Stan Lee's Best Comics
Today, the 28th of December, marks Stan Lee's 100th birthday. So, to mark the occasion, I've decided to talk about my favorite works of his for each of the comics he wrote. His work on Marvel cannot be overstated enough as he had hand in almost every single major character still around today, writing some of the best stories of his time that still resound with audiences today. His is truly a legacy that will not die. So thank you Stan Lee.
The Fantastic Four. The comic that kickstarted Marvel's silver age and the one Stan Lee worked the longest on. In writing this comic, he made superheroes more realistic with their family squabbles and inner doubts. He took away the golden perfection that had previously existed around superheroes and made them more relatable, making them that much more popular. And this story was the highlight of his run.
Fantastic Four Vol 1 48-50: The Galactus Trilogy
Ask any Fantastic Four fan their favorite story and this will be it. These three issues are pure FF fun as the team face off against a living god, Galactus. And no, he isn't no damn space cloud like in the movie. This is the purple-helmeted, impossibly tall figure who has come to devour Earth's resources to feed his never-ending hunger. He doesn't have any evil scheme or villainous motive. He just needs to eat. And if a planet dies, so be it as to him, it is nothing but an ant hill. Apparently, this came about because Lee wanted the heroes to meet 'god.' Instead, they got this guy and they prove to be no match for him and his infinite power. The Silver Surfer makes his first appearance here as the herald of Galactus who seeks out worlds for his master to consume. You know it's bad when Uatu (mentioned above) comes in to warn about this guy and actually helps out since he's forbidden to do anything. In the end, all the FF can do is buy some time, delaying Galactus as much as they can, as Uatu plays a desperate card. This story also goes deep into the Silver Surfer as he discovers the true meaning of humanity and comes to understand how each life does have significance. This story has everything you need from a great Fantastic Four story and lives up to the hype. My only problem would that be it starts by ending a previous storyline and ends by starting a new storyline, so it's really two and a half issues. But those are good enough on their own. No other FF story really compares to this one in terms of epic scale and stakes.
The Incredible Hulk. A character who is not a hero but acts more as a monster. Stan Lee created this character from the idea of a monster as a protagonist with a Jekyll and Hyde personality and his popularity skyrocketed. While his stories have stood more on the simplistic and mediocre in Lee's time, there have been a couple that rose above. Especially the first one.
Incredible Hulk Vol 1 1: The Orign
The origin of the Hulk. This issue tells it all, introducing Bruce Banner, General Ross, Betty Ross, and Rick Jones. About to test his new invention, the Gamma Bomb, Banner suddenly sees a kid driving into the test area and rushes to save him. However, he is a little too late. He saves the kid but gets exposed and thus, the Hulk is born. Fun fact: the Hulk started out as a creature that only took over Bruce's body when the sun went down. Kind of werewolf like in a way. Eventually, it became due to heart rate and such, but still fun to see. This issue is the start of it all and a thrill to read.
Thor. The character based on the mythological figure of the same name. Wanting a godlike being in comics and not wanting to use the overused Greek/Roman ones, Lee and Kirby settled on Thor. And from there, they dove into a mix of myth and science to create an epic character. And this story is without a doubt Thor's greatest story ever told in this era and one of the greatest of all time.
Thor Vol 1 154-157: The Mangog
The Mangog. One of the most powerful beings in the world, composed of the collection of a billion, billion beings into one massive, omnipotent monster that wants to destroy Asgard and then the whole universe. And he almost succeeds. No matter what Thor or any of his allies do every step of the way, all they achieve is buying a few more previous seconds right up to the final page. Played out like an action thriller, this story grips readers and keeps them on the edge of their seat from beginning to end and if any story should be made on the big screen, it's this one (fingers crossed, Taika Waititi).
Iron Man. The billionaire tech genius who dons a suit of armor to save the day. And he's not Batman. Lee created him as he represented something most people hated at the time: an industrialist, a weapons manufacturer, a billionaire. And yet, he has become one of the most endearing and popular characters of all, thanks in a large part to Robert Downey Jr. While Stan Lee didn't write too many Iron Man stories, this one was the peak of his run.
