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Stan Lee: 1922-2018

There may be no figure in the history of comics who is simultaneously more revered and more reviled than Stan Lee, who died this Monday morning at the age of 95. He was Smilin’ Stan, Stan the Man, the human face of the comics industry for a generation in which a consumer demographic transformed into a fan community. And he was still there, still smiling, when the general movie-going public finally fell in love with Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, Fantastic Four, the Hulk — all characters he had taught to speak more than 50 years earlier. He also, fairly or unfairly, came to embody the corporate greed that had trampled comics-creator rights.

It would be hard to overestimate Lee’s impact on the art, business and cultural image of comics. His noteworthy creative work emerged during a roughly 10-year period, but his comics career spanned more than 75 years — very nearly the life of the comics industry itself. During that time, atypical among comics creators, he had only one boss: Marvel (aka Timely and Atlas Comics). In the 1960s, Lee ignited and oversaw the greatest burst of creativity the superhero genre had seen since the invention of Superman. As Marvel’s editor-in-chief, he infused the line with a recognizable house style built upon the prolific Jack Kirby’s solidly dynamic art. As Marvel’s head writer, he created a world where super-heroic tropes stumbled ironically and engagingly among the petty details of everyday life. As Marvel’s spokesperson, he made readers feel they were part of an elite club and shepherded comics out of the kid-lit ghetto and onto college campuses.

But his willingness to toe the company line meant that his name and smiling face became corporate logos that were routinely stamped over the credits of other comics creators. Because his name became shorthand in the media for the multitude of creative efforts that had breathed life into the Marvel universe and because he allowed a “Stan Lee Presents” blurb to introduce even comics he had no involvement with, many in the fan community accused Lee of hogging the limelight and obscuring the work of Marvel artists.

His relationships with some of those artists, notably Kirby, soured into enduring animosity, but Lee himself rarely, if ever, expressed anger toward his co-creators in public. And more often than not, his colleagues described him as a generous and enthusiastic storyteller, often acting out plots in his offices, generating ideas even into his eighth decade.

Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber, Dec. 28, 1922, to Romanian immigrants and grew up in Depression-era New York City. His nickname in high school was “Gabby.” His goal, he said in the school yearbook, was to “Reach the Top — and Stay There.”

Captain America Comics #5 “Meet ‘Headline’ Hunter – Foreign Correspondent” penciled and inked by Charles Nicholas

Timely Publications was founded by Martin Goodman, whose wife was a cousin of Lee’s. When Timely writer-artist Joe Simon needed an assistant, Lee, aged 16, interviewed for the job. He was no sooner hired than his role in the company began to expand rapidly. His first story for Timely, a piece of prose-fiction filler called “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” appeared in Captain America Comics #3, cover-dated May 1941. His first comics script was a Headline Hunter, Foreign Correspondent story that ran in Captain America Comics #5, cover-dated Aug. 1941. Lee’s rise at Timely coincided with the faltering of Simon’s career and that of his partner, Jack Kirby. Simon and Kirby were caught moonlighting for another publisher and fired by Goodman. To help take up the slack, Lee was promoted to editorial director, becoming the youngest person in the comics industry to assume that title.

As the U.S. entered the war, Lee served in the Army Signal Corps beginning in 1942 and was stationed stateside, writing and cartooning for training manuals until his honorable discharge in 1945. Even in the service, he managed to contribute stories to Timely on weekends. In 1947, he met Joan Boocock, a British model, and each was so favorably impressed that, within a few weeks, she had divorced her husband and married Lee. Their marriage lasted until she died in 2017, at the age of 92, just short of their 70th anniversary. The couple had a daughter, Joan Celia Lee, in 1950. In 1953, a second daughter, Jan, died three days after birth, a loss that Lee has called the greatest tragedy of his life.

