Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics giant who created some of the most recognizable comic book heroes in history, died Monday, November 12, 2018, at the age of 95. According to multiple news sources, he died early in the morning at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
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The characters and stories Lee created in partnership with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, among others, include what amounts to a list of the biggest and most beloved entertainment properties of the 21st century: Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men. And the way Lee positioned all these separate comic-book series into a single, unified fictional universe would go on to influence the way pop storytelling — from sitcoms to video games — has been imagined ever since.
Lee’s influence is seen all over the comic world, from his collaborative approach to the creative process to the snappy dialogue he delighted in. He came to comics at a time when the industry was booming. It would be decades before he would make his mark, but once he did, those boom years seemed practically primitive in comparison to the new paradigm he created.
Stan Lee’s own origin story has become as canonical in the world of comics as that of any fictional hero. Born Dec. 28, 1922 in New York City, Stanley Martin Lieber discovered his love for writing at a young age. As a teenager, he dreamed of penning “the great American novel” but was willing to settle for a decent writing job to help his impoverished family out.
He got that and more in 1940, when a relative got him a job as an assistant at Timely Comics, the corporate precursor to Marvel. Superman and Batman were on top of the world at the wildly successful DC Comics, while Timely had just launched Captain America. Not long after Lee arrived, Timely underwent an organizational shakeup, and Lee, one of the last men standing at the company, was abruptly named editor in chief. He was 18 years old.
He would remain in his surprising new position for three decades, and for the first 20 years or so, he churned out copy for a wide variety of unremarkable comics: Westerns and crime stories, romance and teen comics, lots of humor titles.
It was a writing job, and it paid the bills, which isn’t something every aspiring author can boast. But Lee was ashamed of what he was writing. “I was embarrassed to tell people that I wrote comic books,” he told Radio Times in a 2016 interview. “I even changed my name because people hated them so much. My name used to be Stanley Martin Lieber, which was a very normal name. I cut it in half and made it Stan Lee because I didn’t want to use my real name on my work. I was saving it for the great American novel, which I never wrote.”
As superhero comics grew wildly popular with kids in the 1940s, adults began to notice what their children were reading. And as the moral panic of the McCarthy era advanced in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, crusaders for decency turned their eye to comics, blaming them for all manner of juvenile delinquency from bad grades to lawbreaking. A Senate subcommittee was formed to investigate, citizens burned comic books, the popularity of superhero titles plummeted, and the comics industry began to implode.
At Timely, Lee’s boss fired almost everyone but Lee himself, leaving him to continue writing the publisher’s output essentially singlehandedly. Through the ‘50s, Timely was rebranded as Atlas Comics, and Lee’s output diversified. He wrote romance comics, Westerns, humor — almost anything but superheroes. Then, in 1961, the publishing operation was once again renamed, and before long, the new Marvel Comics line began furiously rejuvenating the superhero genre, starting with a new series Lee conceived with artist Jack Kirby.
In “The Fantastic Four,” Lee was responding commercially to the success of DC’s recently-launched “Justice League.” But “The Fantastic Four” took the concept of “Justice League” – a team of superheroes working together – and tweaked it into something brand new. Stan Lee’s heroes, unlike DC’s square-jawed, white-bread adventurers, were notable not only for their strengths, but also for their flaws.
The Fantastic Four were much more like what might result if a real person were suddenly imbued with superpowers – which was, according to their mythology, exactly what happened to them. When the four fictional friends Lee and Kirby dreamed up became supercharged after being bombarded with cosmic rays, they didn’t stop bickering, didn’t stop feeling occasionally jealous or petty or resentful, didn’t stop being essentially human.
“The Fantastic Four” became a hit, and this new style was the beginning of a revolution for comics. But there was more innovation at work in the new title than simply its characters’ personalities.
The superheroes of “The Fantastic Four” spoke differently than their predecessors, for one thing. Dialogue for the superheroes of the Golden Age of Comics in the 1940s was written in noble, bland tones to match their noble, bland personalities. It advanced the story, but it wasn’t crafted in the way Lee would craft his dialogue, snappy and hip to better match the way his young readers spoke.
Even more significantly, the collaborative workflow Lee pioneered with “The Fantastic Four” would open the door to a sea change in comics. Prior to the 1960s, the standard was for a writer to write up an entire script prior to the creation of the artwork, including direction for how each panel should be drawn. The process put the writer at the forefront of creation, allowing the men who did the drawing little leeway for artistic input.
What Lee did with “The Fantastic Four” was to begin by writing a broad synopsis of the story he was imagining. He gave that outline to artist Jack Kirby, who drew the artwork from the vision in his own mind, creating a more detailed storyline in images. Finally, those pages of art went back to Lee, who wrote all the dialogue and captions, based on a combination of his original concept and the visual narrative Kirby had created.
It would come to be known as the “Marvel method,” and Lee would use it again and again, with Kirby and other artists, as he released new titles under the newly renamed Marvel Comics masthead. It was more than an update to the classic comic book style: it made room for a leap forward in artistic vision, giving comics artists room to truly create rather than simply follow a writer’s instructions. A new creativity flourished as Marvel artists played with the boundaries of the page, expanding and merging and overlapping panels, making art that embodied the story rather than just illustrating it.
But not everything about the Marvel method was quite so marvelous. This new collaborative style also brought friction to Marvel in the form of fights over creative credit. As Lee initiated more and more comic series using this method—Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men—he would refer to himself as “the creator” of each superhero. He had come up with the concepts, he reasoned, so they were his creations. But the artists argued that they were truly co-creators, as they took the germs of Lee’s ideas and fleshed them out into full-blown stories. Eventually, this resulted in a serious rift between Lee and artists Kirby and Steve Ditko.
