Without Joan, we might not have Stan Lee’s Marvel universe
I wasn’t even fully seated before Stan Lee brought up his beloved Joanie, his wife of seven decades.
It was the eve of another highly anticipated royal wedding: the 2011 nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Joan Lee may have lived in America for most of her life, but the former model and showgirl was still absolutely British, and she wanted her then 88-year-old husband to stay up with her to the wee hours to watch the Westminster Abbey ceremony.
“I had a one-word reply for her,” Lee recounted, grinning behind his signature tinted glasses in his Beverly Hills office, “‘Why?’”
Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics mastermind emeritus, loves to speak of Joan with a teasing tone that reflects deep devotion. They married in 1947 — after the past matter of a divorce could be ironed out — and had shared their lows and highs ever since, including the birth of two children in the ‘50s (the second child would die several days after the birth).
During our same Beverly Hills interview, Lee — as he long had — credited Joan with the biggest shift in his career.
Stanley Lieber had gone to work as a teenage office boy in the ‘30s for Martin Goodman, his cousin’s husband, who ran Timely/Atlas, the publishing forerunner to Marvel. To reserve his birth name for that great American novel he planned to author one day, Lieber began writing comics under the nom-de-toon “Stan Lee.”
By the mid-‘50s, superheroes had yielded comics-market dominance to soap opera and sci-fi books and war stories, and times grew lean for Lee, who was now editor of Marvel’s forerunner. But in 1960, the arc of Lee’s professional life suddenly bent toward greatness — right as he was on the verge of quitting the business.
That year, Goodman told Lee to create a team of superheroes, after the head of DC had boasted of his success with its superhero team Justice League of America. Goodman wanted Lee to create a competing superteam, but the editor was tired of following formulaic convention.
“I told my wife Joanie, ‘I’m going to quit.’” Lee recounted. “But she said: ‘Why not write it the way you want to write it? If it doesn’t work, the worst that’s going to happen is that they’ll fire you. And you want to quit anyway.’”
With those words, Lee says, Joan changed their lives — and the future of Marvel Comics.
Lee sat and dreamed up the Fantastic Four — a bickering family of heroes that emotionally seemed more human than super. Lee followed by co-creating a vulnerable, awkward Spider-Man — distinct counterprogramming to DC’s mighty Superman and Batman. Marvel’s great rise was fully launched, as Thor and Iron Man and the X-Men followed.
In Lee’s mind, we would have no multi-billion-dollar Marvel superhero industry today were it not for Joanie.
Joan Lee died Thursday in Los Angeles, after being hospitalized for a stroke this week, her family said in a statement. She was 95. She is mourned by millions.
Stan Lee’s wife, Joan Lee, died on July 6 in Los Angeles after reportedly suffering a stroke.