Postwar times were hard on comics for many reasons, not least of which was the campaign against comics led by Dr. Fredric Wertham, who found the medium to be an incitement to juvenile delinquency. Lee had thrived on the immediate interaction he’d had with staff artists, but in the 1950s, in the face of shrinking sales, Timely’s owners abandoned the bullpen structure, relying instead on stockpiled work and freelance artists. Lee was forced to give pink slips to most of the staff beginning in 1949. In 1953, he wrote a story about an obvious Wertham figure for the April issue of Suspense. It was called “The Raving Maniac.” The painful memory of the Timely downsizing apparently stuck with him. Speaking at the March 23, 1978, James Madison University Fine Arts Festival, Lee told the crowd, “Sometimes you have to make decisions. You have to decide between a pure business decision and being a human being. A lot of the guys working for us have been with us for many years. Very tough to say, ‘Hey, you’re not as good as Charlie. You’re fired.’ A lot of the books we produce, we are aware, aren’t all that good, but they’re keeping guys working.”

Lee would become known as the creator of a universe beloved by teenage boys. But beginning in 1944, he oversaw a string of titles aimed at female readers, including Miss America Magazine (introducing Otto Binder and Ruth Atkinson’s Patsy Walker), Millie the Model, Tessie the Typist, Girls’ Life, Patsy and Hedy, Teen Comics and Patsy Walker. As artist/historian Trina Robbins has pointed out, 30 of the 49 monthly comics published by Timely in 1948 featured female protagonists and were read by girls. According to Robbins, “Stan once told me that he liked writing the teen stuff, especially Millie the Model, more than anything else” (The Comics Journal #181). In the history of comics, it was a rare oasis of girl-friendly comics and lasted well into the 1960s. The Patsy Walker character was later incorporated into the superhero continuity as Hellcat.

As the 1950s progressed, the emphasis shifted to monsters (of the Godzilla variety — the sole supernatural creatures allowed by the Comics Code Authority). With Kirby again working for Timely (now called Atlas) and Lee writing the stories, the company’s comics began to acquire a look and theme that would reach its zenith with the Marvel superhero line: a mundane reality in conflict with gargantuan otherworldly forces.

Fantastic Four #1 penciled by Jack Kirby and inked by George Klein

The final breakthrough came with Lee and Kirby’s first issue of Fantastic Four in 1961. The Marvel line went on to redefine what readers expected of superheroes, but when the Fantastic Four appeared, they shattered a long-observed set of rules. They were not an assembly of super-powered characters drawn together to fight evil; they were a quasi-familial group that had powers thrust upon them. They wore civilian clothes until the shocked outcry from readers required them to adopt blue jumpsuits as active-duty costumes. They didn’t particularly get along with each other. They had money problems, at one point getting evicted from their own headquarters. Battling supervillains was secondary to their daily struggle to find happiness. They had individual personalities and each adjusted to the demands of their mutated bodies and super-heroic calling with a unique combination of self-pity and mordant humor.

The series was not an isolated phenomenon; it was the flagship of a quickly growing line of revisionist superhero titles with a coherent philosophy and style. Lee called his protagonists heroes with feet of clay. These were superheroes who patronized laundromats, came down with colds and struggled to keep up with homework, things that had evidently never occurred to DC writers who were busy coming up with Beppo the Superchimp and Bouncing Boy. Marvel’s most popular character, Spider-Man, was introduced Aug. 10, 1962, in Amazing Fantasy #15, and graduated to his own title by 1963. Though organically connected to the world of the Fantastic Four and the other Marvel superheroes, this creation of Lee and artist Steve Ditko was also distinct in its noirish urban atmosphere, its lithe, fluid movement and its depressive teenage protagonist. Beset by girl troubles, job worries and young-adult angst, Peter Parker was a character who fused a superhero narrative with the teenage motivations that had driven Lee’s teen comics. Amazing Spider-Man was an energetic superhero soap opera with gravitas.

