Legendary comic book writer and editor Stan Lee has passed away. He was 95.
Lee, the most celebrated figure in American comics, began his comics career in the 1940s and is widely credited with revolutionizing superhero storytelling by co-creating (largely with the late Jack Kirby) the Marvel Comics Universe in the 1960s.
Lee had a hand in the creation of Spider-Man, The Avengers, The X-Men and hundreds of other characters for Marvel and other publishers during the course of his career. As the face of the publisher for decades, Lee cultivated an image as the godfather of comics, and became the ambassador between comics and the outside world. At a time when most critics did not take the art form seriously, Lee was one of the first comics creators to speak at colleges.
As a result of his Marvel pedigree, Lee is also one of the highest-grossing film producers of all time, having been kept on as an executive producer for Marvel Studios films as well as those from Fox and Sony which feature characters from Marvel. There is a certain symmetry to that, since in the early days it was Lee who most aggressively pursued TV and movie deals for Marvel.
Over decades of such productions, Lee has also become the king of the cameo, appearing in dozens of Marvel-related film and TV projects. He can next be seen in Captain Marvel. Lee filmed a number of cameos with Avengers directors Joe and Anthony Russo prior to his death, so it is not clear when his final film appearance for Marvel will be.
It was Lee who famously pulled Marvel back into superhero comics in the early ‘60s, commissioning The Fantastic Four after his then-boss Martin Goodman heard DC honcho Jack Liebowitz talk about their success with Justice League of America. This came at a time when superheroes were a genre that had been on the brink of extinction for nearly a decade, but with the entire industry struggling, Lee and Goodman were determined to find hits where they could.
Following the success of The Fantastic Four, Lee would go on to play a role in the creation of dozens of titles and characters that would revolutionize the Silver Age of comics, ushering in a veritable Marvel Age.
He was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1995. Lee received a National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2008.
Born Stanley Lieber in 1922, Lee was raised on Errol Flynn movies and dreamed of one day writing the “Great American Novel.” He joined the newly-formed Timely Comics in 1939 -- a partnership that would shape the pop culture landscape, as Timely ultimately evolved into Marvel Comics.
Interestingly, Lee was officially hired into comics by Joe Simon, who collaborated with Jack Kirby to create Captain America (although he was related to the publisher, so he had pretty good odds). Lee would shape the future of Captain America along with Kirby years later. At first, he mostly emptied Simon and Kirby’s ashtrays and filled their inkwells.
After a couple of years as a menial worker at the publisher, Lee graduated to some writing work, including a prose story featuring Captain America and some backup features, in 1941. Later that year, Lee -- only 19 years old -- took over as interim editor of the publisher following the departures of Simon and Kirby.
Lee joined the Signal Corps in 1942 and was deployed around the country during World War II. At first, he worked on infrastructure, but when it was discovered that he was a writer by trade, he was classified as a playwright and found himself working on manuals, training films and other written material for the military.
When Lee returned to Timely in 1945, his job was waiting for him. While the publisher’s output had been somewhat limited during the war and focused on comedy, Lee’s return meant genre diversity, with romance, western, horror and more making an appearance by the time Timely had morphed into Atlas Comics in the ‘50s.
Lee, who was restless in comics and considering a career change, went for the gusto when reinventing superheroes “The Marvel Way,” and the result was a series of massive successes that revolutionized the company. The Fantastic Four debuted in 1961, followed by The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, The X-Men, Spider-Man and Daredevil.
Lee also established the idea of a shared universe -- that the events of one comic would have an impact on other comics because the characters all coexisted. He wasn’t the first to do this -- there had been superhero team-ups in the Golden Age -- but the Marvel Comics of the ‘60s was the first to really take advantage of the opportunities that the shared universe offered, and Lee was the one who was determined to make timelines and continuity work.
While Julius Schwartz at DC is generally credited with reviving the superhero archetype in the late ‘50s, Lee is the one who reinvented it for a new generation, changing the way those characters were realized. Marvel also changed visual storytelling, with artists like Kirby and Steve Ditko challenging traditional panel layouts and story structures. And at the center of it all, was Lee.
Lee, heading up the company, also helped foster a feeling of community between creators and fans, with Marvel’s bullpen getting clever nicknames and larger-than-life characterizations in letter columns. In some ways, Lee was an early pioneer of personal branding, bringing a Mark Twain sensibility into the comics industry and selling fans on the personalities behind what had heretofore been considered fairly faceless jobs.
Lee’s massive output during this era necessitated a whole new way of working, and ultimately led to the birth of “The Marvel method,” where rather than giving an artist a full script from which to work, Lee would provide an outline or a story -- it could be nearly a full script or, famously, just a few sentences for trusted collaborators like Kirby -- and when the artist drew the pages, Lee would then finish the script by affixing dialogue to the completed art.
The result -- intentional or not -- was a more collaborative and kinetic working experience, and it’s a method still preferred by some creators today, even though the writer-dominated nature of modern comics has rendered it much less common.
The Marvel method has also sometimes been a source of tension; Lee’s contributions on specific stories are sometimes questioned, particularly by artists who feel they weren’t properly credited or compensated for story contributions. Both Kirby and Ditko have voiced such concerns over the years, and such conflicts reportedly led to Wally Wood leaving Marvel in the '60s.
In 1971, The U. S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare asked Lee to help generate public awareness of teen drug abuse, and Lee wrote a three-part story in The Amazing Spider-Man to call attention to the problem.
Because of the rigid wording of the Comics Code -- created in the 1950s in response to Congressional concerns over the increasingly-adult content of comics -- the storyline led to a standoff between the Comics Code Authority and Marvel.
The comics were published without Code approval, with no notable negative impact on The Amazing Spider-Man. As a result, the Code launched a round of reforms aimed at taking things like authorial intent and story context into account. This was, however, the first time since its implementation decades before that there had been a major challenge to the Code, and the publisher had won. Marvel would abandon adherence to the Comics Code altogether in 2001.
The following year, after more than 100 issues of both The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four, Lee stopped writing comics regularly in order to assume the role of publisher. For years, he served as the public face of Marvel and comics’ ambassador to the outside world. Even during periods when DC dominated the market in sales, they didn’t have a Stan Lee to bring their message to the masses.
Lee moved to California in 1981 to work on Hollywood adaptations of Marvel properties and has remained an executive producer on nearly every such production for years. Lee also famously continued to make his fan-favorite cameos, even as the scope of the Marvel TV and movie machine has expanded to include characters Lee did not personally help develop.
A brief tenure as the President of Marvel ended with Lee stepping down to assume his publisher role again before finally retiring. In the time since, he has often served as an executive or figurehead for a number of companies, including the defunct Stan Lee Media, POW Entertainment and Stan Lee’s World of Heroes, a YouTube channel featuring the work of Mark Hamill, Peter David, America Young, and more.
Lee has continued to be the public face of comics, developing TV, film and comics projects around the world that often carry his name above the title. In the 2000s, both DC Comics and Marvel did tributes to Lee; he wrote Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating the DC Universe, reinventing DC heroes in a number of one-shot stories with various artists; and in 2006, Marvel celebrated Lee's 65 years with the company by publishing a series of one-shots starring Lee himself meeting and interacting with Marvel characters.35comments
Lee has also done a great deal of charity work, often through the Stan Lee Foundation, a nonprofit for literacy, education and the arts.
Lee’s wife, Joan, passed away in 2017. He is survived by his daughter, JC.