Stan Lee, a writer, editor and trailblazer in the comic book industry, died Monday at the age of 95. Lee revolutionized the industry with the creation of pop-culture-defining superheroes and storylines. As the former editor in chief of Marvel Comics and primary creative leader for decades, Lee expanded the company with the introduction of many characters who have since become household names: The Fantastic Four, X-Men, the Hulk and Spider-Man, to name a few.
Lee was born in New York City, the son of Romanian immigrants. After graduating high school early and securing a job at Martin Goodman’s comic book company, later known as Atlas Comics, with the help of his uncle, Lee’s early responsibilities were uninspiring. He spent his days filling inkwells, picking up lunch for higher-ups and erasing pencil lines from finished pages.
Lee’s first break was a text filler: “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in 1941. Soon after, however, Lee enlisted in the army and spent most of his time there writing manuals and posters.
Upon Lee’s return to Atlas comics as an editor in the 1950s, the industry as a whole was in the midst of collapse. The company faced government restrictions and a lack of public interest that trapped it in a cycle of producing uninteresting and repetitive comics. This is when Lee created the groundbreaking comic “The Fantastic Four.”
The Fantastic Four was a turning point for Atlas Comics and comic books in general. Lee had created a group of superheroes with relatable personalities, which proved to be an appealing change for the general public. He humanized his characters, giving them everyday problems to parallel their city-scale battles. His characters bickered and fought and faced all sorts of everyday issues, from relationship troubles to physical illnesses.
One of Lee’s most notable career landmarks was his creation of Spider-Man. Spider-Man, who first appeared in the “Amazing Fantasy” series, wasn’t like other heroes; he was a seemingly ordinary teenage boy juggling his powers and the crush he had on one of his classmates. He was shy, bullied and self-doubting — qualities that made him appealing and engaging.
In addition to creating nuanced and familiar characters, Lee engaged readers with the writers themselves. He accompanied each story with credit panels, naming the writer, penciller, inker and letterer in an effort to connect with readers on a more personal level and show them the behind-the-scenes aspects of making a comic.
Over the next decade, Lee led the creation of most Marvel Comics series while writing a monthly column called “Stan’s Soapbox,” through which he addressed social issues and promoted his comics.
And during his reign as editor in chief of Marvel Comics, Lee moved to California in 1980 to set up an animation studio — supporting Marvel’s transition to the big screen and narrating his famous stories. This marked only the beginning of a film legacy that continues to grow today. In the early 2000s, the “X-Men” movies and “Spider-Man” series were the first live-action successes of Marvel. These films laid the foundation for dozens of other successful movies, including “Iron Man,” “Captain America” and “Black Panther,” to name a few. The Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole has had a box office success of nearly $18 billion, and this is largely based on the success of Lee’s comics and stories.
With a broader influence than his characters themselves, the personalities that Lee created have changed the way that people perceive and consume comics. Lee brought the idea of superheroes with ordinary characteristics into the mainstream, a trope that led to the large-scale popularization of his stories. With that came the widespread consumption of his comics and, eventually, films. He played a significant role in leading the comic book industry into what fans call the “silver age,” reinvigorating the commercial success of superheroes and making them a more integral part of pop culture — something that can still be seen today.
After a long career of success, Lee’s final years were laden with legal issues. After the death of his wife in 2017, misconduct allegations against Lee’s former caretaker surfaced, detailing his experience with elder abuse. He is survived by his daughter, Joan Celia Lee, and his brother, Larry Lieber. But growing older and struggling with loss never impeded his ambition and creativity as it pertains to the comic industry. In his words, “Most people say, ‘I can’t wait to retire so I can play golf,’ or go yachting or whatever they do. Well, if I was playing golf, I would want that to finish so I could go and dream up a new TV show.”
And this is how we remember the comic revolutionary Stan Lee. Not on the golf course, but in the studio, creating and improving what we know as the comic book industry.
Contact Salem Sulaiman at [email protected].