The early Marvel line was mostly filled out by Lee/Kirby creations, including: Thor, a melding of Lee’s love of Shakespearean diction and Kirby’s passion for larger-than-life spectacle and architecture; The Incredible Hulk, a merging of cataclysmic science and primitive id in the form of a sympathetic but uncontrollably monstrous antihero — a kind of Jekyll-and-Frankenstein story; Iron Man, a morality tale of man, technology and responsibility with a love triangle running in the background; Daredevil, about a lawyer blinded but also physically enhanced by radiation and radar, who fights crime in a dark, urban environment while struggling with a love triangle — a co-creation with Bill Everett; The X-Men, teenagers attending their own private mutant high school while dealing with global threats, societal prejudice and love triangles; The Avengers, a collision/collaboration that sought to unite the protagonists of various series into a conflicted whole; Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos, a WWII burlesque mixing explosive violence and slapstick shtick in a self-proclaimed war comic for people who hated war comics. With Ditko, Lee also created Doctor Strange, featuring a sorcerer character with a moral-education arc that quickly gave way to Ditko’s intoxicating vision of vertiginous, otherworldly spaces bursting with supernatural physics.

Arriving in the midst of 1960s anxieties over the Cold War and doomsday-triggering bombs, Lee’s stories took the radiation bull by the horns, rehabilitating it as a source of super powers in the service of civilization. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Hulk and the X-Men all owed their origins to radiation and/or mutation. Iron Man was an embodiment of the military-industrial complex. The thematic shift can be seen in the difference between the proto-superhero story, “The Man in the Ant Hill!” in Tales to Astonish #27, cover-dated January 1962, and “Return of the Ant-Man” in Tales to Astonish #35, cover-dated September 1962. In the first story, Hank Pym nearly loses his life after he invents a formula that shrinks him to a very vulnerable ant-size and, in the end, vows to never again play god. A few months later, in the second story, he uses the formula to defeat Communist spies and achieves dominion over the natural ant world. He soon became one of the charter superhero members of The Avengers.

One key factor that set Marvel apart from other comics publishers was its creative process. With the Marvel line, Lee was able to recreate the interactive relationship he had had with the old Timely bullpen. While publishers traditionally supplied artists with full scripts to illustrate, Lee developed a plot outline with the artists, who then told the story visually prior to Lee’s insertion of dialogue. Known as the Marvel Method, the process resulted in stories that flowed naturally from panel to panel with much of the plot communicated visually. While minimizing Lee’s direct involvement in construction of the stories, it nevertheless allowed him have a creative influence on far more stories than would have been possible if he had written every story from scratch. The fact that Lee was the editor/writer on virtually every title produced by Marvel in the early 1960s gave the entire line a cohesive voice and thematic perspective.

The collaborative nature of the approach later proved controversial, as artists, critics and fans began to question whether Lee deserved as much credit for creation of the Marvel universe as he had been allotted. Unquestionably, however, the literary ambitions and self-mocking irony that Lee introduced in the final stage of creation were an important part of what gave a Marvel story its personality and attitude.

The shared template of Kirby’s art style (which continued even after Kirby left for DC in 1970) and Lee’s themes and dialogue went a long way toward unifying the Marvel line — but if that were not enough, Lee’s own persona bound the various series together through his direct address to the reader on letters pages, in the Stan’s Soapbox column and in the numerous footnotes and asides in the comics. Lee was able to have it both ways: He was a cornball who made fun of his own corniness, a carnival barker who parodied carnival barkers and a father figure who never grew up. He conjured the vision of a House of Ideas where the Marvel Bullpen lived and worked. Readers knew Marvel creators by nicknames, as if they were old friends or family members. Fans competed for no-prizes, which mocked their own worthlessness, and joined the Merry Marvel Marching Society, a parody of fan clubs. It was a tone that fit the campy 1960s perfectly. Lee’s self-aware combination of hyperbole and irony meant that older readers need not be embarrassed by the bombastic iconography and overripe melodrama that dominated superhero comics. We were all, reader and creator, in on the joke. For the first time, a generation of readers took their comics with them to college, and Lee became a popular speaker on college campuses.

As comics began to gain new respect, a professional organization called the Academy of Comic Book Arts was formed in 1970 with Lee as its first president. The organizers were divided, however, between those who wanted the ACBA to function as a guild, looking after creators’ rights, and those (Lee included) who wanted it to be a trade association, promoting comics to the public. By the end of the decade, it was little more than a social club for creators.

