The New York native’s ideas about LA started out shallow and grew more nuanced with time
True to his roots, Manhattan native Stan Lee, who died on Monday at age 95, set the majority of his famed comics in New York City. It was only after the prolific creator moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s that Marvel’s first major superhero team, the West Coast Avengers, opened their base of operations here.
“I dunno, maybe LA is just a funnier place,” Lee once told the LA Weekly of the Southland-based superheroes’ decidedly more offbeat style. “It’s freer. People here are looser. The best example I can give you is when I worked in New York, I wore a tie every day. I’ve lived here for 40 years or so—I haven’t had a tie on once. I have a closet filled with about 50 ties that will never see any wear again.”
Prior to the 1980s, Marvel’s heroes landed in LA only very sporadically. When they did, the city was almost universally portrayed as a shallow playground populated by cigar-chomping movie tycoons and buxom starlets thirsting for stardom.
This stereotypical version of LA was routinely established during the publisher’s famed Silver Age, when Lee, along with collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, introduced enduring characters like Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. For their purposes, LA was virtually synonymous with Hollywood, and not even Marvel’s most upstanding superheroes were safe from its irresistible promise of stardom.
Lee’s conceptions of Los Angeles during that time were as superficial as the Tinseltown characters he lampooned. In one of the city’s earliest Silver Age appearances, a suddenly-bankrupt Fantastic Four (Vol.1, No. 9) are lured to Hollywood by the promise of a million-dollar movie contract.
The storyline goes on to spoof the perceived triviality of LA life, as Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) zooms down the city’s freeways in a newly-purchased “snazzy sports car,” Sue Storm (Invisible Woman) hangs out in a “fashionable Hollywood nightclub,” and Ben Grimm (Thing) angrily throws a tangled jumble of Muscle Beach studs into the Pacific Ocean.
In the end, the group’s LA jaunt is revealed to be part of a scheme orchestrated by arch-villain Namor (a.k.a. the Sub-Mariner), but in true Marvel fashion they manage not only to thwart his plans, but to become bona fide movie stars in the process.
That wasn’t the only time LA was portrayed as a sort of sun-drenched honey trap used to serve diabolical ends.
In the The Amazing Spider-Man No. 14, an obnoxious Hollywood producer is enticed by the Green Goblin to create a starring vehicle for the hero in a convoluted scheme to ambush the web-slinger on set. Spidey and sometime-frenemy The Human Torch fall into a similar trap in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual No. 4, when arch-villains Mysterio and the Wizard create a fake movie studio to lure the young hotshots out to Hollywood.
The formula receives something of a twist in Captain America No. 106, when communists manufacture a doppelgänger of the hero to commit detestable acts in a Hollywood movie, thereby sullying his reputation.
In the 1970s, depictions of LA in Marvel comics remained relatively infrequent, but when it did appear, the city’s landscape was somewhat more vividly drawn. A three-issue arc in Daredevil Nos. 64-66 (edited by Lee and written by Roy Thomas) had the title hero traveling to the “sprawling super-suburb” to track down his love interest Karen Page, who had relocated there to try her luck as an actress.
In these three issues, Marvel readers were treated to a slew of recognizable LA locations, from the Sunset Strip (populated by so-called “Flower Children”) to the Hollywood Bowl to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre to the teeming intersection of Sunset and Vine.
In the final installment, Daredevil defeats crazed, fame-hungry actor Vince Sterling by drowning him in the La Brea Tar Pits, where the Brutalist exterior of the neighboring George C. Page Museum is rendered in surprisingly accurate detail.
Moving into the Bronze Age, Lee-edited and -written titles featured various other LA neighborhoods, from Malibu and Pacific Palisades (“where lonely gray mansions fronted the ocean’s swell”) in Marvel Spotlight Nos. 2-4 to an undetermined slum in The Incredible Hulk Nos. 131 and 132.
The latter presented a rare depiction of LA’s majority African-American regions, though the location—a “black-walled, fire-gutted tenement” on an emptied-out avenue known simply as “Harper Street”—was vague at best.
Still, in the character of Jim Wilson—a black man who bonds with The Hulk over a shared feeling of societal rejection—the publisher demonstrated a burgeoning (if awkward) strain of progressivism.
All of the above-mentioned titles were either written or edited by Lee himself, who served as Marvel’s editor-in-chief until 1972, when he was promoted to president and publisher.
In subsequent years, his direct editorial influence over the company’s output was significantly diminished, though he did occasionally return to write stories, as he did with the debut issue of the LA-set Savage She-Hulk in February 1980. Four years after that, the West Coast Avengers burst onto the scene.
Lee’s death this week is an opportunity to reflect on his outsized influence on the popular culture, and also on how his creative works influenced young readers’ perceptions of faraway places.
Just like his over-the-top storylines, the Los Angeles of his imagination was an unsubtle and crowd-pleasing entity, where emerald palm trees dotted every inch of skyline and the city itself had all the nuance of a Hollywood backdrop.
But as with the rest of Lee’s output, there is an undeniable comfort that comes from seeing our crazy, incredibly complicated home boiled down to a series of broad and manageable strokes.
In Stan Lee’s LA, there was no enemy too tough to be vanquished, no dream too great to be realized. When faced with a pile-up on the 405, all one needed to do was fly.