Earlier this week, comic book legend Stan Lee passed away at the age of 95. As one of the most notable and influential pop culture figures of the last century, Lee’s passing marks the end of an era. Anyone who knows anything about popular culture knows how monumental of a loss this is to the world. Right after the news hit, creators from all walks of life shared their condolences about the loss of a person who was quite simply a legend. It’s easy for even the layman to see how many lives were touched by Lee’s work. Simply put, the impact of the numerous characters that he created or co-created remains unmatched.
More importantly, the influence of these characters on society as a whole has created a modern-day phenomenon that is both timeless and ageless. Superheroes are the closest thing to modern day mythology that we currently have. Aside from the mythic power struggles; superheroes provide the hope and optimism that so much of the world seems to lack. In an era of moral and ethical complexity, it’s easy to look at both Lee and the characters that he created as a shining beacon of hope in an otherwise dreary cultural landscape. But now is not the time to mourn. Rather, we should use this time to celebrate the incredible, unbelievable and amazing life of Stan Lee.
The father of superheroes was born Stanley Martin Leiber on December 22, 1922 in New York City. Lee came from humble beginnings, and his influences came largely books and movies. Lee gravitated to heroic roles in films, specifically those played by Hollywood legend Errol Flynn. Lee graduated high school in 1939 at the age of 16. With the help of his uncle, Lee became an assistant for Timely Comics – the same publisher that would eventually become Marvel. When Lee was hired, he was often stuck doing mundane assistant tasks such as refilling the various artists’ inkwells and grabbing lunch. However, he quickly rose up the ranks before becoming a writer in 1941. He also co-created the first of many characters that same year.
When Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left in late 1941, Lee was named interim editor, a position that he held for over 30 years. Lee left his position for three years to serve in the U.S. army. During his time in the service, Lee was in the Signal Corps and eventually moved to the training film division of the military. Lee returned to his position after the war, where he continued to write stories in a surprising variety of genres that included western, horror, romance, suspense and even science fiction. However, by the ’50s, Lee was beginning to grow bored with his career and he nearly quit the company; which was called Atlas Comics at the time. Luckily he didn’t, because the pop culture landscape might very well not be the same.
In the late ’50s, comics began gravitating toward superhero stories. This was due in part to the successful revival of DC second tier heroes, which took place around the same time. This shift in the cultural landscape also inspired Lee to create his most indelible and well know work. Lee and Kirby started with Fantastic Four in 1961, but they eventually expanded their line. That resulted in characters and teams including the X-Men, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, and the Avengers to name a few. Perhaps the most important of Lee’s creations is none other than Spider-Man. Lee was able to bring a sense of complex humanity to his creations, and Spider-Man is the complete embodiment of that notion. These characters had regular problems that everyone had to deal with, which was revolutionary at the time.
Lee’s clout within the industry was solidified throughout the ’60s. Aside form the iconic characters that he co-created; Lee also established the first inklings of a shared continuity between properties. More importantly, Lee also advocated for the regular inclusion of a credit panel on the splash page of every book that was published. This not only properly credited the writer and artist, but also inkers, colorists, and letterers. Lee often collaborated with artists (including the legendary Steve Ditko) on stories, a technique that became affectionately called “the Marvel method”. By having a critical but limited hands-on approach, Lee was able to build the Marvel Empire throughout the rest of the decade, page by page.
Conversely, the following two decades would not bode as well for Lee. In 1972, Lee left his writing position at Marvel to assume the role of publisher. Lee had become the face of Marvel by this point. He made various public appearances throughout the country – a trend he would continue into his 90’s. Lee continued to write new comic book stories here and there, until deciding to move to California in 1981 to shepherd Marvel’s TV and Movie projects. Some early Marvel TV adaptations such as The Incredible Hulk had moderate success in the decade prior. But it was Lee who saw the early potential for live-action versions of these iconic characters. Although it would take a few decades for that to truly come to fruition.
By the end of the ’90s, Lee had managed to make headway on this goal. Lee’s name accompanied just about every Marvel TV and film project moving forward, a move that would cement his legacy outside of comics. Early animated properties such as X-Men and Spider-Man were perhaps the most successful of these initial attempts at a shared Marvel universe within another medium. These two series in particular inspired new generation of comic book lovers, and Lee’s influence would be crucial to their success. Starting a few decades prior, Lee had always been trying to change people’s perceptions about the value comic books.
This was a crucial time for Lee in terms of branding himself as the perennial godfather of Marvel as a whole. For casual fans, Lee is best known for his various cameos in Marvel films and television shows. Lee’s first ever cameo was in 1989’s Trial of the Incredible Hulk as a jury member. He also had memorable cameos in Mallrats and Spider-Man: The Animated Series, which furthered established his public persona.
Near the end of the ’90s, Marvel was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Lee had spent years championing a big-budget film adaptation of Spider-Man, but the film found itself in development Hell for years. In 1998, Lee traded his back end movie and TV percentages for what seemed like a lucrative deal: $10 Million up front, plus “about a million per year for life.” While this is nothing to scoff at, it pales in comparison to the billions that his creations would be making only a few decades later.
The new millennium would see Lee’s meteoric rise as the world’s most famous comic book personality, at least in terms of the general public perception. Lee’s cameos began to increase as a result, with his first speaking role coming in 2003’s Hulk. Just about every Marvel movie thereafter would feature Lee in some sort of appearance, even if he was only tangentially related to the property. Outside of appearing in Marvel movies, Lee also kept busy making a living off of his public appearances and various non-Marvel projects.
But as much as the last few decades have been crucial to cementing Lee’s persona, it also began to challenge his legacy. It would be irresponsible to talk about the impact of Stan Lee’s career without at least touching upon the controversy that surrounded his career. You can read about the full history here. Suffice to say that the estates of both Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko have challenged Lee’s claim to so many characters, citing minimal input in certain occasions. Aside from this, Lee’s last few years saw numerous lawsuits, allegations of sexual misconduct, and elder abuse by Lee’s handlers. It’s a rather unfortunate end to a life that lasted nearly a century. But unfortunately, it’s all too common among comic book creators.
We won’t know for some time how these things might affect Lee’s legacy as a whole, but we do know that it also doesn’t change the impact he had on people. Stan Lee lived a full life, and it’s hard to be sad for anyone who accomplished so much while he was with us. What is so incredible about Lee is how happy it made him bring such positivity and warmth to the world. Lee’s contributions to comics managed to change lives for the better. Lee championed comic books as method for teaching children and inspiring them to read. He also gave people who felt like outsiders, misfits, and geeks a sense of belonging with his storytelling.
Lee’s stories managed to tap into some cerebral part of the public conscious that resonates even stronger today. With the exception of George Lucas, there really hasn’t been a creator or a celebrity with more influential on the past century than Lee. There are many who owe their careers and livelihoods to Lee. Even Superhero Hype itself wouldn’t exist without Lee’s influence. His impact on the public consciousness can’t be overstated, both in terms of creative and business foresight. There’s not other way to put it. Stan Lee is an absolute legend. And his impact is likely to remain for a very long time. But what will never change is the fact that Stan Lee was a man who changed the world for the better. In the words of Lee, Excelsior!
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