Comics

Stan Lee: The Cupid of the Marvel Universe

Stan Lee was a romantic. He hand-wrote his wife Joan personalized love poems for every Valentine’s Day and wedding anniversary they shared during their nearly 70-year marriage. Stan’s romantic notions were up front in most of the superhero titles he wrote for Marvel, from the Fantastic Four to the Amazing Spider-Man. These superhero romances were another way Stan brought his characters down to earth. Love and relationships were very much part of the daily problems Marvel heroes had to face as they used their vast powers to fight crime and cosmic threats to humanity.

The Fantastic Four comic introduced Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic, and Susan Storm, the Invisible Girl. Their love for one another was apparent from the start, even though for the shortest of periods (the first year of stories or so) there was a bit of a triangle between Reed, Sue and Ben Grimm, who had become The Thing. Eventually, Susan became Susan Storm-Richards and, a few years later, the mother of their son Franklin. Love, marriage and parenting were never the status quo in superhero comics, but Stan brought them all to the fore during his run on the title. Fantastic Four Annual #3 in 1965 was one of the first major comicbooks to feature the marriage of two of its lead characters.

But worry not, faithful readers, Ben Grimm was not left with a broken heart for too long. He had already met Alicia Masters, the stepdaughter of the villain known as the Puppet Master. The blind sculptress Alicia was introduced in Fantastic Four #8 (1962) and fell in love with Ben Grimm for who he was, not what he looked like. Their long relationship had its ups and downs, but they too finally tied the knot in 2019’s Fantastic Four: Wedding Special.

Even the young Johnny Storm found romance after dating several young women who were only really impressed with his superhero status. However, he found true love with an Inhuman! Crystal was introduced in Fantastic Four #45 (1965), along with the rest of her Inhuman family and friends. There were instant sparks between the young mistress of the elements and the fiery Human Torch. Their romance lasted a while, with Crystal even serving as a member of the team while Susan took care of young Franklin, until she was forced to leave the team in issue #105 (1970), because the pollution of the human world was endangering her life. Since then, Crystal and Johnny have gone their separate ways, but their long romance is an integral part of the history of both characters.

While relationships in the Fantastic Four were mostly stable, the relationships in Stan’s Amazing Spider-Man run were anything but. The young Peter Parker had dated a few eligible young women ranging from Liz Allen, who had tormented Peter when he was still a teen in high school, to Betty Brant, secretary to J. Jonah Jameson. Once Peter got to college, his growing confidence and personal sincerity won the hearts of other women, the first of whom was the niece of his Aunt May’s best friend, Anna Watson. For a while Peter did all he could to avoid the nice young girl May and Anna wanted Peter to meet. But in Amazing Spider-Man #42 in 1966, Mary Jane Watson made her dramatic debut and won over Peter (and the fans).

They dated for a time, but Peter couldn’t get past MJ’s party-girl, carefree attitude, and there was another woman waiting in the wings for Peter.

Gwen Stacy debuted about a year earlier than MJ in Amazing Spider-Man #31 (1965) and was in love with Peter from the start, but Peter was too concerned with his problems and responsibilities as Spider-Man to return her interest. Eventually, when Peter and MJ went their separate ways, Gwen became the love of Peter’s life. But to add even more romantic complications, Gwen and MJ became friends and MJ even started dating Peter’s roommate Harry Osborne.

This all came to a tragic conclusion when Gwen died at the hands of the Green Goblin. But it was Mary Jane Watson who found the strength to give Peter comfort over the loss of his beloved Gwen.

This began a deeper relationship between them that has lasted decades and inevitably resulted in marriage between MJ and Peter. Stan didn’t oversee the growing relationship between these two characters in the comicbook, as he’d become Marvel’s Publisher by then and other talented writers had stepped in to continue the Amazing Spider-Man title (such as Gerry Conway, who wrote the scene above. Stan always gave credit where credit’s due!). However, Stan did preside over a public wedding between Spidey and MJ, which took place at New York’s Shea Stadium in 1987.

Though MJ and Peter eventually split in the comicbooks due to many circumstances, they remained married in the daily and Sunday Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip, which ran from 1977 to 2019. Stan wrote numerous episodes of their married life together during the strip’s four decade run.

Stan also addressed romantic love, angst and complicated love triangles in Uncanny X-Men (Cyclops-Marvel Girl-Angel), The Incredible Hulk (Dr. Robert Bruce Banner-Betty Ross-Major Glenn Talbot), Daredevil (Matt Murdock-Karen Page-Franklin “Foggy” Nelson), and the many other titles he wrote.

Romance, love and its many complications fueled several of the Marvel stories that Stan penned in the 1960s. It was pioneering that so many of these tales turned on these key relationships in a time when usually the beloved of a superhero simply pined for the hero while disdaining their human guise, then went out, got in trouble, and needed to be rescued. A born romantic, Stan brought many of his notions to the stories he wrote, and he let the relationships grow and change over time. This approach entertained fans with richer, more dramatic, and more human stories that featured love between the characters which the readers devotedly followed every month. Ya gotta love it!