Stan Lee, the legendary writer and editor who co-created the Marvel Universe has died at the age of 95.
Born Stanley Martin Lieber in New York City in 1922, Stan Lee began working at Timely Comics in 1939, during the early days of the golden age of comics. Timely published Captain America by Joe Simon and future Lee collaborator Jack Kirby, as well as a book with the prophetic title of Marvel Comics. Lee’s first published work came in a text-only filler story in Captain America Comics #3 in 1941. Before long, Lee was the editor-in-chief of Timely.
Timely eventually became Atlas and switched its focus to genres like westerns and romance. But in the early 1960s, Lee and Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four, and changed the course of comic book history. Following on from the success of the Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby co-created the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, and others. Along with the Steve Ditko (who also recently passed), Lee co-created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange.
Marvel’s heroes set themselves apart from the competition by their flaws, their weaknesses, and their tendency towards interpersonal drama and infighting. At a time when the superhero comics industry had begun to flounder, and with Marvel’s chief competition dealing in a relatively square, safe house style, Lee’s willingness to take chances on offbeat characters and to allow visionary artists like Kirby and Ditko run wild was revolutionary. Lee himself fostered the illusion that Marvel was a wild company, adopting a wisecracking, informal style in his communications with fans in the pages of the books. It’s a tone that has been imitated endlessly throughout the industry since then, but nobody ever sold that illusion quite as well as Stan Lee did.
Lee helped pioneer what came to be known as the “Marvel method” of comic book production. In order to keep up with his voluminous workload, Lee and a collaborator (such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, or other artists) would discuss a story outline. The artist would then go off and draw the full story, and Lee would add dialogue to the finished pages. This method allowed Lee to serve as co-author of dozens of comic book stories each month. His collaboration with Kirby on Fantastic Four (arguably his finest work) remained the longest unbroken run by a single creative team in comics history for nearly 40 years, while his tumultuous collaboration with Steve Ditko on both Spider-Man and Doctor Strange set the tone for those characters for all eternity. To this day, nobody has matched the Lee/Ditko Doctor Strange stories.
By 1972, Lee was promoted to publisher of Marvel Comics, and assumed the role of the company’s public face, which he relished. With his confident public speaking style, talent for storytelling, and natural charisma, Lee helped turn Marvel from a simple publisher of comics into a multimedia empire, one which encompassed animation, live action TV shows, and films. Lee continued to write comics, notably The Amazing Spider-Man (collaborating with artist John Romita Sr.) into the early 1970s, but his contributions as a writer and editor dwindled as his responsibilities to the rest of the business grew. He never achieved the creative heights he did with Kirby, Ditko, and others, although his profile within the industry continued to swell.
A generation of fans knew Lee as the narrator of beloved Saturday morning cartoon series like Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends or The Incredible Hulk. He gave speeches and lectures, and was a frequent guest at comic cons. Lee’s role as goodwill ambassador for Marvel Comics and the comic book industry in general far outstripped his creative contributions in recent decades, although it could be argued that it was no less important. While creative partners like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko shunned the spotlight, the photogenic, charismatic Lee was a welcome, upbeat figure in an industry that prizes intellectual property over the actual human beings who create the work itself.
Lee received executive producer credit on every live action Marvel movie and television show, and beginning with the first X-Men movie in 2000 began a tradition of appearing for a brief, Hitchcockian cameo in each film, which he continued through 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. It’s not clear if Lee had completed a cameo for upcoming Marvel movies such as Avengers 4 or Spider-Man: Far From Home, although in recent years, Marvel Studios had apparently gotten in the habit of filming multiple Stan Lee cameos at a time, acknowledging that not even a comic book legend lives forever.
Since the death of the love of his life, Joan, in 2016, there have been troubling accounts about Lee’s personal life. In addition to the failing health one would expect of even the most robust nonagenarian, Lee was engulfed in public feuds, likely not of his own making, by those looking to control his legacy, with ugly legal battles, unsubstantiated accusations, and allegations of elder abuse hanging like a cloud around his home.
The work that Stan Lee did with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, and other artists forms the very bedrock of modern comics. But Lee’s role as hype man extraordinaire helped set Marvel apart from its competitors. No other comic book creator has ever been the celebrity face of an entire brand as Lee was, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a writer/editor as prolific, who revolutionizes the business element of the industry, or who embraces the spotlight as readily as he did.
Excelsior, Mr. Lee.