But Lee, speaking among industry insiders, was capable of arguing on behalf of creators’ rights. A roundtable discussion was held at the Lambs Club in New York on Jan. 20, 1971. It was moderated by Gil Kane and attended by Lee, Will Eisner, Archie Publisher John Goldwater, writer/editor Denny O’Neil, artist Murphy Anderson, editor Sid Jacobson and cartoonist Howie Schneider. In the transcript recorded by the National Cartoonists Society, Lee comes across as a firebrand, criticizing the industry as a whole and backing Goldwater into a corner over Archie and other publishers’ failure to allow creators to own a share in the rights to their own ideas: “I would say that the comic-book market is the worst market that there is on the face of the earth for creative talent, and the reasons are numberless and legion. I have had many talented people ask me how to get into the comic-book business. If they were talented enough, the first answer I would give them is, why would you want to get into the comic-book business? Because even if you succeed, even if you reach what might be considered the pinnacle of success in comics, you will be less successful, less secure and less effective than if you are just an average practitioner of your art in television, radio, movies or what have you. It is a business in which the creator, as was mentioned before, owns nothing of his creation. The publisher owns it. … Why can’t we ever just say it as it is? For 20 years, nobody has brought an idea to a publisher and had any rights in it. I hope it will change …”

The Amazing Spider-Man #97 “In the Grip of the Goblin” penciled by Gil Kane, inked by Frank Giacoia

In 1971, Lee won the long battle with the forces of censorship that had begun with Dr. Wertham’s campaign: He defied the Comics Code Authority by publishing a story arc in Amazing Spider-Man #96–98 in which Peter Parker’s roommate developed a drug habit. Lee had written the story at the request of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare even though all references to drugs were banned by the Code. The three issues appeared without the Code’s Seal of Approval and enjoyed brisk sales, thus beginning the unraveling of the CCA.

Promoted to publisher in 1972, Lee pushed the Marvel envelope a little further in 1974 by releasing Comix Book, a short-lived, underground-comics-style magazine edited by Denis Kitchen. It was Marvel’s first book of creator-owned material, thus following through on the concerns Lee had raised two years earlier at the Lambs Club roundtable.

But ultimately, Lee saw the industry’s weaknesses as innate, not reformable. Having risen to a position of power, he used it less to transform the industry than to transform himself. As he had said at the Lambs Club, why work in comic books if you can work in any other entertainment field? For the most part, Lee ceased to write, as his role at the company shifted to that of figurehead. He was largely an absentee boss, turning the day-to-day operations over to a series of editorial directors. He hung out with celebrities, did commercials, attended parties at the Playboy Mansion, went on talk shows and was interviewed by major publications, including The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Lee became such a popular and powerful figure that he presided over a celebrity-filled variety show at Carnegie Hall in 1972. In 1974, he wrote Origins of Marvel Comics, a combination of reminiscence and reprinted comics stories. It was followed by Son of Origins of Marvel Comics and Bring on the Bad Guys. In the late 1970s, he began to write newspaper strips, including The Virtue of Vera Valiant (a 1976 parody of Mary Worth-style soap-opera strips drawn by Frank Springer), The Incredible Hulk (which ran from 1978 to 1982), and his most successful strip, The Amazing Spider-Man, which began in 1977 and continued to run daily under the bylines of Lee and his brother Larry Lieber for more than 40 years. A sex-themed parody strip pitched by Lee and John Romita to Playboy did not see the light of day.

During the 1970s, Lee was the primary liaison between Marvel and various Hollywood players, and in 1981, he moved to LA. He took lunches with actors, producers and directors ranging from Troma Entertainment’s Lloyd Kaufman (Toxic Avenger) to the revered Federico Fellini (La Dolce Vita). It turned out that Lee was highly regarded among European film auteurs. The legendary Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad) worked with Lee on a proposal for a Spider-Man movie that was to star Henry Winkler (Fonzie of Happy Days). The projects that actually made it before the cameras, however, were less awesome. Hollywood’s lack of enthusiasm for the projects was reflected in their cripplingly low budgets and clueless scripts. The resulting TV movies and straight-to-video fodder were widely derided by Marvel fans and ignored by everyone else. One exception was the Incredible Hulk TV series. Although Lee was credited as creative consultant, the show was less an adaptation of the comics than a revival of The Fugitive with a large, angry Richard Kimble.

