Stan Lee was ready to give up on writing comic books in 1960 – after 20 years in the business – when his wife, famously, urged him to try writing one that he would like.
The result was Fantastic Four - a team of squabbling superheroes – kicking off a string of creations with artist Jack Kirby that redefined their medium and, with the popularity of Marvel movies, has since come to occupy an enormous role in pop culture.
The Lee-Kirby collaboration has been likened, with some justification, to the comic-book version of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, another creative super-team of the 1960s. In short order, the duo launched the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, Iron Man, a revived version of Captain America and Ant-Man, while Lee added perhaps Marvel’s most renowned character, Spider-Man, with Steve Ditko.
Despite their colorful costumes and cosmic powers, the Marvel heroes grappled with real-world problems, and went on to address serious social issues. Lee – who died Monday, at age 95 – also developed a way of working with artists that empowered them, blocking out stories – in part out of necessity, given the number of titles he was writing – then adding dialogue when the illustrated pages came back.
Beyond his creations, in Lee, comic books had an ebullient cheerleader and goodwill ambassador, a self-described “ham” who toured college campuses proselytizing on Marvel’s behalf. In later years, Lee reveled in his Hitchcock-style movie cameos and introduced himself as “Stan Lee, Creative Giant” on his business cards.
Still, Marvel’s triumphs on the page didn’t readily translate to the screen, yielding plenty of frustration and disappointment with early forays into movies and television, as Lee grappled with executives who didn’t take the underlying work seriously.
It was only this century, in fact, first with “X-Men” – a title Marvel notably had shed amid financial troubles – that the company’s properties began to enjoy the kind of popularity that has led to its box-office dominance.
Born Stanley Lieber, Lee stumbled into the comics business, going to work for Timely Publications, which later became Marvel, in his late teens. He got the job because his cousin was married to publisher Martin Goodman, who pushed into superheroes because of DC Comics’ success with Superman and Batman.
When Lee began writing stories in the 1940s, he split his first name into a pseudonym, wanting to save his real name for more serious pursuits. Yet he lived long enough to see his work embraced and exalted by artists and filmmakers who were weaned on it, basking in the applause.
Lee remained active and immersed in creativity until the end, having lost his wife Joan – to whom he was married for 70 years – in 2017.
His later years, however, were also marred by discord and chaos, including accusations of elder abuse, and questions as to whether he was being exploited by a business partner. The interlude marked a sad end to his life, and reflected that Lee was often prone to getting drawn into deals with shady characters, including Peter Paul, with whom he co-founded Stan Lee Media, who was later convicted of stock fraud.
Lee signed his regular letter to Marvel readers “Excelsior!,” and was fond of saying that he never wrote down to children. The worst that would happen, he noted in interviews, was if kids didn’t understand a word, they might be motivated to go look up and learn its meaning.
Although some Kirby partisans have argued that the artist hasn’t received his full due (he left Marvel for rival DC in the 1970s), Lee was able to see their influence come to full flower. Separate from that, part of the magic and energy that surrounded him was an enduring ability to meet adults, and – as they reminisced about perusing those four-color pages – make them remember being a kid.
Lee was no stranger to spinning tall tales. But given the giant legacy that he leaves behind, that listing on his business card, at least, wasn’t mere hyperbole.