NEW YORK – Stan Lee, the larger-than-life architect of Marvel Comics, has died. He was 95.
Lee was a monumental figure in the comic book pantheon, having co-created a slate of popular characters for Marvel. Working with other industry greats, he co-created Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, the Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, the X-Men, Ant-Man, and Thor.
He was known for his clever writing, instilling a strong sense of humanity in his characters as they battled supervillains, and real world issues like drug use and bigotry. He was a showman, outgoing and funny, who developed comics slogans, including his catchphrase, “Excelsior!”
Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922 to Celia and Jack Lieber. The Liebers, who also included his younger brother Larry, lived in New York City during one of the toughest times in our country’s history. But, Lee’s family survived the Great Depression, struggling to make ends meet.
Lee attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and worked part-time jobs writing obituaries, press releases for the National Tuberculosis Center, delivered sandwiches, worked as an office boy, an usher at a theater, and sold subscriptions.
In 1939, Lee was hired as an office assistant at Timely Comics (what would become Marvel), working in the new pulp magazine division. By the early 1940s, he became an interim editor and wrote filler material, then moved on to backup features. His first superhero co-creation was the Destroyer, premiering in Mystic Comics #6, along with co-creating Jack Frost for USA Comics #1 and Father Time in Captain America Comics – all in August 1941.
Lee’s next venture was serving in the Army during World War II, first repairing communications equipment, then as a writer and illustrator, working on manuals, training films, and cartoons. By the mid-1950s, Timely (now known as Atlas) where Lee wrote within humor, science fiction, Westerns, romance, even horror.
One of Lee’s biggest contributions to comics came in the early 1960s. His boss at Marvel asked him to develop a series that could compete with DC’s Justice League of America. Inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne along with encouragement from his wife Joan, he started thinking outside of regular superhero types. Lee considered archetypes and flaws people had to counter the typically idealistic and altruistic superheroes. The characters he dreamt of had every day problems ‒ they bickered, dealt with illness, had tempers, even worried about paying bills. That work, combined with the talents of artist Jack Kirby lead to the co-creation of the Fantastic Four in 1961.
Those blueprints were further utilized on more pillars in the Marvel catalog, which he co-created with the likes of Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Bill Everett. Their combined work introduced readers to the Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, the X-Men, and he and Kirby revived characters like Captain America and Sub-Mariner for the Avengers.
Lee was entrenched in Marvel’s output, working on several areas and devising ways to connect with fans. This period saw the introduction of a credit panel for each story, naming the writers, artists, and letterers. The comics would also include info about Marvel staffers and upcoming stories to further engage with readers. Lee’s busy schedule included writing scripts, art direction, editing most of Marvel’s stories, and a monthly column called “Stan’s Soapbox.”
When Ditko left Marvel, Lee started collaborating with John Romita Sr. on The Amazing Spider-Man, quickly becoming Marvel’s top seller. Together they tackled personal and social issues like student activism, Vietnam War, and politics.
Lee believed in using comics to challenge racism and bigotry, intolerance and prejudice. His efforts to promote diversity led to the co-creation of early popular African-American characters like Black Panther, who would be Marvel’s first mainstream black superhero. He also co-created Falcon, the Captain America ally who would one day wear Cap’s mantle.
As Marvel’s popularity shot into the stratosphere, Lee was promoted to editorial director and publisher, in 1972. He became involved in a variety of multimedia projects and made the move to the West Coast to work on Marvel’s films and became chairman emeritus. He occasionally returned to comics, working on Silver Surfer, the Judgment Day graphic novel, and the Parable limited series, among others.
The later days of his career involved work in a variety of mediums and companies. In 1998 he and Peter Paul started Stan Lee Media – an internet company for superhero creation, production, and marketing. Unfortunately, Paul was illegally manipulating stocks and Stan Lee Media filed for bankruptcy.
In 2001 he started the intellectual-property company POW! Entertainment then a year later he published his autobiography, Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee. He also launched the show Stan Lee’s Superhumans about regular people with remarkable abilities for the History Channel. In 2012 he co-wrote the graphic novel Romeo and Juliet: The War which reached The New York Times’ bestseller list. That same year he launched the YouTube channel, Stan Lee’s World of Heroes, with comedy and sci-fi content.
The 2000s have also seen the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with characters appearing across several films and franchises. They have become a consistent force in movie theaters around the world, as some of the highest grossing films of all time.