Tales of Suspense Vol 1 69-71: Duel with Titanium Man
The Titanium Man. A communist leader decides to build his own suit bigger and stronger than Iron Man's and challenges him to a public duel to see who is better, the communist or capitalist. These three issues are packed to the brim with armor on armor action as the two suits clash in one epic duel that the whole world is watching with anticipation to see who the winner is. This is one of Iron Man's greatest battles with one shocking ending. While it doesn't stand up to some of Stan Lee's other works, it still stands as one of Iron Man's best stories of all.
Spider-Man. One of the best fictional characters ever created and one of the most popular. A character Lee created with such relatable problems and issues that literally anyone could themself as him. Lee's run on Spider-Man is his greatest work without a doubt and this is his best story.
Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1 31-33: The Master Planner Saga
When Aunt May falls sick from radiation poisoning, there's only one cure. And it's just been stolen. So Spider-Man goes on a rampage throughout the city, tearing through the underworld and beating up as many criminals as he can until he finds the mysterious Master Planner (no spoilers but the identity reveal is truly amazing). And in their battle (the Master Planner's lab was underwater), the lab collapses and Spider-Man is trapped. Thus comes one of his best moments and best lines, where he lifts all the wreckage on top of him so he can save his Aunt after saying "anyone can fight when the odds are easy. It's when the going's tough, when there seems to be no chance, that's when it counts." This scene is replicated somewhat in Spider-Man: Homecoming and stands one of the greatest Spider-Man moments of all time. Stan Lee went all in on this story, bringing the hero to his lowest moment and having him overcome all odds to win the day as a superhero does. This is the definitive Spider-Man story of Stan Lee and stands the test of time as one of his best stories ever written.
The Avengers. Stan Lee's other team book and it's quite obvious from his work there that he much preferred the FF. He struggled to come up with great stories that worked for the characters but, at that time, was bogged down by having to bring in each character and explain their absence from their own titles. This led to his best work on it. He completely changed the Avengers roster from the heavy hitters to B-list characters.
Avengers Vol 1 16: The Old Order Changeth
This is one of Stan Lee's best comics as here he introduces the concept to the Avengers of how the roster is ever-changing and anyone can join. When Iron Man, Thor, Ant-Man, and Wasp all retire from the team, new members must be added. So Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch join up, previous villains seeking redemption. This could have failed badly as he was filling it with previous bad guys and only one A-list star (Captain America) remaining and yet, it worked as this new team had a whole new dynamic making the stories that much better and more interesting. He didn't stay for too long after that, quickly passing the title onto Roy Thomas, but he made his mark with this one story.
Captain America. After disappearing for years, Stan Lee reintroduced him in the Avengers before giving him a side-along comic alongside Iron Man before giving him his first comic after more than a decade. Lee actually wrote the first Captain America comics back in the 40s so had a good grasp of the character and what made him tick going in. The Sentinel of Liberty who fought against all who stood against that, but also a Man Out of Time who never felt right in the modern world. Here, he brings those ideas together. The highlight of Stan Lee's run on the character.
Captain America Vol 1 110-113: The Strange Death of Captain America
Told like a noir film printed out on paper, this story shows Hydra going all out on their assault on Cap and his partner Rick Jones led by the sinister Viper (interesting note, she's the first female villain who isn't tempted by the hero's good looks or tries to seduce her enemy). This story turns Cap from a soldier to a spy as he has to use espionage to turn the tables on his enemies, using the oldest trick in the book to claim victory from apparent defeat. But this story would just be good without Jim Steranko's artwork which literally flies off the page with vibrant, beating colors that are truly a spectacle. This story also has one issue that honors Captain America as a hero as his story and legacy are retold for the audience to show how important the character is.
Namor. One of the first Marvel characters to ever debut as he appeared in the first ever published Marvel comic and most recently made it to the big screen. Also one of the first anti-heroes who fights heroes and villains alike. After debuting in Fantastic Four in the Silver Age and making guest appearances in other comics, he officially got his own comic where Stan Lee really fleshed him out.
