Stan Lee was just 16 when he got his first job in the comic-book industry; in 1939 he joined Timely Comics, a new pulp division belonging to the publisher Martin Goodman. Born Stanley Lieber, the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants dreamed of writing the “Great American Novel.” He later said he took the nom de plume Stan Lee out of embarrassment: “People had no respect for comic books at all. Most parents didn’t want their children to read [them].” After a nearly 80-year career in comics, Lee died Monday at the age of 95 as the ultimate icon of the industry, the creator of characters like the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and the X-Men. His name is essentially synonymous with the American superhero comic, which has become an art form unto itself.
Lee’s initial work saw him keeping the inkwells filled and getting lunch orders. He quickly graduated to proofreading and editing, making his writing debut on a small story in 1941’s Captain America Comics Issue No. 3. Lee worked with legends like Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, and Syd Shores before entering the U.S. Army in 1942. Upon his return, Timely Comics had been renamed Atlas, and superheroes had fallen out of vogue. Lee dutifully worked within the popular genres of the ’50s—romance, Westerns, and sci-fi—but he came close to quitting the industry out of boredom.
But by the late 1950s, the Atlas rival DC Comics had successfully revived some of its heroes past, including the Flash and the Justice League of America. Intrigued, Goodman assigned Lee and Kirby the task of creating their own superhero book, though Lee (who was given to mythmaking) said that his wife played a part in nudging him toward writing a comic he actually wanted to read. Together, Lee and Kirby produced The Fantastic Four, about a team blessed with unique powers, in 1961.
It was a commercial sensation, one that stood out from most comic books because of its tremendous sense of pathos. Superheroes, until then, had been framed as one-dimensional forces of justice, pillars of honor and duty serving a higher cause. The Fantastic Four were prone to bickering, wrestled with romantic drama of their own, and were recognizably flawed people, each with the potential to be remote, hotheaded, or arrogant. Lee and Kirby collaborated on Fantastic Four for 102 issues; the “Galactus trilogy,” spanning issues 48 to 50, is the indisputable pinnacle of the so-called Silver Age of comic books.
Lee and Kirby created many vital characters together, including the X-Men, the Hulk, the Avengers, Nick Fury, the Silver Surfer, and Thor; Lee also created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with the recently departed Steve Ditko, Iron Man with Don Heck and Kirby, Daredevil with Everett, and many more. Lee relied on a writing approach he dubbed “the Marvel method,” where he would create a short story synopsis, the artists would draw the story themselves and create the plot-by-plot details, and then Lee would fill in the dialogue (he was fond of hyperbolic narration, goofy one-liners, and topical references).
That method led to many disputes over the years with Lee’s top collaborators. Certainly visionaries like Kirby and Ditko deserved just as much credit for the characters they created, though Lee was often reticent to grant it. The extent of Lee’s contributions to any particular Marvel Comics issue can be argued over endlessly, but the writer played a huge role in making comic-book storytelling what it is today. He emphasized character as much as action; was fond of serialized, soapy twists; and tried to keep his heroes relevant to the age they lived in, rooting stories in the countercultural movements of the day.
In 1972, Lee stopped writing comics and became Marvel’s publisher. He gradually transitioned into a figurehead role for the company, serving as a mascot of sorts and only occasionally writing issues. Still, his imprimatur remained crucial to Marvel as it continued to evolve with the times. By 2008, when the company made the risky play of launching its own film series with Iron Man, Lee was there to film a cameo role and give a sly wink and nod to the audience.
“I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers,” Lee, who eventually took his pseudonym as his legal name, once said. “And then I began to realize: Entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it, they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain, you’re doing a good thing. When you’re seeing how happy the fans are—as they [see up-close] the people who tell the stories, who illustrated them, the TV personalities—I realize: It’s a great thing to entertain people.”
Throughout his decades in the industry, that was Lee’s primary impulse: to entertain. Few can claim such a long legacy of sheer joy in their art, and whatever initial embarrassment he felt filling up those inkwells at Timely Comics, it vanished long ago. ’Nuff said.