Marvel enjoyed greater success with its animated projects. The Marvel Super Heroes, which began in 1966, drew a strong audience and was followed by similar projects, including the Ralph Bakshi-directed Spider-Man and a Hanna-Barbera Fantastic Four. Marvel’s animation division was overseen by Lee, who Marvel promoted again in 1986 to vice president of creative affairs.

Both Marvel’s and Lee’s reputations, however, were severely damaged in the mid-1980s, due to Marvel’s demand that Kirby sign away any potential copyrights before it would return his original art. When this legal coercion, which was directed specifically at Kirby, was made public by The Comics Journal, it elicited an outraged backlash against the company from both readers and creators. Even DC issued a scolding open letter to Marvel. From Lee, however, there was silence and an occasional half-hearted defense on the grounds that comics pages were created collaboratively and were difficult to divvy up among creators. (In fact, original pages had long been apportioned, with a third usually going to inkers and two-thirds to pencilers.) By 1987, Marvel had reached an agreement with Kirby and returned all the original Kirby art it could account for, but the sheen of public admiration had already dimmed for both the publisher and its most prominent representative.

The controversy also stirred up questions about who deserved the most credit for creating the characters that made up the Marvel universe. When asked about authorship in interviews, Lee was generally careful to acknowledge his co-creators, even admitting that artists like Kirby and Ditko scarcely needed any input from him in order to plot, pace and draw stories. But just as often, he failed to correct assumptions in the media, that Marvel’s characters and story lines had sprung full-blown from his brow. And the omnipresence of Lee’s name on all the Marvel titles became a sore point for artists and fans. Evidence was pored over. Written plot synopses by Lee and pages of original Kirby art containing marginal dialogue notes from Kirby were presented as exhibits in the debate. While it’s hard to deny that the contributions of Kirby and other artists were for a long time left in the shadows by Lee’s front-office promotional role, it has proven just as difficult to deny Lee’s participation in the creative process. Numerous artists have testified regarding Lee’s passionate role-playing during plot discussions. And one has only to compare Marvel’s 1960s comics to later solo series by Kirby and Ditko to see that the former have a fluid, bantering, self-aware quality that is largely missing from Kirby’s stiff, though idiosyncratically fascinating, dialogue and Ditko’s hectoring objectivist diatribes.

The secret to Marvel’s 1960s success may lie in the Marvel Method itself, which made possible a fluidity of storytelling that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. The method wouldn’t have worked for everybody. Given a mere hint of a plot, not every artist could have communicated a coherent, effective narrative purely in visual terms. Ditko and Kirby were able to take that ball and run with it all the way to the goal posts. But as significant a feat as that was, what Lee accomplished was perhaps even more remarkable: Not only did he maintain the big picture of the intertwining Marvel universe and its themes and editorial voice, but he was able to retroactively turn the silent images created by the artists into fully developed, engaging, character-driven scenarios — even more impressive considering that he and the artists didn’t always agree about what story was being told.

When Kirby died in 1994, rumors circulated that Lee was not welcome at the memorial services, but according to Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon’s book Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, Lee attended Kirby’s funeral with the permission of widow Roz Kirby. “I stayed in the back,” Lee told Raphael and Spurgeon. Lee later helped to obtain a Marvel pension for Roz.

Lee’s company loyalty was rewarded. Despite the failures of most of Marvel’s multimedia projects, the related merchandise licensing was nevertheless attracting more capital than the company had ever known as a mere comics publisher. New Marvel owner Ronald Perelman, seeing synergistic potential in Marvel’s properties and recognizing Lee’s importance to the brand, gave Lee a lifetime contract and a salary that grew by 2002 to $1 million a year. However, Perelman went on an acquisition binge, buying up trading-card businesses and the Heroes World distribution operation just as the comics-speculation balloon was deflating, leaving Marvel on the verge of bankruptcy. Disaster was narrowly averted in the late 1990s as Marvel Entertainment reorganized under the ownership of Toy Biz and Marvel movies (Blade, X-Men, Spider-Man) began to gain considerable traction at the box office. By the time Marvel’s luck with movie adaptations had turned around, however, Lee had been replaced by Avi Arad as the company’s Hollywood representative.

