In the beginning, before the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its constellation of movie stars and superheroes, there was Stan Lee.
The Hollywood Reporter writes that Lee, the former editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics passed away November 12 at the age of 95 in Los Angeles. He is survived by his daughter J.C., younger brother Larry Lieber and a cast of iconic characters like Spider-Man and Iron Man beloved the world over.
Born Stanley Martin Lieber in Manhattan on December 28, 1922, Lee was the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants Jack Lieber and Celia Lieber (nee Solomon). He began his career in comics in 1939 as an assistant at Timely Comics, the company that would ultimately become Marvel.
Lee’s ambition was to become a writer, and he coined the nom de plume “Stan Lee” for his first appearance in the panels in an issue of “Captain America.” In 1941, after a string of writing assignments, Lee was elevated to the role of interim editor following the departure of Captain America co-creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Lee was just 19 and was made editor-in-chief shortly thereafter.
After serving in World War II in the Signal Corps and Training Films Division, Lee returned to Timely, now named Atlas Comics, and oversaw a renaissance for the company. Artist Jack Kirby returned to the fold and together the pair responded to their main competitor DC Comics’ launch of the Justice League by introducing what would soon become their trademark: Characters that lived in real-world locations and had real-life problems.
“We tried to make our characters as human and empathetic as possible,” Lee told the Huffington Post in 2012. “Instead of merely emphasizing their super feats, we attempted to make their personal life and personal problems as realistic and as interesting as possible.”
In 1961 at what was now officially Marvel Comics, Kirby and Lee created The Fantastic Four, a quartet of celebrity superheroes with a loving, if bickering, family dynamic. The team was a hit and Lee and Kirby quickly added to the superhero ensemble with characters like the Mighty Thor, a Norse god who takes over the body of a medical student who is disabled and the Uncanny X-Men, a group of mutants whose antagonist, Magneto, was a Holocaust survivor. But Lee’s most popular co-creation, with writer-artist Steve Ditko, may well be the one he is most often identified with: Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man, introduced in 1962 — the geeky native New Yorker who juggles a girlfriend, school and a secret life as a web-slinging superhero
Lee’s comics often responded to the social climate of America. In 1966, he and Kirby created Black Panther, an African king, who was the first black superhero in mainstream comics. X-Men also interacted with the dialogue surrounding the civil rights movement, with integrationist mutant Professor Xavier and isolationist leader Magneto often being compared to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X respectively. Lee notably condemned racism in his editorial column, Stan’s Soapbox, in 1968, and in October of 2016 he designed a “solidarity pin” in the hopes of uniting the police and Black Lives Matter.
“One thing I always tried to emphasize [with my characters] was the common bond between people,” Lee wrote in his foreword to the 2007 book “Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics and the Creation of the Superhero” by Danny Fingeroth. “We are all passengers on the Spaceship Earth, and our ship was never divided into different classes.”
In 1972 Lee became Marvel’s publisher and its most visible figure. He was known for his catchphrases “excelsior” and “‘nuff said,” and his genially gruff presentation and signature aviator glasses. In recent years he had become known to billions for his comedic cameos in the Marvel movies, a tradition which began in earnest with the 2000 Bryan Singer-directed “X-Men.” In 2008, “Iron Man” premiered, setting the stage for a cinematic universe that matched the grand scope and crossover of Lee’s comics and lifted his creations to new levels of visibility.
The last two years of Lee’s life were marked by tragedy and controversy. In July of last year Joan Lee, Lee’s wife of nearly 70 years, died following a stroke. After her death it was reported that Lee groped nurses taking care of him (he denied the allegations). In August of this year, a business manager of Lee’s was subject to a restraining order brought on by Lee’s daughter for alleged elder abuse including mishandling of Lee’s finances.
While the Marvel movies franchise, now owned by Disney, is worth an estimated $4 billion, Lee noted in interviews that he was not worth nearly that much due in part to poor business decisions.
At a Comic Con panel in 2012, in which he was asked which character he most identified with, Lee joked about relating to the wealthy and handsome genius Iron Man, he later answered truthfully that his alter ego was “probably Peter Parker because he’s just an ordinary guy.”
But Lee’s gift, for fans of Marvel, was his uncanny ability to make ordinary men and women super. In that way he empowered us all.
Comic Book Visionary Stan Lee Is Dead At 95
Comic Book Visionary Stan Lee Is Dead At 95
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.