Tales to Astonish Vol 1 70-76: Quest for the Trident
After Warlord Krang takes over Atlantis, Namor must prove himself by finding the lost trident of Neptune to prove his claim as king. Adventure after adventure, threat after threat, Namor faces it all while Krang struggles to hold the kingdom together against a rebel uprising and Dorma tries to help Namor as best she can. I think 2018's Aquaman may have stolen some ideas from here as it is remarkably similar, even with Marvel's version of the Trench (though the Trench came much later, so really they're DC's version of these guys). Stan Lee goes all out for the first story arc, setting a high bar for what came next which sadly couldn't be met until Roy Thomas came along.
Daredevil. Lawyer by day, vigilante by night. Lee may not have been the best writer for Daredevil but he did a good job on setting up the character's world and well as allies and rogues gallery. Still, most of his stories were mediocre, entertaining but nothing that noteworthy apart from a few special ones. And if you were to read only one Daredevil comic from this era, it should be this one.
Daredevil Vol 1 7: Sub-Mariner
This story introduces readers to Daredevil's iconic red costume. And it presents them with his greatest battle against the formidable Sub-Mariner. During that time, the Sub-Mariner was appearing in almost every single superhero comic as an antagonist, almost like each one had to fight him as a rite of passage and most stories suffered because of it. Not this one. Starting out with Namor attempting to legally proclaim Atlantis a sovereign nation, things quickly deteriorate and soldiers attack intending to arrest or kill the Sub-mariner. Here, Daredevil stands no chance of beating the Sub-Mariner and yet he fights anyway to save lives as he knows Namor will just tear the army to shreds. And no matter what, he just keeps fighting, even after Namor continually beats him, he just fights on until finally he collapses, pleading with Namor to spare the soldiers. And out of respect for the man who refused to quit, Namor grants his request and avoids the soldiers, returning to the sea. Legal drama, epic action, and the nobility of heroes. This story has it all, showing off how powerful Daredevil is not just in fighting but with his words as well and how even Namor, often treated as the villain, still is a noble and honorable man.
Nick Fury. This one might be a surprise but Nick Fury not only had one but two ongoing series, one detailing the character's time in the war while the other was set in the main timeline, back in the 60s and each went on for a good while. Lee did a good job on both, writing out engaging stories for each, and fleshed out the character well as he based the characters off his time in the war.
Strange Tales Vol 1 135: The Man for the Job
Lee's best work on him was his first story in his second ongoing based in the main timeline. It was the story that intoduces S.H.I.E.L.D. and their Helicarrier as well as many of their wonderful gadgets as Fury is targeted by the agents of Hydra and hunted down before he can stop their rise to power. The most dangerous job interview ever as Fury is offered the position of director of S.H.I.E.L.D. to stop threats like Hydra and others and protect the world. A non-stop action story from beginning to end and definitely one of the best.
Doctor Strange. The Sorcerer Supreme who dabbles in the mystic corner of the Marvel Universe. Originally created by Steve Ditko who drew up all the weird and bizarre dimensions Strange traveled to.
Strange Tales Vol 1 130-146: The EternitY Saga
And this story is the definitive Doctor Strange story, an epic saga stretching across 17 issues of non-stop suspense, action, thrills, and magic. Starting out with Dormammu channeling his power into other Doctor Strange nemesis Baron Mordo, making the enemy sorcerer the most powerful sorcerer of all, the story just goes all out from there, with Strange getting lost in dimensions, battling rogue sorcerers, and delving into the mind of the Ancient One all the while searching for the mysterious Eternity. There's also not one but two epic clashes between Strange and Dormammu, both great in their own way. The first is one without magic, just brute force, and the other is pure power, ending in a panel that can't be described in words. Sure, the story does lose its edge at times, but it quickly finds it again and then ups the ante. It cannot be emphasized enough, this story is not just one the best Doctor Strange comic of this time, but one of the best Marvel stories and a definitive read for any fan. One can only hope they make a movie out of this epic one day.
X-Men. Lee's last team book and he lasted about as long as his Avengers run on it, producing some thrilling stories but was running out of steam towards the end. He did help set up the foundations of the team, their mutant history and mission, and the mutant-hate that would propel any further stories. And this was his best work here.
