Stan Lee had humble origins and rose to legendary heights. He became a loved figure and inspired people of all ages, regardless of cultural background, political inclinations, skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. His creation bridged fundamental differences, and will continue to do so for a long time. He died at 95 and, of course, he will be sorely missed.
Stan Lee led a legendary life. That’s a simple fact. His impact in the life of millions is hard to overstate. His influence is felt throughout the entertainment world, from literature to TV to film. His place in the hearts of people across countries and generations is arguably undisputed. His creations, his characters, his world: his very imagination lives on in the minds of his direct and indirect fans—in those who knew him personally, in those who knew of him, and in those who only knew the superheroes he helped forge. Stan Lee led a legendary life.
Born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922 in Manhattan, New York, to immigrant parents, Stan Lee grew with the dream of one day writing “The Great American Novel.” Chasing that golden unicorn, he took several jobs in his youth: a sandwich deliverer, an usher, an office boy. In 1939 he became an assistant at Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics and started at the bottom. He had to work for and attend the artists: he brought them lunch, proofread the strips, erased the pencil from the final work, and made sure the inkwells remained full—literally—until, one fine day, he was finally able to write. First, he wrote text fillers (his first one was called “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge”), but soon he was promoted and given the responsibility to develop proper comic books.
His very first creation, the first superhero ever to spring form Stan Lee’s prodigious imagination, was The Destroyer, a Nazi-fighting super-spy. After an internal dispute in Timely Comics a position was left vacant and an 18-year-old Stan was made interim editor. All this happened during what is now known as the Golden Age of Comic Books—that amazing period in which comic books grew immensely in popularity following World War II and which saw the creation of classic characters such as Superman, Batman, Captain America, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel (whose highly anticipated film will release next year). Lee also served in the United States Army for a while, having enrolled in 1942, under the official (and rather rare) classification of “playwright,” dedicated to the creation of manuals, training films, slogans and cartooning. When he returned from his military services and armed with great innate skills for business, Stan Lee was able to rise the ranks quickly, becoming editor-in-chief and eventually publisher.
However, by the late 50s superheroes had been somewhat relegated and, after writing stories in genres as diverse as Western, romance, science fiction and medieval adventure, Lee grew increasingly disillusioned and considered quitting to change careers. Just as he was about to do so, Martin Goodman gave him a new assignment. DC Comics had brought superheroes back with a whole new super-assembly: the Justice League of America, and Stan Lee had now the responsibility of putting together his own super-team to compete with DC Comics' success. Lee’s wife advised him to experiment with the stories and characters he most passionately loved—after all, he had nothing to lose. So he got to work: he envisioned superheroes with a more authentic humanity than ever before by giving them human flaws, a radical move at the time as comic-book characters were usually written to be ideal beings with perfect moral and psychology.
By making far more complex and multidimensional superheroes, Lee was able to write correspondingly interesting and deep stories, far more “realistic” than had ever been written before. The first group he and collaborator Jack Kirby created in this new stage was the Fantastic Four, which became instantly popular. He and Kirby were on a creative frenzy, coming up with a wide array of new characters such as the X-Men, Thor, the Hulk, and Iron Man. He collaborated with others, too. With Bill Everett he created Daredevil, and with Steve Ditko he conjured up Doctor Strange and, most famously, Spider-Man. He also brought back classic characters such as Captain America and Captain Marvel and, fulfilling his task, he joined them together in the incredibly popular team called The Avengers. It’s likely you’ve heard of them.
By this time, Timely Comics (later known as Atlas Comics) had been given a new name. Marvel Comics, following Stan Lee’s momentum for creating deep characters and speaking about more serious political issues than its competitors, eventually managed to harbor a new age for comic books. During the 60s Lee scripted and edited most of the Marvel’s series publications. In collaboration with John Romita, he wrote stories that addressed problems such as the Vietnam War, elections and activism and brought into the narrative some of the first and most iconic black characters in Comic Books, including Black Panther.
In 1972 Lee stopped writing monthly to take over the role of Marvel’s publisher. Marvel, rising with unprecedented success, became a colossus under his influence. Eventually Stan Lee became Marvel’s figurehead, as he interacted and engaged with fans in a number of ways, including through letters and conventions. He became a loved figure in the comic book world, and later in the great film realm of Hollywood. He participated enthusiastically with the development of his brands and their spin-offs, and saw them go from the colorful pages of comic books to the photographic excitement of TV and, later, to the jaw-dropping cinematography of films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the most successful film franchises in history, and Lee saw it all happen. He famously appeared in small cameos for each Marvel film until now.
After Stan Lee, comic books changed. Sure, the stories were full of super-powers and aliens and unimaginably advanced technology, with stakes and roots often too exaggerated to be believable in any meaningful way. But the key to Marvel’s success lies not in the believability of the stories, of the context, or of the super-powers; but on the believability of their characters. That is Stan Lee’s signature, to bring authentic humans into greatly entertaining imaginary worlds. He takes real people and gives them unreal powers. What’s realistic is not the stories themselves, but the characters that inhabit them. That’s the winning formula.
In July 6, 2017, Joan B. Lee, Stan’s wife, died. Now, on November 12, 2018, at the age of 95, he follows her, leaving a staggering legacy behind. He will be missed, but even more, he will undoubtedly be remembered. His work will live on—in the minds of his direct and indirect fans. Stan Lee led a legendary life. That’s a simple fact.
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