Remembering Stan Lee
One year on from his death, I take a look at the life of the man who revolutionised the comic book industry.
As I’m sat in my conservatory actively avoiding the pile of laundry that needs putting away, the face of Spider-Man stares at me, emblazoned across my two-year-old son’s bedding. Behind me, the likes of Thor, Hulk and Iron Man adorn one of the many, many toy-boxes, which litter my house.
You’d be hard-pushed to find many people that haven’t heard of the Avengers. Whether it’s in the form of merchandise, comic-books or one of the twenty-three movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which have grossed over $22 billion worldwide), superheroes are the in thing right now.
But while even your 93-year-old great-great-grandmother will have probably heard the name Captain America at some point in her life, a name that may be more obscure to more casual fans is Stan Lee.
Born in 1922, Stanley Martin Lieber was the eldest son of Celia and Jack Lieber who, along with his younger brother Larry, lived in an apartment on the West side of Manhattan, New York. It was during his high-school years that Stanley discovered his love for writing through part-time jobs which he spent writing obituaries and press releases for various organisations.
In 1939, Lieber was hired by Timely Publications, which would go onto evolve into Marvel Comics some twenty years later. Despite his dreams of being the author of the ‘Great American Novel’, he started at the bottom of the ladder, with duties which included making lunch, filling inkwells, and proofreading for the already established writers.
In 1941, Lieber made his comic-debut in Captain America #3, in which he published under the pseudonym ‘Stan Lee’. Before he died, Lee stated on several occasions that it was the embarrassment of putting his name to a comic book which led to publishing under a pen-name, as he didn’t want people to associate his name with comic-book writing when he published his first novel. It was in 1941 that Lee co-created his first superhero character, The Destroyer, who debuted in Mystic Comics #6, pictured below.
Later that year, at just nineteen years of age, he was appointed as interim editor of the comic-book division of Timely. In 1942 Lee enlisted in the United States Army, in which he initially began his service as a member of the Signal Corps, before being transferred to the Training Film Division, where he was tasked with writing slogans, training manuals and the occasional cartoon. During his service, he would also receive weekly letters from Timely, detailing what they wanted him to write and when it was needed. Lee wasn’t about to let a World War get in the way of his passion.
From when he returned from service in 1945 through to the end of the 1950s, superheroes were beginning to lose favour with audiences. Comic books were not just for children anymore, but for teenagers and young adults as well, whose attention demanded something more interesting than the “done to death” flawless superhero archetype. Publishers began branching out into other genres, such as westerns, horror, crime and war stories.
In 1961, Lee, still writing for newly-named Marvel Comics, was assigned the task of creating a new superhero team, one which could rival the success that DC Comics had found with its creation of the Justice League Of America. Lee went against the status quo by creating characters that audiences could relate to, characters that were flawed, who weren’t necessarily invincible, who had problems just like those the readers might have.
Partnering with Jack Kirkby, Lee co-created the Fantastic Four, which debuted in 1961. Following on from this success, Lee and Kirkby went on to co-create Thor, Hulk, Iron-Man and the X-Men. He created Daredevil alongside Bill Everett, and co-created Doctor Strange and Spider-Man alongside Steve Ditko. It wasn’t long before Spider-Man became Marvel’s most popular character, and there is no mystery as to why. Lee had helped co-create a character who was completely relatable to the reader, wall-crawling abilities aside. When he isn’t swinging around New York, Peter Parker is busy dealing with the struggles of everyday life. He’s dealing with girl problems and trying to get through school, he’s trying to deal with the guilt of being the cause of his Uncle’s death. These are (for the most part) problems that readers can relate to, and is the reason that Spider-Man and other characters created by Lee are so popular among fans.
Lee would continue writing until 1972, when he assumed the role of publisher at Marvel. He became the figurehead and public face of the company, and even served as company president for a short-term before resuming his previous role as publisher, citing the fact that being president was too much about the money, and not enough about the creative process which he was so passionate about.
In his later years, Lee took on additional projects, even working alongside rival comic-book behemoth DC Comics. He co-founded Stan Lee Media and POW! Entertainment. Lee remained a visible presence at Marvel even in his last years, famous for his cameo roles in both the film and television adaptations of Marvel properties. Even as he approached his mid 90’s he remained passionate about being involved in the phenomenon that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had become, and was able to film his final cameo appearance fro Avengers: Endgame before he died.
He died of respiratory failure following a battle with pneumonia on November 12th 2018.
Remember Stan Lee. Not because of his cameos in Marvel films. Remember him as the man who helped to create characters that have brought joy to millions, characters that we can see ourselves in. Remember him as the man who told the world that superheroes don’t have to be flawless, and a person doesn’t have to be flawless to be a superhero. Excelsior!
“Just because you have superpowers, that doesn’t mean your love life would be perfect. I don’t think superpowers automatically means there won’t be any personality problems, family problems or even money problems. I just tried to write characters who are human beings who also have superpowers.” — Stan Lee