X-Men Vol 1 12-13: The Juggernaut
The Juggernaut is one of the strongest Marvel characters and one of the X-Men's greatest enemies. But, he is also the stepbrother to Professor X. In this story, the Juggernaut comes a-knocking and the Professor tells the X-Men of his childhood and his history with the villain. Then, the X-Men battle the foe and repeatedly find themselves tossed around like ragdolls, nothing compared to this foe's power. This is one hell of a pulse-pounding story and Stan Lee at his best with the reader on the edge of their seat waiting to see how it will end.
Ant-Man. He wasn't that popular a character back then and his series didn't last too long, Lee not writing as many thrilling or engaging stories for him. But still, one rose above the rest.
Tales to Astonish Vol 1. 50-51: The Human Top
Ant-Man and the Wasp had a few recurring enemies such as Egghead and Porcupine, but only one really had an impact. The Human Top. Barring the incredibly stupid name (he later changed it to Whirlwind), this villain was their greatest enemy and nowhere is that shown better than these two issues where Human Top (a mutant who can spin around at superhuman speed) literally runs rings around the heroes, beating them easily. It takes everything Pym has to take this guy down, with some help from the Wasp (the movies made her so much cooler). This story was the best of the run and if you read only one story, it should be this one. A hell of a fast-paced story.
Silver Surfer. One of Lee's favorite characters, one he held so dear that he refused to let anyone else write him for years, the character written out of Marvel continuity for a bit. The cosmic wanderer and previous herald to Galactus who seeks the truth of humanity, fighting for good yet still seeing so much evil. When Lee started the character's ongoing series, he had each issue doubled in pages, making each story a true epic.
Silver Surfer Vol 1. 1: The Origin of the Silver Surfer
When it comes to great Silver Surfer stories, this one is a must-read in a tale of tragedy and heroism that tells how the man Norrin Radd became the cosmic being known today. He started out as a man unhappy on a planet of perfection where everyone is happy, feeling as if there is nothing more to do. Then, Galactus arrives, threatening to destroy everything he loves. So he makes a choice, to become the herald of the great being and guide him to new worlds to feed on in exchange for leaving his world unscathed. And in doing so, he is forced to leave his love, Shalla-Bal, behind. One of Stan Lee's greatest stories and of the best Marvel comics.
Doctor Doom. Strange as it may sound, but even villains sometimes get their own series. And who better to get his own series than the greatest one of all. The Fantastic Four's archenemy and one of the most powerful scientists, sorcerers, and warriors in the Marvel universe who has done battle with pretty much every superhero and a few villains at this point.
Fantastic Four Annual Vol 1 2: The Origin of Doctor Doom
This story says it all about him, the story of Doom as a child, when his father could not cure the queen and was thus executed, leaving Doom in the care of the gypsies. From there, he learned all he could of science in order to dominate the world and make it pay. This story shows his meeting with Reed Richards, his accident that left him disfigured, and his taking of Latveria to become its sovereign ruler. His whole story laid out just like that. This is the tale that made Doctor Doom and elevated him to become the greatest Marvel villain of all. Let's just pray that Marvel Studios can help bring that greatness to the big screen.
She-Hulk. After decades of only operating the business end of Marvel, Stan Lee returned to the pen for this one story, bringing She-Hulk to life before someone else could take the name and thus have ownership rights. He only did that one issue, letting someone else take the series from there but he did a great job as always.
Savage She-Hulk Vol 1 1: The She-Hulk Lives
The story reveals Jennifer Walters as Bruce Banner's cousin who, after pissing off some gangsters, gets shot and desperately needs a blood transplant that only Bruce can provide. And when that happens, she gets the gamma radiation as well, transforming her into the 'Savage' She-Hulk when she needs to. This was a great setup issue, introducing the new hero for the world to see and launching her perfectly into the Marvel universe.
And that's it. These are just a handful of the many, many stories Stan Lee wrote. The man was basically the founder of Marvel and an inspiration to all writers that came after. He will be missed.