The comic book writer Stan Lee, who has died aged 95, revolutionized his industry in the 1960s, when he created the mythic figures that are still inspiring new generations to flock to the cinema. Lee’s creations – Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, most of the Avengers (Hulk, Iron Man, Thor), Daredevil and Doctor Strange – helped to rescue the costumed superhero from obscurity and to usher in the silver age of American comic books.
Superhero comics had collapsed in popularity after the second world war – their golden age – and the introduction of the comics code in 1954 had outlawed crime and horror comics with any real bite. Lee, then an editor with Martin Goodman’s Atlas Comics, watched the industry folding up around him but kept Atlas going with a small staff and the tales of the romantic adventuress Millie the Model and wild west gunslinger Kid Colt.
He grew tired of churning out dozens of semi-literate scripts each month, however. When he was on the point of quitting, his wife, Joan, suggested: “Before you do, why don’t you do one book the way you would like to do it? The worst that happens is Martin will fire you, and so what? You want to quit anyway.”
This advice coincided with a major overhaul of characters at the company’s rivals National, where the editor Julius Schwartz had been reinventing many of their old costumed heroes and teaming them up in a new monthly: Justice League of America.
Goodman – then in the process of changing the name of Atlas Comics to MarvelComics – heard that the title was selling well and suggested to Lee that he invent a superhero group.
Lee realized this was his chance and created the Fantastic Four, a team with powers and problems in equal measure. The super-elastic scientist Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic) and his girlfriend, Sue Storm (Invisible Girl), try to hold the team together, while her brother Johnny (The Human Torch) and Ben Grimm (The Thing) bicker and fight. Lee’s instinct was to humanize the characters: Richards is racked by guilt about turning his best pal, Grimm, into a monster who looks like a pile of orange boulders; Grimm is filled with anger and self-loathing; and Johnny, like any teenager, prefers to drive fast cars and use his superhero status to pull girls, resenting Sue and Reed’s attempts to rein him in.
Another innovation was to set the Fantastic Four series in New York rather than a fictional city and have the team visit real places. Briefly Lee kept his new team out of spandex but was persuaded to have them don superhero costumes by fans of the new series.
Lee’s next character, the Hulk, was inspired by a combination of Jekyll and Hyde and the notion of the misunderstood monster exemplified by Boris Karloff’s depiction of Frankenstein’s creation. Caught up in a gamma radiation explosion, Dr Banner turns into a gigantic green-skinned creature driven by hatred whenever he becomes angry. The angrier the Hulk gets, the stronger he becomes.
But it was a radioactive spider that was responsible for Lee’s most popular creation. To many, Spider-Man was not about fighting malformed or transmuted enemies such as the Green Goblin or the Lizard but about Peter Parker, a shy, bullied young boy with a crush on a beautiful girl from his school but who lacks the confidence to ask her out.
Goodman had so little faith in the character that he was not given his own book. Instead, Spider-Man first appeared in the final (15th) issue of Amazing Fantasy. It sold particularly well and Goodman quickly gave the teenager his own title. The Amazing Spider-Man debuted a few months later.
Spider-Man was the first major character of this revitalization of Marvel Comics that was not drawn by Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America and one of the most influential and innovative artists working in American comic books. It was to Kirby, capable of churning out eight to 10 pencilled pages a day, that Lee usually turned to introduce his new breed of superheroes. With artists he knew well and trusted there was no need for a detailed script.
Kirby could work from the briefest outline of a plot (sometimes described over the phone) which Lee would then embellish with dialogue and captions once the pages came in. Lee used similar tactics with his Spider-Man and Doctor Strange artist Steve Ditko, who plotted the stories and left notes in the margins of the artwork to aid Lee when it came to writing the dialogue. Lee’s working style became known as the “Marvel method” of writing comic books.
Iron Man was created by Lee as someone who should be hated by the readers – an inventor of military hardware who was benefiting financially from the Vietnam war – but whom he would turn into a hero. Lee also took the unfashionable subject of the second world war and created Nick Fury, who led a multi-ethnic platoon known as the Howling Commandos. His most popular creations in 1963, however, were the X-Men, a group of mutants brought together by Professor Xavier for mutual protection, and the Avengers, the latter originally made up of Iron Man, Hulk, Ant-Man, Thor and Wasp. Lee’s blind superhero Daredevil appeared in 1964, drawn by Bill Everett.
