Stan Lee, iconic writer and editor of Marvel Comics has passed away at the age of 95.
It is a measure of the love and respect with which the World viewed Stan Lee, that a man who has not written comic books as a full-time day job in close to 50 years (with the exception of occasional forays and elseworlds-style takes, such as his reimagining of DC characters such as Batman) has elicited from multiple generations, with his passing – many of whom have not directly read any of his work – a genuine outpouring of grief and loss.
It is somewhat reminiscent of the period leading into his 90th birthday in 2012. Stan had, at that time, a decent twitter following, numbering, probably, somewhere in the 700,000s. For days leading up to the day of his birthday, celebrities (most notably Kevin Smith) promoted his account heavily to ensure he reached the 1 million mark in time for his landmark birthday. It goes without saying that the target was met comfortably.
Since the first X-Men film in 2000, Stan has cameoed in virtually all films containing a Marvel imprint (and all Marvel Studio films) – though he had appeared in The Trial of the Incredible Hulk TV film in 1989. Lee’s voice has appeared on video games, such as Spider-Man on the original PlayStation, and he has appeared in The Simpsons (with a scene-stealing turn as a version of himself who genuinely believed he could turn into the Hulk). It is fair to say that some combination of his voice, his name, and his visage are known across the World, and across multiple generations.
Much of this was due to a very distinctive way of speaking, the existence of a catchphrase (“Excelsior!”) and an engagingly friendly demeanour that enabled him to approach every generation with warmth and kindness. It is fair to say that this approachability was the hallmark of his characters: DC produced gods with Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman; in Spider-Man, for example, Stan produced an everyday hero who was late for school and hadn’t finished his homework. This interest in people, their lives and their problems led to a relatability in his work. The art very much flowed from the man.
Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber on 28th December 1922 in Manhattan, New York. In common with many families of that era, his father was able to secure only sporadic work after the stock market crash of 1929; the resulting depression leaving the family fighting poverty. As a child, and as an escape from everyday life, Stan developed the imagination that was to serve him so well, though his love of books and films; he was particularly fond of Errol Flynn, and was a keen reader, with an ambition to write professionally.
At the age of 16, Lee became an assistant at the newly-founded Timely Comics, by 1941, he was penning his own work for the label, a forerunner of the Marvel Comics with which he would make his name. At the end of the year, World War II (and Pearl Harbor) interrupted this progress: Stan enlisting in the Army early in 1942. Even in wartime, he was able to pursue his life of creativity; writing training films and cartoons for the Training Film Division. Post-war, he continued to work for Timely, focusing on a range of genres, including westerns and sci-fi.
By the end of the 1950s, Lee found himself dissatisfied, being unable to create the types of works that interested him and ready to quit the comic book industry. At this point two factors prevented the World losing the immense creativity that Lee was about to unleash. First, DC Comics revived their superheroes with a new run of Justice League – prompting Lee to be assigned to creating a new Superhero team for Timely (rebranded Marvel in 1961). Second, Lee’s wife, Joan suggested that as Stan was looking to change career anyhow, he had little to lose in going ahead and creating work in his voice.
That superhero family he was tasked with creating? The Fantastic Four.
From 1961 onwards, Lee worked with collaborators such as Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, Jack Kirby and John Romita to produce every significant Marvel hero and antagonist we know today: Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, The X-Men, Captain America, Iron Man, Daredevil, The Avengers – and almost too many more to recount. Stan would also talk directly to readers through letters column – letters typically addressed directly to Stan, who was now clearly the figurehead not only for Marvel, but for the industry as a whole.
From-1972, Stan ceased day-to-day writing, and assumed the role of publisher. To his death, he remained Chairman Emeritus of Marvel Comics, the behemoth he created. To a generation, he is the man with the funny cameo in each Marvel film. It is both a mark of respect to offer Stan this opportunity, and a wonderful reflection on his gameness that he nailed each one. He made a full-blooded effort each time, even as his health worsened – with, first, bypass surgery, then bouts of pneumonia – he lost his wife (Joan passing away in 2015) and he fought increasing abuses against both himself and his finances.
Without Stan Lee, pop culture would look very different indeed, and the single largest cinema franchise we have would not exist. It is believed that he has shot his cameos for a number of upcoming Marvel Studios entries, but we are approaching the day where they will no longer be able to have him appear. If he will be absent in person, his influence will continue to be there in every frame. A titan has left us.
“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. And then I began to realise: 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 are able to entertain people, you are doing a good thing”