During the reorganization of Marvel, Toy Biz owner Isaac Perlmutter voided Lee’s contract, but Arad, not wanting to risk any copyright conflicts with the writer-editor whose name had been stamped on all of Marvel’s most valuable properties, persuaded Perlmutter to sign a new, even more generous contract with Lee. In addition to the annual $1 million salary, the new contract allowed Lee to work on his own projects outside Marvel. In 1998, Lee took his first step away from his lifelong employer by launching his own company — and was immediately taken for a ride by the hardball financial manipulations of a convicted felon.

Stan Lee Media was a dot-com start-up capitalized to the tune of $300 million, based entirely on the asset value of a 77-year-old man’s imagination. For a shining moment, Lee alone was worth $100 million more than all of Marvel was valued at. The idea was for Lee to crank out ideas that would be turned into web-toons, video games and other entertainment products. It’s a testament to the awe that Lee’s name still commanded that SLM’s public stock offering was so successful. At the center of all the investment marketing and intellectual-property licensing, Lee was doing what he’d always done: acting out stories in his office and inspiring other creators. But it was all a mirage. It turned out that SLM co-founder Peter Paul, the man who had talked Lee into the venture, had served time in prison for a complicated drug-trade con. SLM’s idea bank failed to materialize in any concrete, profitable form, and insider stock manipulations caused the company’s value to plummet in 2000. The Securities and Exchange Commission investigated, and Paul fled to Brazil. Lee was not charged with any wrongdoing, but Paul was extradited and given a 10-year sentence for stock fraud in 2009. The momentarily mighty Stan Lee Media disintegrated into a flurry of lawsuits and counter-suits.

Lee officially disconnected himself from SLM in January of 2001, but continued to incorporate himself as Pow! Entertainment. He entered the new millennium still collecting $1 million a year from Marvel, for which he was expected to devote approximately 15 hours per week to promotional activities on behalf of the company. Via Pow! Entertainment, he continued to pitch ideas and created or participated in a number of projects, including the Stripperella animated series that ran on Spike TV in 2003 and featured the voice of Pamela Anderson as a crime-fighting stripper; Who Wants to be a Superhero?, a contest hosted by Lee that ran on the Sci Fi channel in 2006 and 2007; a 2017 anime series for Japanese TV called The Reflection; and Stan Lee’s Lucky Man, a super-powered cop show for British TV. When Lucky Man began in 2016 with James Nesbitt in the lead role, it was reportedly the highest-rated series ever aired on the UK’s Sky 1. The show’s creator had just turned 94.

After undergoing surgery in 2012, Lee issued the following statement: “Now hear this! Your leader hath not deserted thee! In a effort to be more like my fellow Avenger, Tony Stark, I have had an electronic pacemaker placed near my heart to insure that I’ll be able to lead thee for another 90 years.”

Pow! Entertainment never turned a profit, but in 2017, Hong Kong company Camsing International Holding purchased majority ownership for $11.5 million.

 

The Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience cover by Earl Norem

The combination of wealth and old age can be vexing, as one’s circle of trusted friends and loved ones begin to die off, replaced by pitchmen, sycophants, parasites and hustlers. In his final months after the death of his wife, Lee was beset by blackmail scams and financial cons and found himself at the center of various scandalous headlines.

