Stan Lee, the godfather of Marvel Comics’ most memorable characters and stories, died on Monday, November 12, People magazine has confirmed. He was 95 years old.
The X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Doctor Strange — name any classic Marvel character (except Captain America) and there’s a good chance that Lee, with the help of fellow Marvel legends like Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, and Steve Ditko, had a hand in their creation.
Marvel as we know it today would not exist without Lee — and at first, Lee never thought he would have anything to do with Marvel. “Stan Lee” was actually a pen name for Stanley Martin Lieber, who wanted to preserve his real name for more serious stuff than comics for kids; while serving in WWII, his listed occupation was “playwright.”
“I’d never really thought of doing comics for a living,” Lee told the Guardian in 2015. “One day I heard about an opening in a publishing company. I found out the company, among other things, published comics, and that’s where the opening was.”
Lee’s origin story goes like this: In 1961, publisher Martin Goodman had played a round of golf with rival DC Comics publisher Jack Liebowitz, and was told that DC was going to smash its most popular superheroes together into a team called the “Justice League.” Marvel, then known as Atlas Comics, was failing. So Goodman asked Lee and Kirby to come up with a superhero team that could rival the Justice League.
The two came up with the Fantastic Four, which went on to become a massive hit, and Marvel Comics was born. Heroes like Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, and the X-Men would follow.
But the crown jewel of Lee’s career has to be Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man, whom he created with artist Steve Ditko. Parker was the first teenage superhero whose anxieties, fears, joys, successes, and failures were treated with respect. Parker reflected the feelings of a generation of readers but also helped teach those same readers life lessons, like his now-famous credo (in its original wording), “with great power there must also come great responsibility!”
Lee and his colleagues not only created great art but also invented universes and alternate realities full of superheroes and supervillains with the awesome ability to shape the lives of the people who read them. Lee, once he got into comics, wanted the medium to be taken seriously.
If there’s a blemish on Lee’s legendary legacy, it’s that he didn’t always give his collaborators, partners, and artists the credit they deserved. It hurt his relationships with those people, in particular his legendary partnership with Kirby.
Lee stopped writing monthly issues in 1972, when he assumed the role of publisher at Marvel. What followed at the end of his career was a fraught and frayed relationship with the company, which filed for bankruptcy in 1996 — the company ultimately sold some its characters’ film rights, including Spider-Man and the X-Men, to stay afloat.
Lee split with Marvel in 1998, but nevertheless became the company’s mascot as the characters he created began finding their way on the big screen. His cameos in Marvel Studios movies, as well as X-Men and Spider-Man movies (Marvel Studios does not own the rights to those characters), have become their own phenomenon. He was last seen in Fox’s Venom.
It’s been years since Lee has had a major influence on Marvel’s day-to-day comic books, and he was never at the center of any of Marvel Studios’ cinematic plans. But Marvel wouldn’t be what it is today without Lee’s work, his dedication, and his ideas. And the many people who learned about responsibility, duty, empathy, kindness, and selflessness from Lee’s plethora of heroes and fables wouldn’t be the same either. One need not be a “true believer” — as Lee called his fans — to see that.