When kids in the 1960s went to spend their allowance or paper-route money on comic books, they had a choice between two major publishers: DC Comics, home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman; and Marvel Comics, which produced Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the X-Men and a host of other titles.
Even preteens came to appreciate there was something edgier about the Marvel heroes.
Superman and Batman were often depicted as being close to the embodiment of perfection. They had the occasional personal issue to deal with, and sometimes struggled to defeat the supervillains. But they were ideal characters, with superpowers that always helped them prevail.
They were drawn in a rigidly stylized manner, occupying one square frame after another.
The Marvel characters, by contrast, seemed tormented by far more than the kryptonite that occasionally hobbled Superman. They had complicated backstories, including tragic upbringings, difficulties with girlfriends, boyfriends or spouses and the loss of loved ones. They could have tempers, anger-management issues and even financial problems. In time, some struggled with race or sexuality.
Marvel heroes appeared in frames of different sizes. They even broke through their boundaries in the course of epic battles. Their quips, often self-deprecating, were funnier than the jokes of their DC counterparts. It is little wonder Marvel heroes became immensely popular when their stories were later turned into movies.
The credit for this comics revolution belongs largely to Stan Lee, who passed away Monday at 95.
Born Stanley Lieber in 1922, he grew up in New York City as the son of Romanian immigrants. He and his younger brother, Larry (who co-created the Marvel characters Thor, Iron Man and Ant-Man), were both fascinated by drawing, literature and the silver screen.
Lee was hired in 1939 to be an assistant at Martin Goodman's Timely Comics. It helped that his cousin Jean was the owner's wife, but he worked hard on the company's range of pulp magazines and comic books as an artist, letterer and text filler. In time, with a break for military service in World War II, he became editor-in-chief and art director.
Timely Comics rebranded itself as Atlas Comics, and then became Marvel Comics in 1961. Goodman sold his company in 1968 and remained its publisher until 1972. His successor, as you may have guessed, was Lee.
It was during these changes in identity and ownership that Lee transformed the way people looked at comic books.
Peter Parker, alias Spider-Man, was wracked with guilt about the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. Bruce Banner transformed into the Hulk after fits of rage and always struggled to keep his emotions under control. The X-Men were mutants, different from other people -- and isolated, even hated, by society. Unsurprisingly, young readers closely identified with them.
Lee also approved the inclusion of topical and/or controversial issues such as the Vietnam War, drug use, environmental protection and student activism, drawing elements of the real world into comics.
Fittingly, Stan Lee always ended his monthly Marvel column with the word "Excelsior!" which means "ever upward" in Latin. His important contribution to comic books, and our culture, created a positive, upward trajectory that will survive long past him.