We've all got our own ideas about which heroes are most vital to the Marvel universe, and now we get to see Stan Lee's.
Well, Stan Lee's in the early '70s, anyway. Courtesy of Sean Howe's excellent Marvel Comics: The Untold Story Tumblr (a tie-in to his also-excellent book of the same name), we've got a document written by Lee circa 1973 that presents a list of major Marvel characters at the time and ranks them according to their importance to the company. As you'll see in the image below, three asterisks indicates a "Very Important" character, while two indicates an "Important" character and one indicates a "Not Important" character. You can probably predict quite a few of the characters Lee deemed very important, but certain parts of this list may surprise you, especially if you weren't around to read comics in the early '70s.
First, let's note the "very important" characters that aren't so important anymore. Most notably, we've got Doc Savage and Ka-Zar, both of whom have long since faded out of the Marvel spotlight. Then there's Dracula, who's certainly still popular as a character overall, but is no longer the prime vampire of the Marvel Universe. As for Conan, his graphic adventures are now published by Dark Horse Comics.
Among the other things worth nothing about this list: Well, for one thing, while the Fantastic Four overall is given a three-asterisk rating, Sue Storm is downgraded to two-asterisk status. You also might notice that Lee has deemed the Avengers more important than the X-Men, but keep in mind that this was before everyone's favorite mutants enjoyed a renaissance thanks to talents like writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne. A few years from 1973, they would star in the most popular book in comics.
Though it doesn't cover the whole Marvel Universe, this document is a nice snapshot of the comic book trends of its time, and it's certainly interesting to compare it with the comic book world 40 years later. If this list were made today, some of the rankings would likely be exactly the same, but there'd be some new faces at the top, and some characters would get some major downgrades.