Most comic-book artists toil away in near total obscurity. Stan Lee was different. As a writer and editor, and later publisher at Marvel Comics, he was a one-man cheerleading squad for the entire industry.
He had the talent to back it up —a four-year period in the early Sixties saw him invent almost the entire Marvel line-up that now dominates comics and cinema —but it was his enduring enthusiasm that turned him from beloved creator into, well, Stan Lee, a name known even to those who never read a comic. Captain America actor Chris Evans said, “There will never be another Stan Lee … He exuded love and kindness and will leave an indelible mark on so, so, so many lives. Excelsior!! (sic)”
Stanley Martin Lieber started work as a menial assistant at Timely Comics — soon to be Marvel — at 17. One particularly busy day, the young assistant was asked to write a quick two-page story for an issue of Captain America (a character he did not create, but would later revamp) and his career began under the shortened moniker that became his legal name.
By 1941, still just 19, he was appointed editor. He would stay in that role for 31 years. At times, Lee’s Marvel was churning out 40 or 50 books a month, across genres from horror to romance to, of course, superheroes. “Pressure is not the word,” he told Playboy of that time. “I was always on the precipice.”
To keep up the pace, Lee used what became known as the “Marvel method”. He would brainstorm a story with an artist and write a brief synopsis. Then the artist would draw the pages, and Lee would fill in the dialogue. The extent of his credit was therefore sometimes disputed, notably by hugely important cocreators like artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
But while his credit should be, and is, shared, there’s no question of his overall influence. At the start of the Sixties, Lee was asked to come up with a new superhero team in response to DC’s Justice League. Prompted by his wife Joan, as well as planning a career change and feeling he had nothing to lose, Lee decided to tell the stories he wanted to tell and leave nothing on the table. As a result, he and his collaborators came up with virtually every hero currently earning a billion dollars at the box office —X-Men, Hulk and the Fantastic Four with Kirby; Spider-Man and Dr Strange with Ditko; Daredevil with Bill Everett.
Lee set his stories in New York because he knew the city —he knew where the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building would be, which part of Queens would be home to Peter “Spider-Man” Parker, and where Tony “Iron Man” Stark would build his mansion. It also allowed his characters to pop in and out of one another’s worlds, so that Spider-Man could apply to join the Fantastic Four (they were not seeking applicants at that time), while the Hulk could team up with Ant-Man in the first Avengers group.
But his real genius was in the flaws and vulnerabilities he gifted his characters. Spider-Man’s life was frequently made worse by his abilities — he’s perennially late, torn between superheroics and his responsibilities for family and friends (something perhaps inspired by Lee’s own workload). The Fantastic Four bickered among themselves; the X-Men faced prejudice and discrimination; the Hulk had a power he could not control.
“If you make it too easy, too obvious, people would get bored,” Lee told The Big Issue in 2016. For Lee, superheroes were modern fairytales, and he didn’t think anyone really grew past a love of the fantastic, characters like ourselves but bigger. But he dealt with the real world, too. Lee used his editor’s letters to speak to the same issues that his characters faced, famously speaking out against prejudice and racism. “It’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race —to despise an entire nation —to vilify an entire religion … Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance,” he wrote.
Given that he was such a prominent figure of the Sixties, perhaps it was inevitable that rumours about Lee would eventually surface on the Internet. There were theories that Spider-Man’s girlfriend Mary Jane was a coded reference to marijuana, a drug that Lee claimed he never tried; he even quit smoking after absentmindedly burning holes in his sweaters. Wilder stories had him competing with Mick Jagger to pick up girls in bars —and sometimes winning — but Lee denied those too, although he did become friends with Hugh Hefner after a 1981 move to LA to launch Marvel’s characters on TV.
While he often played an old lecher in his cameos in the Marvel movies (Guardians of the Galaxy, Daredevil), Lee’s own marriage to Joan lasted 70 years and was by all accounts a happy one — although she one day angrily smashed the typewriter on which he wrote many of his signature characters, something he teased her about for decades.
Lee became something close to a Marvel hero himself for fans, with Spider-Man’s gee-whiz enthusiasm, Captain America’s good nature and, if you believe the reports (which Lee denied), Tony Stark’s wealth. After 32 years editing at Marvel, he seemed to really hit his stride as an elder statesman, cheering almost single-handed for Marvel during its early Nineties doldrums as the company faced bankruptcy.
But it was when filmmaking caught up with Marvel’s stories that Lee really came back into his own, as filmmakers —almost all of them huge fans of Lee’s work —brought him aboard to turn in witty cameos in almost all the Marvel films (he missed X2).
He sometimes played a hapless stooge of the heroes —a museum security guard forced to explain how Captain America stole his own uniform, a school librarian unaware that Spider-Man is fighting the Lizard behind him —and sometimes a hero saving a passer-by from falling debris.
By Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, it was suggested that he was an agent of extra-terrestrial beings, the Watchers, sent here to report back on Earth’s doings by a race of godlike beings. It felt right, Lee’s cameos the imprimatur on the Marvel films, and the idea that he was watching over the superheroes’ further adventures something like a papal blessing.
His oft-repeated catchphrase —“Excelsior!”—came from the New York state motto. Lee said, in 2014, that it meant, “Keep moving forward, and if it’s time to go, it’s time. Nothing lasts forever. I’ve had a long enough life.” At 95, he may have had a long one, but not long enough for his legions of fans. He will be missed.