RIP Stan Lee
Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics mastermind, was as imperfect as his superheroes—and just as indelible
stan lee, co-founder of Marvel Comics, died at 95 on November 12. Along with artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and countless others, he helped create some of modern pop culture’s most enduring icons. Lee leaves behind a daughter and a legacy as complicated as his flawed characters, including Spider-man and the X-men.
He was born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922, and grew up in New York. In 1941, he landed a job at Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics. After filling the inkwells of artists, getting them lunch and proofreading their work, he was quickly promoted to writer. With his first assignment—“captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in 1941’s Captain America Comics #3—he adopted the pseudonym Stan Lee.
That same year, after the departure of Captain America creators Kirby and Joe Simon, the 19-year-old Lee became Timely’s interim editor, then editor-in-chief. He left in 1942 to join the Army, where he wrote manuals and scripts under the military classification of “playwright.” He returned to Timely after the war, and the company would soon change its name to Atlas Comics—purveyors of pulpy romance and horror. Rival DC Comics, meanwhile, was having enormous success with a revival of the superhero genre: Superman, Batman and a newer version of the Flash. Goodman, eager to develop Atlas heroes, brought Kirby back and paired him with Lee .
It was Lee’s wife, Joan (the couple were married for 69 years; she died in 2017), who suggested adding pathos and real-life struggles to the do-gooder mix. Shortly after Atlas rebranded as Marvel Comics in 1961, Lee and Kirby launched the Fantastic Four, the first modern super team, followed by the Hulk; Black Panther, the first black superhero; and high school nerd Peter Parker (aka Spider-man). Comics would never be the same.
One of Lee’s initiatives was streamlining development. Where previously books were created by an artist working from a fully written script, Lee’s “Marvel method” had artists drawing pages based on brief story summaries; the writer then went back and filled in the script. The more efficient model allowed artists to finish multiple scripts per month, but it took a toll. Spider-man artist Ditko got fed up and left.
Lee was a big personality and a taxing boss: The brand grew exponentially in the ’70s—and he took credit for most of it (his byline appeared on most of the books Marvel released). While artists like Kirby, Bill Everett and John Romita Sr. drew, plotted and designed the Marvel worlds—rarely receiving royalties for their work—lee’s fame grew. Artists were forced to file lawsuits for proper compensation.
But Lee was already looking beyond the comic book. Hoping to build a media empire, he moved to Hollywood in 1981. Earlier efforts— TV series like Spider-man and Fred and Barney Meet the Thing—flopped. The first overwhelming success, Fox’s X-men cartoon, wouldn’t come until 1992, after Marvel acquired the studio Toy Biz, which included an inspired executive named Avi Arad, who would later become chief creative officer of Marvel Entertainment and CEO of Marvel Studios.
Lee wasn’t involved in building the Marvel Universe (with films that have raked in a combined $4 billion at the box office); he left Marvel in 1998 to found Stan Lee Media, then POW! Entertainment. But as chairman emeritus, he remained a major figure at the company and among fans. In his later years, he appeared at conventions and, like a comic-geek Alfred Hitchcock, made cameos in Marvel movies—a Hugh Hefner look-alike in Iron Man, a mailman in Fantastic Four and a bus driver in Avengers: Infinity War.
He was a visionary—one who made his name out of the work of many others. But his impact can’t be overstated. As the father of a company Disney bought (for $4 billion in 2009—a steal!), he can take credit for turning superheroes into a global preoccupation. And as the creator of very human heroes, he taught kindness, compassion and courage to generations.
As the creator of very human heroes, Lee taught kindness, compassion and courage to generations.