By his own account, Lee never set out to become a famous comic-book creator. And certainly he did not dream of taking on the role of a reality-TV host. His youthful ambition, the one he reserved his real name for while writing comics as Stan Lee, was to author the Great American Novel. For all his accomplishments, he came no closer to this goal than a few promotional autobiographies (including the 2015 Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir co-written with Peter David and Colleen Doran) and “How to Draw” books. His long philosophical poem, “God Woke,” appeared in 2010 and was later adapted as a graphic novel and an animated video. Narrated from the point of view of God, it reads like a rooftop Silver Surfer soliloquy on the subject of man’s inhumanity to man. He often said he enjoyed writing the serious-minded Silver Surfer comics, and despite the fact that they were not big-sellers, he returned to the character from time to time even after he had generally retired from writing comic books. His 114-page 1978 reunion with Kirby, Silver Surfer: The Ultimate Cosmic Experience, has been credited by some historians as a significant step in popularizing and establishing the graphic-novel form.

The words Lee will most be remembered for first appeared in a narration box in Spider-Man’s introductory Amazing Fantasy #15 appearance: “With great power there must also come — great responsibility.” Some have ascribed the quote to earlier sources like Voltaire or FDR, who said similar things, but research indicates that the origin of the quote is pure Stan Lee. Lee certainly rose to a position of power and wealth in the popular-culture industry, but as with his Marvel superheroes, that achievement entailed irreversible changes in his life and ultimately the sacrifice of his mortal identity.

Amazing Fantasy #15 "Spider-Man!" penciled and inked by Steve Ditko

If Lee was never able to fulfill his ambition to write serious literary fiction, he was able to rewrite the superhero genre as an epic tragedy. The Marvel hero gains great power, but loses his humanity, is transformed against his will into something larger than life, will spend the rest of his days in the service of that pretend identity. Stanley Martin Lieber and his literary ambitions were overtaken by the radiation of popular culture. He became Smilin’ Stan Lee, an irresistible persona and figurehead, who nevertheless was subject to the demands of fans, investors and corporate obligations. It’s easy to imagine Lee, with his hipster sunglasses and transplanted hair, looking down on the world from the edge of a rooftop, meditating on what might have been. If he did not always succeed in exercising great responsibility, it can’t be said that he ever stopped trying to be exactly what we wanted him to be.

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27 Responses to Stan Lee: 1922-2018

  1. I grew up with comics in the 80s. I eventually became a professional novelist who is largely inspired by what I read as a kid. Hard Luck Hank, my main series, is very much a comic novel without pictures. Stan Lee was controversial since I could comprehend the deeper issues of comics. This was long before the internet and word of mouth in comics shops and conventions and the few publications like the Comics Journal, are what gave us information. I turned to more “serious” books during the black and white explosion and the speculation bubble. But I never lost my love for superheroes, which was imprinted on my psyche.

    I came to your profile on Stan Lee half-cringing and half-expecting it to be a hatchet job. I think you wrote an amazing piece that shows Lee’s contribution as well as his issues. There may have never been serious comics or graphic novels without Lee. And Lee, every damn time I heard him speak, was always full of praise for his contributors.

    I worked corporate most of my life before becoming a writer. Anyone who has ever worked for a corporation can understand the situations that Stan Lee was in. You can push back, but at some point, they’re just going to fire you. You have to know what you can change, and what you can’t.

    There was an interesting interview I read years ago about Bob Hope, who was in his 90s at the time. The (young) interviewer had gone in with the idea of attacking Hope for his chauvinistic routines and movies. She spoke with him for a while and came to the, quite mature, realization that Bob Hope simply came from another generation.

    Stan Lee, it was pointed out, existed from the very dawn of comics. Was in WWII. Walked the streets of New York when everyone wore hats and suits, no matter their finances. Wrote long before Segregation ended (and helped pen such titles as Black Panther). And spanned more than 3 generations while still contributing, now and then, to pop culture and its ever changing sensibilities.

    I dream I can still be relevant in my 90s. That I can still understand and relate to kids, who will certainly be totally alien to the kind of kids I grew up with. Stan Lee managed to that.

    You can hate superhero comics. That’s fine. There’s all sorts of genres that I dislike. But you can’t deny the cultural impact Stan Lee had. Whoever invented the first wheel, it was certainly a crude, terrible device. But without it, we wouldn’t have sports cars and SUVs. Lee HELPED make the wheel, and he was enthusiastic, progressive, and kind for damn near his whole life.