Lee’s contributions are lauded on screen through his series of humorous cameos spanning over 30 films. He’s been a hot dog vendor, postman, wedding crasher, man mistaken for Hugh Hefner, retired general, chess player, patient at a mental institute, security guard, bartender, and an emcee.
Other media work has included narrating for The Incredible Hulk TV show, and he loaned his voice to Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, The Super Hero Squad Show, Hulk and the Agents of SMASH, Ultimate Spider-Man, even The Simpsons.
His contributions to the comics medium have been lauded with an Inkpot Award, Saturn Award, National Medal of Arts, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Visual Effects Society Awards, a Vanguard Award from the Producers Guild of America, was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame and Jack Kirby Hall of Fame, and was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame
“While it’s both easy and appropriate to cite the critical, creative contributions of talents such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and others, no one has ever promoted comics the way Stan Lee did. Across eight decades as writer, editor, and ambassador-at-large, he sang the virtues of the medium to anyone who would listen,” said Steve Geppi, President and Chief Executive Officer of Diamond Comic Distributors.
“That he lived to become an iconic spokesman for the art form through his appearances in Marvel’s movies and TV shows is amazing and should be celebrated, but it should not overshadow the achievements of his comic book work itself. The humanity he injected into traditional superhero tales has had a lasting, defining impact. By adding everyday concerns to his characters and making them more relatable than cookie cutter archetypes, he and his contemporaries blazed a trail that is often followed and rarely broken from successfully.
“On a personal level, this is a devastating loss. Not only was Stan a friend of mine, but that’s an honor that many in our business shared. In fact, it’s a feeling shared by many who never actually met him or even just shook his hand at a convention. That’s because Stan Lee was simply that important to all of us. He is one of the giants on whose shoulders we stand. He had a terrific, celebrated and long life, and we should be thankful for that. We have many fond memories to sustain us, but it’s unlikely we’ll meet many true legends like him. The world is a poorer place without him,” Geppi said.
“With his incredible work and seemingly unlimited enthusiasm for promoting comic books, Stan Lee was a great proponent of collecting, something for which we should all be thankful. Combined with the other Marvel talents, he cultivated a form of storytelling that delivered powerful tales each issue while reserving enough of a hook to bring readers back for the next one,” Bob Overstreet, creator of The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, said.
“He was always great to talk with, always willing to share his insights, and always looking toward to the future of what could be done in comics. As special effects finally began to catch up to Stan’s imagination (as well as Jack Kirby and Steve Dikto’s), it really became even more clear just how special those early Marvel adventures were, and how the power of their stories had stood the test of time. The millions he entertained form an impressive legacy,” Overstreet said.
“When comics were just coming back from their lowest point in the 20th century, Stan Lee began writing stories that incorporated the contradictions and compromises of human life into larger-than-life heroes. His interwoven universe set standards for how we build fictional worlds in comics, on television and in film,” former DC Comics President and Publisher Paul Levitz posted.
When competing with a larger and better-financed publisher, Stan Lee had the good taste to build a team of extraordinary artists, led by the incomparable Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, and to work with them in a fashion that led their talents to flower as never before and rarely after. If the uncertain boundaries of the process led to frustrations and disputes, it’s still true that the work itself reached a unique peak for the collaborative process in comics,” he said.
“When virtually all comics creators labored in anonymity, Stan Lee not only built a memorable public identity for himself, but began to celebrate all his colleagues. Not only the brilliant artists who added so much to his tales received credit, but unprecedented recognition was given to letterers and colorists, the craft people of the field, and even the office secretary became an iconic figure. When comics were still regarded as exclusively reading material for children, Stan Lee set out to tell the world that they were cool, exciting, and exactly the thing that a revolutionary generation of young people on campuses needed to read. The message encouraged not only readers, but a cohort of future writers and artists who would follow in his footsteps,” Levitz wrote.
“And if he would never again write something with the electrifying power of the decade when, as he once said, “we just couldn’t do anything wrong,” Stan Lee would not stop for the rest of his very long life. Writing, reaching out to people, celebrating comics and his own wonderful journey with an energy that those a quarter of his age would envy. Of the thousands of characters he helped create as a writer and editor, perhaps his best namesake is the joyous and ever-energized Impossible Man,” he said.
Stan Lee was predeceased by his wife of 69 years, Joan, who passed in 2017, and a daughter, Jan, who died in infancy. He is survived by his daughter, J.C., and his brother, Larry Lieber.
Our thanks to J.C. Vaughn and Scoop for sharing their tribute to the great Stan Lee.