Stan Lee, 1922–2018
The comic book titan who made superheroes human
Stanley Lieber was born in New York City to Romanian Jewish immigrants, his father “a dress cutter who was frequently out of work,” said The Washington Post. After high school he took a job at his cousin-in-law’s Timely Publications, which published Marvel and was home to Captain America. Lee earned $8 a week running errands, but was soon thinking up stories—he went by several pseudonyms and “Stan Lee” stuck. After serving stateside during World War II, Lee returned to Timely just as the so-called Golden Age of comics was coming to an end. Under pressure from politicians who claimed comics promoted juvenile delinquency, the industry imposed a draconian self-censorship code in 1954.
“Graphic gore and moral ambiguity were out, but so largely were wit, literary influences, and attention to social issues,” said The New York Times. Readers found the sanitized comics boring, and within a few years annual sales dropped by three-quarters from a high of 600 million. Lee was on the verge of quitting the industry in 1961 when his wife pushed him to shake things up with the Fantastic Four. Re-energized, he wrote up to five comic books a week and helped devise a string of other “memorable but flawed superheroes,” said The Times (U.K.). Iron Man was a billionaire industrialist with a piece of shrapnel dangerously close to his heart; the Hulk couldn’t control the anger that gave him his strength; Daredevil’s blindness boosted his other senses. But many of Lee’s Marvel collaborators thought they weren’t given sufficient credit for their work. Steve Ditko, who co-created Spider-Man, quit Marvel in 1966; Kirby defected to DC in 1970.
Lee became Marvel’s publisher in 1972 and “spoke directly to fans in columns and letter pages with an enthusiastic, personable voice,” said The Wall Street Journal. His missives concluded with trademark signoffs, “Nuff said” and “Excelsior!” Lee moved to Hollywood in 1980 to develop Marvel TV shows and movies but found little success outside the CBS series The Incredible Hulk. He spent much of the past two decades on business ventures outside Marvel—owned by Disney since 2009—and “had no involvement in the wave of Marvel-based movies that began with 2000’s X-Men, save for cameos that fans came to love.” Lee played a mailman in 2005’s Fantastic Four, a Hugh Hefner look-alike in 2008’s Iron Man, and a strip club DJ in 2016’s Deadpool. He remained fiercely prolific, churning out new characters and story concepts into his 90s. “I want to do more of everything I’m doing,” Lee said in 2010. “The only problem is time. I just wish there were more time.” ■