Lee and Kirby continued to create new characters, including the Silver Surfer, a galaxy-spanning traveller who was also Lee’s philosophical voice, and Black Panther, the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics. Both appeared in the pages of Fantastic Four in 1966, as did Galactus, a planet-eating cosmic entity intent on destroying Earth. Lee’s heroes were only as good as his villains and, with Kirby, he also gave the Marvel Universe Magneto and Doctor Doom.
Lee was finally allowed to give his characters flaws and, whereas superheroes had previously immediately embraced their powers, his heroes were often reluctant. Lee gave his characters voices, with pithy catchphrases – “Flame on!”, “Hulk smash!”, “It’s clobberin’ time!” – and pages littered with thought balloons out of which would grow some truth that the hero needed to learn, not the least of which was Peter Parker’s: “With great power there must also come great responsibility.”
In his regular “Stan’s Soapbox” features, which appeared in Marvel titles from 1967, Lee tackled Vietnam and bigotry and shamelessly overhyped Marvel’s comics at the expense of their rivals. His high-spirited editorials, in which adolescent fans – “true believers!” and “keepers of the flame!” – were told to “Face front!”, offered “No Prizes” and rewarded for buying more comics by becoming a recognized “RFO” (“Real Frantic One”), were hyperbolic, fun and funny, and typically signed off with an exuberant “Excelsior!”
Born in Manhattan, New York, Stan was the elder son of Romanian immigrants, Celia (nee Solomon) and Jacob Lieber. He grew up in Washington Heights and the Bronx, where his father worked as a dress cutter.
At DeWitt high school Stan wrote for the school magazine, the Magpie. He had several jobs during his teenage years, including delivering lunches to offices at the Rockefeller Center, selling subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune, working as a theatre usher and as an office boy for a trouser manufacturer.
On leaving school at 16, he joined the Federal Theatre Project, funded by the Works Progress Administration. He moved on soon after when he learned through an uncle that Timely Comics, owned by Goodman (related by marriage to Stan’s cousin, Jean), was looking for an assistant in the editorial office, run by Joe Simon.
Stan’s first job was to fill inkwells, collect lunch, erase pencil lines and proofread finished pages. His first story was a text filler, Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge, in Captain America 3 (May 1941). For this he used the pen name Stan Lee, which he eventually made his legal name. A few months later, he found himself in charge of the office when Simon and his artistic partner, Kirby, struck a deal with National.
In 1942, Lee enlisted in the US army and trained with the Signal Corps but spent most of his three years working with a unit writing training films, manuals and posters. Lee’s first superhero creation was a journalist called Keen Marlow. Caught behind enemy lines, he was experimented on with a serum that turned him into the Destroyer. Other early Lee creations included Jack Frost and the scythe-swinging, hooded hero Father Time.
Lee was the cheerleader of Marvel Comics for more than 60 years, as editor-in-chief from 1941 and as publisher from 1972 until 1996. In 1980, he moved from New York to California and set up an animation studio, narrating The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends TV shows, and became involved with Marvel’s Hollywood ambitions.
In the popular live-action TV version of The Incredible Hulk (1978-82), Lou Ferrigno starred as the green superhero. Lee’s own numerous on-screen credits began with a jury foreman in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989). He played himself in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory, and virtually every Marvel movie, including Black Panther, released this year, contained a cameo from him.
Marvel went into liquidation in 1996 and emerged a new company in 1997. A year later, Lee launched Stan Lee Media with Peter F Paul. This was one of the biggest internet startups of the time, employing 165 people to create and market a variety of branded franchises. A web animation series, The 7th Portal, debuted in 2000, but within months the company had run out of capital. Paul fled to Brazil from where he was eventually extradited, beginning a 10-year sentence in 2009. Litigation surrounding Paul and Stan Lee Media dogged Lee for years.
Live-action film success came with the first of the X-Men movies (2000) and the first of the Spider-Man series (2002), and superhero franchises continued with various studios.
In a 1965 Esquire poll, Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk were ranked alongside Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as the favourite revolutionary icons among college students. Lee once said: “Our goal is that someday an intelligent adult would not be embarrassed to walk down the street with a comic magazine. I don’t know whether we can ever bring this off, but it’s something to shoot for.”
He married Joan Boocock in 1947; she died last year, and he is survived by their daughter, Joan Cecilia, known as JC.
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