Stan Lee, Remembered: "Face Front, True Believers!" Stan Lee — born Stanley Martin Lieber — co-created many beloved Marvel Comics characters, but he became the company's tireless, beloved figurehead. NPR's Glen Weldon offers a remembrance.
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A True Believer Remembers Stan Lee

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A True Believer Remembers Stan Lee

A True Believer Remembers Stan Lee

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Black Panther - the basis for those characters and many more came from the imagination of Stan Lee. He died Monday. He was 95 years old. Here he is in one of his many Marvel movie cameos talking to Chris Hemsworth's Thor in "Thor: Ragnarok."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THOR: RAGNAROK")

STAN LEE: (As character) And don't you move. My hands aren't as steady as they used to be.

CHRIS HEMSWORTH: (As Thor) By Odin's beard, you shall not cut my hair, lest you feel the wrath of the mighty Thor.

MARTIN: (Imitating Thor) The mighty Thor.

Glen Weldon of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour joins us to remember Stan Lee and his genius. Good morning, Glen.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we know Stan Lee is the public face of Marvel Comics. He was that for decades, but I didn't realize this until recently. He wasn't the only brain behind the Marvel Universe, was he?

WELDON: No, he was the co-creator of the Marvel Universe because here's how he worked in those early days. He came up with the broad strokes. He'd invite artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko into his office. He'd act out the story. Then they'd go away and design the characters, costumes, backgrounds. When they were done, he'd take a look at what they'd drawn, which if you're an artist like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, often differed a lot from what he told you to do, and fill in the dialogue. He wanted everything dynamic, larger than life. You know, why have characters talk when they could be shouting?

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WELDON: Why have characters disagree when they could be brawling?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR")

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Tony Stark) Give me back my Rhodey.

TOM HOLLAND: (As Peter Parker) I got him.

WELDON: Now, this clip is from "Captain America: Civil War," a movie that's all about heroes brawling with each other. It's just something he loved.

MARTIN: How did all this start because it's not like there weren't already other superheroes. Right? Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman - they all predated Stan Lee.

WELDON: Yeah. Well, I mean, they were - those were the DC heroes. But in 1961, when Stan Lee co-created the Fantastic Four with Jack Kirby, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were spending a lot of time sitting around conference tables agreeing with each other.

MARTIN: Boring (laughter).

WELDON: Yeah, their stories felt tidy. They felt small. Stan Lee made superheroes big, and he gave them distinct personalities because he knew that readers weren't kids anymore. They had become teenagers, and they wanted to see themselves in the comics. So he basically created Marvel - co-created Marvel characters that were teenagers, essentially. They bickered. They pouted. They felt guilty - big personalities.

MARTIN: He was a big personality himself, big enough to transform those early superhero comics into big money. Right? Forbes magazine now estimates that it's all a $12 billion business - TV shows, movie franchises, licensing deals.

WELDON: Yeah. He wasn't just a big personality. He was a born marketer. He created the Marvel brand. He cultivated this over-the-top persona that was always spouting catchphrases like, excelsior, face front, true believers, enough said.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WELDON: And that served to endear him and Marvel Comics to his readers. He did everything he could to create a sense that being a Marvel fan set you apart. He even created a theme song for fans to sing along to.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MERRY MARVEL MARCHING SOCIETY SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) You belong, you belong, you belong, you belong to the Merry Marvel Marching...

WELDON: So by making readers want to belong to the world of Marvel Comics, he accelerated a process that had already begun. He gave scattered readers across the country something that united them. So they went from being a bunch of individual fans to a collective fandom.

MARTIN: Which is interesting - right? - because so many of his characters were outside the mainstream. They were people who wanted to belong to something bigger.

WELDON: Exactly. That's the secret.

MARTIN: Glen Weldon, he is an editor at the NPR arts desk and a panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. We have been remembering Stan Lee.

Thanks so much, Glen.

WELDON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF "MERRY MARVEL MARCHING SOCIETY SONG")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Be a good adviser. Never ever vicious. Where will you be then? Face front, lift your head, you're on the winning team - 'nuff said. You belong...

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