Comic book enthusiasts and movie lovers alike are mourning the loss of legendary writer, editor, and publisher Stan Lee, who died at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California on November 12, 2018. The 95-year-old, responsible for creating iconic superheroes like Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men, The Avengers, and The Fantastic Four, leaves behind a “marvel-ous” legacy that will live on forever.
Stanley Martin Lieber was born in Manhattan, NY on December 28, 1922 to Romanian immigrants Celia and Jack Lieber. Upon graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School, the 16-year-old was hired at what was then called Timely Publications. The company was best known for inexpensive fiction, or “pulp,” magazines. In 1941, when given his first chance to author a story - a short text for Captain America #3 – he signed his name as “Stan Lee.” The creative genius later explained he had only changed it to save his real name for serious literature that he dreamed of writing some day. However, the pseudonym stuck, and soon after, became his legal name.
Promoted to the editor of the comic book division at the age of 19, Lee spent the next decade writing a variety of genres. In 1960, disillusioned by his nondescript writing career, Lee was contemplating leaving when he was asked to create a superhero character to compete with DC Comics’ successful Justice League.
Lee partnered with artist Jack Kirby, the co-creator of Captain America, to launch the Fantastic Four. The comic book was an instant hit, leading to the development of other superhero characters such as Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, and the X-Men. In addition to starring in their individual comic book adventures, the superheroes began cropping up in each other’s fictional worlds – forcing fans to buy multiple series to get the whole story. The success of the intermingling universes led to The Avengers launching as a stand-alone title in September 1963.
Unlike previous superheroes who were depicted as perfect, Lee’s creations were endowed with human flaws, thus making them more relatable to fans. For, example, characters like Spider-Man, who debuted in 1962, had multi-faceted. The crime-fighting superhero was confident and adventurous, while his alter-ego, Peter Parker, was a shy, awkward, high school student – something that most teenagers could identify with.
"He’s just an ordinary guy. And underneath all this wonderful exterior, I’m just an ordinary guy,” said Lee. “He had so many problems, and nothing ever worked out perfectly for him. He was always in some sort of trouble. Yeah, I could feel for old Peter.”
Also unique was Lee’s creation process. Most comic books begin with the writer outlining the story and dialogue in detail for the artist to sketch. However, “The Marvel Method” left the layout of the pages to the discretion of the artists, who were given a general plot. It was only after the images were drawn that dialogue was added. While the technique didn’t work for everyone, allowing artists like Jack Kirby (Iron Man, The Avengers) and Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Doctor Strange) to have creative control resulted in some dazzling works of art.
In 1972, Lee, by then the publisher of Marvel, gave up editorial control to spend time promoting the company. While television shows featuring Marvel characters like Spider-Man and the Hulk did well, achieving success on the big screen proved elusive. A 1990 Hollywood adaptation of Captain America went straight to video, while a low-budget version of the Fantastic Four made in 1994, was never released. It was not until the 2000 release of The X-Men, starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Halle Berry, that Marvel's superheroes became a hit on the big screen. This was also the first time Lee began the much-loved tradition of making cameo appearances in the movies.
In 2009, the Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel and elevated the superhero world further with summer blockbusters like The Avengers. Though no longer associated with the company, Lee continued to promote his creations with appearances at comic book conventions and fan festivals. The 95-year-old was even developing a new superhero, dubbed Dirt Man, at the time of his death!
Though Lee is no longer with us, his larger-than-life personality, fun-loving wit, and charm will be remembered for generations to come. As Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger succinctly put it, ”Stan Lee was as extraordinary as the characters he created. A superhero in his own right to Marvel fans around the world, Stan had the power to inspire, to entertain and to connect. The scale of his imagination was only exceeded by the size of his heart."