Their paths crossed several times throughout the years, first starting in the 1980s when Liefeld was working on one of Lee’s most famous creations, the X-Men. In the 1990s, Liefeld and up-and-coming creators like Todd McFarlane worked with Lee on Comic Book Greats, a home video documentary series on the comic book industry. In August, as Lee’s health was deteriorating, Liefeld was one of a few people Lee asked to come visit him at his home in Los Angeles. Their work relationship became a deep, decades-long friendship.
Lee’s influence on Liefeld started long before they worked together, in the early 1970s, when Liefeld was just a kid growing up in Anaheim, California. By that time, Marvel had begun reprinting its most popular titles from the '50s and '60s with characters like the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and Spider-Man under the banners Marvel’s Greatest Comics, Marvel Super Action, and Marvel Tales, respectively. Immediately, Liefeld told SYFY WIRE, he was hooked.
“Stan’s writing and imagination were unparalleled and shaped my youth,” he said. “All of the comics he wrote were coming out under the reprint banners, and I can distinctly remember that there were three spots in town — a corner mart, a 7-Eleven, and a liquor mart — that had comics in my hometown. I’d go each week to see what they had (actually, the liquor store had the best selection), since they were just a quick bike or skateboard ride away.”
Although the stories he was reading had been around for more than a decade in some cases, they were new to Liefeld and introduced him to new dimensions.
“He was able to transport me into those worlds and sparked my imagination,” he said. “Everyone has their own opinion on who’s the best in the comic book world, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s responsible for the two greatest runs in comic book history; his Spider-Man run and the first 100 issues of Fantastic Four. Those two books also have some of the greatest rogues galleries in comics and the most incredible supporting casts as well.”
In Lee’s most famous creation, Spider-Man, Liefeld said he found someone instantly relatable.
“Spider-Man was Harry Potter before Harry Potter, because you cared about what he ate for breakfast, what assignment he was working on for the Daily Bugle, whether he was going to make rent or be able to take care of Aunt May,” Liefeld said. “I’m 51 years old and I still wonder whether Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy was the love of his life. That’s a testament to his writing.
“I have to give credit to his co-creators Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, and later Spider-Man artists like John Romita Sr.,” Liefeld added. “But Spider-Man was the signature achievement for me.”
Lee’s choice to make Peter Parker insecure and have to deal with normal problems like rejection and skint bank accounts was a sticking point, Liefeld said.
“Stan knew his readers and what they were going through,” he said. “He was so practical and relatable. When you’d have a bad day, you could pick up Spider-Man and see that he had to overcome a bad day as well. Though he’d be chased by supervillains, so his day was way worse.”
In the late 1980s, Liefeld joined Lee at a Los Angeles comic convention, his first time sharing a panel with his hero. Lee had moved to the West Coast with the goal of pushing Marvel’s vast library of characters and stories into more TV and movie projects.
“At the time, it was the highlight of my career, and Stan was incredibly charming,” Liefeld said. “Those first TV shows and movies in the 1970s were such a big deal for me growing up. I nearly lost my mind when I saw Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno on The Incredible Hulk, and the CBS Television movies of Spider-Man were appointment television for me and my friends.”
Over the next two decades, Liefeld and Lee’s paths crossed repeatedly at conventions, during production on the home video series The Comic Book Greats, and later at film premieres, as Marvel’s forays into Hollywood grew exponentially.
For Liefeld, the most meaningful time with Lee came in recent years as the pair joined together for a comic convention tour in 2016 with stops in Boston, New York, Rhode Island, Cincinnati, and Los Angeles.
“We were always booked on the same flight, and occasionally I gave up my seat to him because he didn’t like being near the bulkhead,” Liefeld said. “I just thought to myself, even if you’re tired, you can’t be tired, this guy is 45 years older than you and his energy is still off the charts. When you’re on tour like that you get to know a guy a lot better, and I came to love him like a family member.”
On that tour, Liefeld said he saw close up how Lee fed off the fans.
“He would instantly become 30 years younger and all of his energy came from them,” he said. “It’s what kept him going.”
Through the years, Liefeld said he’s picked up several lessons from Lee, but none stand out more than the need to keep things fresh.
“He always had something new up his sleeve,” he said. “That’s what I enjoyed. He’d push people, even after they left for new ideas. That’s something that’s lived on in my work, even as I’m working on new stuff that’s coming out next year. He wanted more new faces, and he always knew that new blood was essential. That was part of his brilliance. There was always another peak to conquer. He always acted like he was struggling to get to the top, even though he was miles ahead of everyone else.”
In 2018, Lee was embattled in several disputes over his estate and continued care involving Jerardo "Jerry" Olivarez, Keya Morgan, and his daughter J.C.'s attorney, Kirk Schenck, who allegedly sought to gain control after Lee’s wife and longtime manager Joan passed away the previous year. In August, Lee's lawyer announced a judge had granted a restraining order against Morgan and told the Associated Press that the comic book legend was finally able to move on “without being bothered or harassed.”
Liefeld said a friend his and a caretaker of Lee's, John, helped “when he finally had those awful people removed from his life, and he was like the Stan whisperer,” taking care of Lee over the last few years.
“He’d take him on tour, fly with him, take him to premieres, make sure he was fed and even put him to bed,” he said. “John truly loved Stan. Knowing he was back in the care of someone who truly cared for him alleviated a lot of burdens.”
When John called Liefeld in August for an impromptu visit, he told him that Stan was “a little bored and wanted to see some fresh faces.”
“Of course I said yes,” Liefeld said. “It was only a matter of time until he couldn't do it anymore. In the last years, I think it was the right decision to keep him at home and resting. When I went to see him in August, I didn’t want to talk about publishing or anything to work him up, so I just told him how much I appreciated his work, coming out to the West Coast in the 1970s and pushing for comic book TV shows and movies like the Incredible Hulk show and the CBS live-action Spider-Man movies.”
At Lee’s California home in August, Liefeld thanked the legend for the early work that shaped his career.
“I told him all of this, the Infinity War and all of the Marvel movies are happening because of you,” Liefeld said. “At that moment, I saw the spark in him and he sat up a bit straighter. The energy he got from talking to fans truly defined him. He’s the single best comic book ambassador we’ll ever have, and I don’t think we’ll see anyone like him again.”