streaming service, Disney+, will also add original Marvel shows. But before Marvel ruled comic book films and TV shows, it was a pulp publisher once called Timely Comics. Then Stanley Lieber, a.k.a. Stan Lee, changed everything.
Lee was a teenager when he started at Marvel and he had a lot of original ideas for superhero comics. One of those ideas was Spider-Man. But Lee’s boss, publisher Martin Goodman, thought that no one would like the character, Marvel Editor-in-Chief C.B. Cebulski said on Friday during a SXSW panel on the rise of Marvel Comics: “Goodman said, ‘you’re crazy. No one’s going to want to read a story about a bug. You’re supposed to squash bugs. And who wants to read about a story about a kid in high school?'”
Lee, however, convinced Goodman to let him introduce Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15. Obviously, the character was a huge hit and went on to receive his own comic.
Spider-Man was very different from other popular superheroes at the time, such as DC Comics’ Superman—who is not exactly relatable as a good-looking alien who can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes.
“What Stan did was shoot the paradigm completely,” Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada said during Friday’s panel. “Peter Parker is the real person. When he puts on the mask, he becomes somebody else. Why Marvel characters have stood the test of time, without having to change really at their core [is because] we all put on masks at one time or another through the course of our lives. When I come up here, I’m a different person that I am in everyday life. I think that’s what makes these characters so relatable. We can understand the core person who is Peter Parker, or Tony Stark.”
Cebulski said that Marvel still tries to follow this formula of focusing on the relatable person behind the superhero.
“When we’re taking to new creators/writers/designers, that’s what we try to bring across,” he said. “They pitch stories or turn in scripts, and there’s always something missing. We try to remind them. Yes, we just hired you as the writer of [a well-known comic]…. But those are just the names on the books. Tell the stories of Steve Rogers, of Tony Stark, and build the story from there.”
Quesada and Cebulski covered Marvel Comics’ history and current projects during the hourlong panel, yet they kept coming back to Lee, who passed away in November but is still influencing the company.
“[Stan Lee] will always live on in spirit,” said Cebulski. “I think not a day goes by when we’re there in meetings or in editorial when Stan’s name is not invoked in some shape or form.”
People at Marvel still ask, “What would Stan Lee do?” he said.
Other panel highlights
- The best-selling comic of all time remains X-Men Vol. 2, #1, published in 1991, which offered several different covers and sold more than 8 million copies.
- Quesada and Cebulski talked about Black Panther winning three Academy Awards and the amazing worldbuilding of Wakanda on-screen.
- A reminder that the Infinity Stones were originally called “Infinity Gems.” The name was changed in the comics and used in Avengers: Infinity War.
- Highlighting other recent successful Marvel adaptations, from Guardians of the Galaxy to Hulu’s Runaways series.
- Quesada and Cebulski also unveiled an image for Marvel’s first Filipina superhero, named Wave. She will make her first appearance in War of the Realms: New Agents of Atlas, coming out in May.