Since their inception, comics have been a central feature of American culture, defining who we are and where we are going as a culture. They didn’t start off that way, though. They began as a continuation of the dime stories about gunslingers, lawmen, and frontiersmen that were prominent in the latter part of the nineteenth century. As the West was tamed, the heroes slowly changed from men of that familiar environment to creations set in ‘civilized’ cities. Slowly, they developed into beings with supernatural powers.
They retained some of the characteristics of their predecessors even then. Billy the Kid, Wild Bill Hickock, and Davey Crockett never met in any of the dime novels of the time. Neither did any of the new heroes. As in the Old West, the actions of one character didn’t affect the environment of any other. In following the traditions of their forerunners, the characters were flat as well; no matter what occurred in one episode, the character never developed and learned. Once a hero or villain was created, it would remain static for its duration of his career.
A 19 year-old took over Marvel Comics in late 1941 and worked until he did his military service in early 1942. He came back after the war and resumed his duties, serving at Marvel for several decades. During that time, he made some significant changes to the comics industry. In a mode of writing where heroes had perfect personalities, he made characters that were flawed. They had concerns over everday issues like money and loved ones. They lost their tempers, they made wrong decisions. Occasionally they went from good to bad or bad to good. Sometimes they stayed in a moral gray fog.
Along with those changes, he introduced the idea of a comic universe in which all the characters were a part. For the first time, heroes could interact both directly and indirectly. Their actions had consequences in the larger universe, taking them one step closer to being real for the readers.
And since they could interact, and their actions affected each other, it was natural that he should form superhero groups like Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Avengers. This allowed for yet another layer of reality as they bickered among themselves about everything most people argue about, as well as crime. He made them behave like real people, he helped us to see them as real people. Eventually, he would start changing the personnel in these groups. Part-time members and replacements made them more vital.
Villains became more complex. I have always found it odd, and wonderful, that Magneto never tries to outright kill Xavier or his people. And in the later stories, he becomes the leader of the X-Men. This is because the comics make clear that the two men respect each other, they simply disagree on how to go about gaining mutant rights. That is a relationship rarely managed in literature, but infinitely more interesting than the typical good and bad that permeates most stories in any genre. Or Apocalypse, an ‘evil’ mutant with far more ability than most others in the Marvel universe whose attacks are nothing more than tests to see if the mutants are worthy of surivival. He is pleased at his failures.
With all the transformations to the universe he was in charge of, it did not affect the amount of characters he helped to create. During his thirty year run, 181 new comic beings were created.
All this adoration is not to say that Stan Lee is perfect. Need I mention Stripperella? And he has followed the genres’ habit of sliding chronology in order to retain both heroes and villains. All that proves, though, is that he is a product of the industry he has revolutionized. All it really shows is that the characters he created were too valuable to part with.