As you probably know, comicbook writer Stan Lee passed away recently. Therefore, since Lee and his creations were quite close to my heart (I know, I’m a nerd), I thought that for my first article I’d write about his life.
Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in Manhattan, New York City on December 28, 1922 to his Romanian-born Jewish parents Jack and Cecilia. His family were quite poor, as the Great Depression meant his father only worked sporadically. By the time Lee was a teenager, he lived in “a third-floor apartment facing out back” in the Bronx. The single bedroom was shared by him and his brother Larry, with their parents sleeping on a foldout couch.
In his youth, Lee has said that he was inspired by books and movies, especially those of Errol Flynn, and loved writing. He one day aspired to write ‘The Great American Novel’, a novel with high literary merit that shows the culture of the United States at the time. At fifteen, he entered a high school essay competition run by the New York Herald Tribune. He claims to have won the prize three weeks in a row, causing the newspaper to write to him and ask him to let someone else win. The paper also suggested that Lee consider writing professionally, which he says “probably changed my life”. He graduated high school early in 1939, aged 16.
With the help of his uncle, Lee got a job as an assistant at Timely Comics. His jobs included filling inkwells, proofreading and even fetching lunch for the writers and artists. He eventually made his comicbook writing debut with ‘Captain America Foils The Traitor’s Revenge’ in 1941’s Captain America Comics #3. However, he didn’t want people to associate his name with comicbooks (which had a low social status at the time) when he eventually wrote the Great American Novel, so used a pen name: Stan Lee.
Lee continued to write comics for Timely, creating characters that featured prominently during the Golden Age of Comicbooks and, after editor-in-chief Joe Simon and his creative partner Jack Kirby left the company, he was appointed interim editor at only 19 years of age. He was soon appointed editor-in-chief, showing an affinity in the role, and remained in that position until 1972, when he became publisher.
Lee entered the United States Army in 1942 and served in the Signal Corps, repairing telegraph poles and other communications equipment, but then was transferred to the Training Film Division, where he wrote slogans, manuals and training films. He says that his military classification was ‘playwright’, a title only nine men in the U.S. Army were given. His division included many other famous or soon-to-be-famous people, such as Frank Capra, a multi-time Oscar winning director, and Theodore Geisel, a children’s author under the pseudonym Dr Seuss. While serving, Timely would send Lee letters outlining what they wanted him to write and when they needed it by. One week, the mail clerk overlooked his letter which Lee later saw in the closed mailroom the next day. Lee asked the officer in charge to open the mailroom, but he refused, so Lee took a screwdriver and unscrewed the hinges on the mailbox to retrieve the letter. He was caught and was very nearly sent to Leavenworth Prison, but was saved by the colonel who was in charge of finance.
In 1947, after returning from the war, Lee’s cousin set him up on a blind date with a model. However, when he arrived at the modeling agency to meet his date, a different model opened the door: Joan Boocock. Upon seeing her, he professed her love for her and within two weeks, he proposed. She went to nullify her previous marriage and then, on the same day, in the next room, married Lee. They had two daughters: J.C., born in 1950, and Jan, who died three days after she was born in 1953. Stan and Joan were married for almost 70 years until her death in 2017.
In the 1950s, Timely Comics became Atlas Comics, and Lee wrote stories in a range of genres. However, he was slowly becoming dissatisfied with his career and considered quitting the field for good. But then, in the late 1950s, DC Comics’ Justice League of America became incredibly popular, and the publisher of Atlas, Martin Goodman, tasked Lee to create his own superhero team in response. Lee was unsure, but Joan encouraged him to experiment with stories he preferred. After all, he was planning on quitting anyway so had nothing to lose.
At that time, superheroes were idealistically perfect. They never had problems, or if they did, they weren’t realistic and never lasted. Lee liked to create complex characters that were flawed and had humanity, who experienced negative emotions and lasting issues. This humanity was present in the team he and Jack Kirby (who had returned from DC Comics) created for Goodman: the Fantastic Four.
Following the instant success of the Fantastic Four, Lee co-created lots of other characters, such as the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Doctor Strange and Daredevil. He tackled social issues such as racism and antisemitism with the creation of the X-Men. And, when he realised there were no superheroes who were teenagers (again trying to make his characters relateable), he, along with artist Steve Ditko, created perhaps his most famous creation: the Amazing Spider-Man.
Lee and Kirby later gathered some of their co-created characters together and published them under a new team title, The Avengers. They would also revive old characters from the 1940s, like Captain America. However, Lee and Kirby did not always get along and often disputed who deserved the credit for creating some of the characters, especially The Fantastic Four.
However, Marvel did not become the phenomenon it did just because of this collection of new characters. Lee made it a personal goal to create a community through his comicbooks, and wanted fans to view the creators as friends. Therefore, he always included credits on the splash page of his comics, and presented news about upcoming storylines in a friendly way through the Bullpen Bulletin. He also made sure letters did not begin with “Dear Editor”, but more friendly, informal greetings, typically using his first name.