Thought Lee ultimately caved and began referring to himself as “co-creator,” he maintained that there was more fuss over the issue than necessary. As he told the Chicago Tribune, “I was very lucky to work with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and John Romita, and anything I wrote was by ‘Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’ or ‘Stan Lee and Steve Ditko,’ and their name was always as large as mine on the page… I don’t know what else I could do.” Yet for many, the issue tarnished his reputation.
It was a reputation that continued to grow throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s as Lee added more and more titles to Marvel’s output. And as he did so, he introduced yet another innovation to comics: Rather than creating fictional universes for his superheroes to exist in—Superman’s Metropolis, Batman’s Gotham City—he placed them in the real world. New York City was home base for many of his superheroes: Spider-Man lived in Queens, the Avengers worked out of Iron Man’s Upper East Side mansion, and Doctor Strange hung out in Greenwich Village. As they shared a city, sometimes they ran into each other there.
Lee explained to the Chicago Tribune the impulse that led him to innovate with real-life locations and flawed heroes: “I didn’t enjoy stories that took place in a Gotham or Metropolis. I didn’t know where those places were! Why couldn’t it be a New York, Chicago, Los Angeles? For me, to enjoy what I was writing, I needed a superhero story as realistic as I could make it … I liked people who had problems I might have, because we all have insecurities, regrets. I like heroes who were not 100-percent perfect, who have things to take care of.”
There was also a benefit to Marvel in Lee’s real-world concept. The natural overlapping of characters living in the same city led to several of the heroes teaming up as the Avengers, the superhero team that includes Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow, and an ever-evolving cast of others. Each had his or her own series of comics as well as the Avengers series, and their adventures converged in each other’s series, with the upshot for fans being that if you wanted to closely follow any one character’s adventures, you’d have to buy all the series they appear in, not just their own. The result for Marvel and Lee, of course, was increased sales, putting them on top of the industry.
The characters Lee co-created became iconic to comic book readers, but aside from Spider-Man and the Hulk, who were featured in live-action network TV series, few were well known to the general public for decades of their lives. A handful of movie adaptations bombed, leaving the Marvel characters popular only with a niche market. That began to change in 2000, when a string of big-budget, big-screen adaptations kicked off with “X-Men.”
That first successful adaptation didn’t just feature flashy effects and lots of action sequences, it starred critically acclaimed actors like Halle Berry and Ian McKellen and made an A-list Hollywood star of the unknown Hugh Jackman. Audiences loved it, and an era of superhero films had begun. “Spider-Man” followed; the X-Men were featured in a sequel; and soon Hollywood was releasing multiple Marvel movies each year.
One constant that united many of those Marvel movies was the Stan Lee cameo. Whether it was a speaking role, a quick reaction shot, or, sometimes, just a poster with the creator’s face on it, a cameo by Lee came to be an expected feature of a Marvel film. In “X-Men,” he offered a look of surprise while standing at a hot dog stand on the beach. In “Hulk,” he spoke, playing a security guard. In “The Avengers,” he got a self-referential laugh as he quipped, “Superheroes? In New York? Gimme a break!”
The list of cameos goes on and on, and it extends to titles not created by Lee. He made appearances on TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” “The Simpsons” and “Chuck;” and “Mallrats,” “Kick-Ass” and “Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement” on the big screen, among others. As Marvel’s fame and reach increased in the 21st century, so did Lee’s, and his face and work are now familiar to many.
Lee took on different roles at Marvel as his career evolved: trying out the presidency for size and stepping down when he discovered he hated the business aspect of the role, settling in as publisher, stepping away to pursue other projects while retaining a role as elder statesman and figurehead.
He approached a new internet audience with the 1998 project Stan Lee Media, a short-lived venture that failed after going public when two of Lee’s partners were found engaging in shareholder fraud. POW! Entertainment followed, through which Lee funneled projects including superhero-related reality TV series, magna and graphic novels, movies, and TV dramas.
Lee built his fame in part on his easy rapport with fans, and that was something that continued even as his creative output slowed down in later life. It began in the earliest days of Marvel, when he would print reader letters in his comics with personal answers written in his trademark snappy style. As the age of the Comic-Con dawned, Lee found that it offered a way to meet with his fans in person, and he became a popular fixture at cons all over the world, continuing to attend well into his 90s.
Though Lee never wrote that Great American Novel, he did write books: 2002’s “Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee” and 2015’s “Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir,” the latter of which was presented as a graphic novel drawn by artist Colleen Doran. And he championed reading and literacy, forming the Stan Lee Foundation in order to promote literacy, education, and the arts.
In the 2013 collection “What is a Superhero?” Lee wrote an essay that mused on the fascination with superheroes that made his long-lived career possible. “I think people are fascinated by superheroes because when we were young we all liked fairy tales, and fairy tales are stories of people with superpowers, people who are super in some way—giants, witches, magicians, always people who are bigger than life.
“Well, as we got older, we outgrew fairy tales. Most people don’t read fairy tales when they’re grown-ups, but I don’t think we ever outgrow our love for those kinds of stories, stories of people who are bigger and more powerful and more colorful than we are. So superhero stories, to me, are like fairy tales for grown-ups. I don’t know why, but the human condition is such that we love reading about people who can do things that we can’t do and who have powers that we wish we had.”
Lee is survived by his daughter, Joan Celia “J.C.” Lee. He was preceded in death by another daughter, Jan Lee, who died shortly after her birth. His wife Joan passed away in 2017.
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