It sounds like the plot to a comic book story. A teenage kid takes a shot at something no one ever expected to remember. He messes around with something way bigger than himself, changes it, and in the process makes his own contribution to history. Although it sounds like cheesy comic book drama, that’s exactly what happened one day nearly 80 years ago when an awkward, upstart teenager changed the course of comic books forever.
It was 1940. With Europe embroiled in World War II and the United States rapidly heading in that direction, the country needed a hero who embodied the national spirit. Cartoonists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby rose to the challenge and created a star-spangled symbol all Americans could admire. Originally dubbed “Super American,” by the time the character hit the newsstands in December 1940, his name had become Captain America.
The character was an immediate success. The first issue sold nearly one million copies. Captain America fought the Nazis and defended himself with a triangular shield. By the time issue #2 rolled off the presses, the shield was round. This issue, too, was popular with the public
By issue #3, the character was well enough established that editors decided they could take a gamble with a 19-year-old novice named Stanley Martin. Technically, Stanley Martin was not his real name. He had written a few small pieces for Timely Comics in the previous months, and he used a number of pseudonyms. Writing for comic books was not the most respectable of fields for a writer, and he did not want to tarnish his real name if his foray into comic books did not pan out. When he agreed to take on a writing assignment for Captain America #3, he selected yet another pseudonym.
In retrospect, it was probably a wise move. When you are an inexperienced kid and you have an opportunity to write for a publication that has a million readers, the smart thing is to play it safe and ride the coattails of the creators’ success. No one told young Martin he should play it safe, though. He did the unthinkable: he changed an essential aspect of the main character.
Until that issue, entitled “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge,” Captain America’s shield was simply a defensive device. Martin decided the shield could be much more. He had Cap throw the shield as a weapon and have it bounce back to him. Today, it is impossible to imagine Captain America without a throwing/returning shield. It all started with the upstart kid who wouldn’t even use his real name or even one of his previous pseudonyms to identify himself as the author. In fact, odds are that you don’t even know his real name, but you know the legend of the hero he transformed.
In the years to come, Martin took on a bit of the adventure that had been reserved for Captain America. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Although he did not see combat, his experience as a writer earned him a place in the division that wrote training manuals for soldiers. While in uniform, he worked alongside some other aspiring writers, whose names gained legendary status. Frank Capra become one of the best-known names in Hollywood, while Theodore Geisel and Charles Addams would gain fame for themselves with their illustrated stories. Geisel wrote under a pseudonym that everyone remembers: Dr. Seuss. Charles Addams used his own name and even applied it to the characters he created: the Addams Family. As for Martin, he wouldn’t be remembered either for his Stanley Martin pseudonym or for his real name. When the war ended, he returned to Timely Comics and resumed his work.
He was no longer an upstart kid, and he still resisted playing it safe. When superheroes were all following the template established by Superman — a character who was essentially invincible — Martin wanted to create characters who had faults, weaknesses, and regular problems. One of his characters, in particular, was so outlandish that it’s amazing it even got a chance at seeing the light of day. In fact, the only reason it was ever published was because that particular publication, “Amazing Fantasy” had been canceled. They needed a throw-away story for the final issue.
It was in that final issue that Martin got to tell the story of his character that couldn’t possibly be of any interest to anyone. For one thing, the protagonist was a teenager; no comic book hero had ever been a teenager! Perhaps Martin remembered what it was like to be a teenager in whom no one believed, and that’s why he insisted on using a socially-awkward high school boy as the unlikely hero. Who can say what motivated him to insist upon basing the character’s powers on a creature that inspired fear and revulsion? Regardless of the reasons, Martin used the final issue of a failed title to introduce the world to an awkward teenager by the name of Peter Parker and his alter-ego, the Amazing Spider-Man.
We should mention that the reason you don’t remember this creator by his Stanley Martin pseudonym or by his given name, Stanley Martin Lieber, is because he created Spider-Man with a different pseudonym. This time he used one he had used before. It was the same pen name he created back in 1941 when he decided Captain America should throw his shield. That pseudonym stuck. In fact, it stuck so much that he later changed his legal name from Stanley Lieber to the pen name he created as a joke — a wordplay of the name Stanley. You probably better know him by that name: Stan Lee.
Read more fun facts about comic books.
Read more fun facts about careers.