Stan Lee, the man whose name has been synonymous with comics for more than a half a century, has died. Lee, whose birth name was Stanley Martin Lieber, died Nov. 12, 2018 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at the age of 95. His death has been confirmed by TMZ.
Lee had been hospitalized briefly in Los Angeles in January after suffering shortness of breath and an irregular heartbeat. He was released soon afterward, and said he was looking forward to resuming his travel schedule and meeting fans worldwide.
The co-creator of scores of Marvel characters including Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Hulk, and the X-Men was undoubtedly the most famous man in comics, and perhaps its most controversial figure.
An origin story
Lee’s career in comics began when he was just a teenager. Thanks to a family connection — his cousin was married to Timely Comics publisher Martin Goodman — Lee was hired as an office gofer for the up–and-coming creative team of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Lee often recalled how in those early days, he did everything from refill Kirby’s inkwells to fetch his lunch.
His first published comics work was a text story called “Captain America Foils The Traitor’s Revenge,” published in Captain America Comics #3 in 1941. That also marked the debut of his pseudonym, Stan Lee. As Lee himself explained in his autobiography, Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, he was planning to save his real name for work that was more highbrow than comics.
Lee and Kirby’s relationship would morph two decades later into a volatile and creative partnership that would change the comics industry. But in between the Golden and Silver Age of comics, Lee plugged away at Timely and later, after a name change, Atlas Comics. At just 19 years old, he was named editor and stayed in that role for decades, except for a brief period from 1942-45 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army. Lee served his country under the rank of Playwright working in the Army’s Training Film division. He would show the beginnings of his knack for showmanship and gift for promotional flair by making pamphlets and posters for the military.
By the late ‘60s, Lee had also become an in-demand speaker at university campuses around the world. Along with his “Bullpen Bulletins” pages at the back of every comic Marvel published, punctuated by his catchphrase, “Excelsior!”, Lee and Marvel practically became one and the same. If there was any doubt, that ended in the ‘70s, when Marvel added a phrase to the top of every single comic they published: Stan Lee Presents.
Assembling a legacy
The list of characters Lee had a hand in creating is simply staggering. With Steve Ditko, he helped bring Spider-Man to life and conjured up Doctor Strange. Alongside Don Heck, he introduced us to Tony Stark, the Invincible Iron Man. But it was his partnership with Jack Kirby, as the Lennon-McCartney of comics, that was truly magical. Together they spawned a galaxy of heroes and villains that remain in play in pop culture more than a half-century later. The Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Daredevil, the X-Men, Nick Fury, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and the reintroduction of Captain America are just the most notable of the characters that sprung from the Marvel Bullpen during the 1960s. Add in the supporting casts and the Rogue’s Gallery for each hero, and the head spins at the sheer volume of creativity that Lee was involved with, in some manner or other.
By the late 1990s, Lee had become Chairman Emeritus at Marvel, a figurehead position. He launched his own media company, Stan Lee Media. At the height of the dot-com era, it had a billion-dollar valuation. But this would lead to Lee’s biggest personal embarrassment. His partner in the venture, Peter Paul, was eventually accused by authorities of illegal stock manipulation and arrested. While Lee was never implicated in any wrongdoing, the very public failure of a company bearing his name reportedly haunted him for years.
He eventually launched a new venture, POW! (Purveyors of Wonder) Entertainment. He would help launch projects like Stripperella with Pam Anderson, and announced a slew of projects that saw varying levels of success.
He even did work for the Distinguished Competition: He reimagined DC’s biggest heroes alongside artists such as John Buscema, Joe Kubert, and Jim Lee in the Just Imagine... series. He also had a New York Times best-selling graphic-novel biography, Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir, co-written with Peter David and drawn by Colleen Doran.
While Lee never really found another hit comic series in the latter chapters of his life, he eventually would clear the one major hurdle in his career: Hollywood. After making his showbiz debut with a cameo in the 1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, Lee would eventually become a staple of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
While comics scholars and fans continue to try and sort out Lee’s contributions to the Marvel explosion in the 1960s and his role in the creative partnerships he formed with Kirby and Ditko, his stature in comics history is hard to dispute. Yes, he sought out the spotlight whenever possible, but he was also one of the greatest ambassadors the comic book industry could ever hope to have.
It’s important to remember that Lee is almost universally regarded as one of the greatest editors in the history of comics. He had an eye for art and an ear for dialogue, both of which served him well at perpetually understaffed Marvel. And no matter where you fall on the Kirby-Lee argument, Lee’s characterizations and quick, snappy wordplay were essential in creating the Marvel style that redefined comic books.
Part showman, part writer, and idea man, Lee probably should have been a movie producer. In another life, he likely would have excelled at that job, given his natural talents. Instead, he’ll have to settle for being remembered as one of the integral figures in the history of comics.
We know just about every comics fan has a Stan memory or story. Head to the comments section below and share them with us.