In the 1960s, Lee was doing a lot. Not only did he script, art-direct and edit most Marvel titles at the time, he also moderated the letters pages and wrote a monthly column called Stan’s Soapbox (where he often signed off with his now internationally-known catchphrase “Excelsior!”, meaning ‘ever upward’.). In order to meet his deadlines, he used a system that is now known as ‘The Marvel Method’. Instead of writing a full script, Lee would write a brief story synopsis after brainstorming a story with the artist. The artist would then use this synopsis to draw the panels, using an allotted amount of pages, before turning it in to Lee, who filled in the word balloons and captions. This is what caused dispute between Lee and the artists, as they essentially co-wrote the story as well as drawing the art, so felt they should receive creator credit.
In 1967, The Amazing Spider-Man overtook Fantastic Four as Marvel’s #1 bestselling title. Therefore, Lee and new artist John Romita Sr. made the stories more and more topical, writing about the Vietnam War and elections among other things. Marvel’s titles became increasingly progressive also, with the first ever mainstream black superhero, Black Panther, debuting in Fantastic Four #52. He was followed by the first ever African-American superhero, the Falcon, three years later. Lee was then asked by the U.S. Department of Health to write about the danger of drugs in 1971. Lee wrote a subplot in Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 about Harry Osborn, Spider-Man’s best friend, becoming addicted to prescription drugs. However, the Comics Code Authority, which regulated the content of comicbooks, refused to grant the issues its seal, since it contained drug use (completely ignoring the anti-drug message). The storyline went ahead, and was published without the seal, a controversial move at the time. The comics sold well and Marvel were praised for its social consciousness, leading to the CCA revising and loosening restrictions to allow negative depictions of drug-use among other things. Then, in 1972, Lee assumed the role of publisher, meaning he stopped writing monthly issues of comicbook titles.
Lee soon became the public face of Marvel, making cameos and voiceover appearances in movies and TV series, appearing at comicbook convention and lecturing at universities. He occasionally returned to comicbook writing and at one point was appointed president of Marvel, before stepping down because he disliked the focus on numbers and figures instead of the creative process which he enjoyed.
In the 1990s, Lee stepped away from Marvel and in 1998 opened a new internet-based superhero creation, production and marketing studio, Stan Lee Media. However, after only two years, Lee’s business partner Peter Paul was discovered manipulating stock illegally, resulting in Stan Lee Media filing for bankruptcy in 2001. Lee moved on to create POW! Entertainment, which produced video games, films and TV series. POW still exists to this day, producing projects such as Who Wants To Be A Superhero? and Stan Lee’s Lucky Man. Lee was chief creative officer until his death. The Stan Lee Foundation was founded in 2010, which focuses on supporting programs and ideas that improve access to literary resources as well as promoting diversity, national literacy, culture and the arts.
Around this time, movies based on Lee’s creations were becoming popular, such as X-Men. Lee sued Marvel in 2002, claiming they had failed to pay him his share of the profits from the movies. In the 1990s, Marvel had promised Lee 10% of the profits from any film or television projects. They settled out of court for a reported seven-figure fee.
Also during this time, Lee began writing for DC Comics. He wrote the Just Imagine…. series, in which he re-imagined popular DC characters, such as Batman and Wonder Woman. He also collaborated on a number of manga projects. Lee was commemorated by Marvel in 2006, 65 years after he first wrote for them, with a series of one-shot stories in which he met some of his creations.
By this time, superheroes were no longer as big as they had once been. This was all about to change however, as in 2008, Iron Man was released. This was the beginning of what is now known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU, which at time of writing contains 20 films, 11 TV series and numerous direct-to-video short films, which are all part of a shared universe, meaning characters from one film often interact with characters from other films and so on. The MCU soon became incredibly popular, with one of the most-recent installments, Avengers: Infinity War becoming the fifth highest grossing movie of all time. Just behind it in sixth? Avengers Assemble, another MCU film. Lee’s cameos in these films are quite possibly what most of today’s population know him for and certainly turned him into the pop culture icon he is today.
Lee receieved lots of accolades and awards throughout the 2000s and 2010s. He was awarded the Saturn Award for Career Achievement, a National Arts Medal and a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame, to name just a few. However, health problems, such as his heart troubles (which resulted in the installment of a pacemaker) and pneumonia, combined with the death of Joan in 2017 meant that he struggled during the last few years of his life. Despite this, as he was wont to do, Lee remained positive, and was even talking about new projects two days before his death. He never did get to write ‘The Great American Novel’, but I think he had a pretty good run.
Lee died on the 12th November, 2018. He was 95.
I was struggling to find a good way to end this article. I didn’t want to end it on the sad note of his death, so went looking for a better way to sign off, and I figured that, since he was so good at it, I’d let Stan do it for me. The following is a quote from my favourite Stan Lee cameo: the one from Spider-Man 3. I thought that it pretty much sums up what I wanted to say.
“I guess one person can make a difference. ‘Nuff said.”
Rest well, Stan. Thank you for everything.