    I’ve had differing views of him over the years, but like most people, he wasn’t a simple cardboard cutout. People are complex, with shades of gray, personal issues, tragedies, and complications. He helped bring that kind of reality to young and old readers and consumers across well over half a century.

    RIP Stan Lee. Thanks for the memories.

  2. Oliver C says:

    Iconic, effervescent, inspiring and, on occasion, exploitative. R.I.P.

  3. wayne edwards says:

    I hope some fans with money and some time can set up something like THE STAN LEE CHALLENGE as a tribute to the man’s skill. Get artists and writers together to see if they can actually collaborate in a similar fashion. As a test if nothing else. Is it really that easy to take someone ‘s else margin notes or your plot discussions and turn them into a coherent fluid text that seems to work hand in glove? Hopefully, it won’t be commercial superhero parody fluff material…only.

    Dean, I think you wrote the best assessment of the situation regarding who created what. I’m not a believer in the good guy bad guy fandom approach to the Kirby/Lee collaboration controversy. Kirby is vanquished by the evil boy side kick in the end. In the real world real people are flawed. Both men had feet of clay. According to Mark Evanier both men had memory problems.

    I see Kirby as the true, better artist, however, more ambitious, seeking freedom from editorial control to express himself in his own way rather than demanding franchise rights. On his second return to Marvel he should’ve fought for those rights rather than editorial freedom…if he wanted money and security first. He didn’t. He wanted freedom mostly it seems to me. I don’t believe he was a coward and acted out of fear alone. He would not have gambled as he did. Of course age and illness can make any man lose his nerve as death approaches in hard times.

    Lee wearing the hat of editor for quite a while must’ve known a thing or too about selling entertainment confined in that ghetto and was the more practical minded of the two. The more cautious. Less of a risk taker. Was Kirby ever really an editor? If Don Heck was a Hack was Kirby also? I wish you guys would do a That is if we can dismiss their sense of industrial professionalism for the critics opinions on what they were supposedly doing making a living.

    It is unfortunate that the interpersonal reality that Marvel added to kid comics, better soap opera as it were ironically limits the non-commercial realistic uses of superheroes today. An Iron Man film could’ve been Art if it had tackled the reality of Vietnam and Tony’s Stark’s involvement in it as a weapons designer. Did he know for example about the Phoenix program? Would he have cared? When you can have movies bounce words like empire and republic about (Rogue One) without exploring what those words mean historically or right now is a testament to the power of superhero escapist melodrama and the interpersonal as the focus of most people’s interest when it comes to such films. Yes, even heroes can die…arm in arm of course. But what about this Empire and Republic business? Rogue One was enough for me.

    Conflict. Fighting is the most basic driver of plots for mass audiences. The reptilian brain? Yes, even with some wink and a nod to some political subtext carelessly done. Feminist or racial are the cheapest for those demographics. People should reread the old Journal’s cover issue on the Fight Scene in comics. We can transfer that article to most movies now. At least the box office hits. There is much of the military in both artists. These endlessly fighting costumed warriors. Kirby special effects and Lee’s interpersonal story-lines are everywhere now. Even the smart patter of Mr. Peter Parker.

    A well done obit to a complex, flawed person and his time.

  4. Tony I. says:

    Correction: Stan was born in December 1922.

    Well, I suppose this Obit was as good as one could hope from TCJ but one also notices you picked the same date to put up an “archived” Interview with the great Jack Kirby- an interview, one notes, of Jack in his decline, egged on by the great instigator himself, Gary Groth.

    It’s unsavory but not surprising. Don’t tell me Gary wasn’t waiting for this day with glee.

  5. Michael Dean says:

    Edited to fix birth month.

  6. Paul Valentine says:

    Creative conflicts aside, as I commented to a friend earlier, if I was on a mission during an episode of “Who Wants To Be A Superhero?” and I came across a lost little girl in distress at the same time as seeing Keya Morgan out of the corner of my eye, I would let the camera follow me to accost Morgan and beat him to a pulp using the same superpower as Mr Furious of Mystery Men.

    There are different forms of exploitation, elderly abuse is certainly amongst the most heinous.

  7. Chris Lanier says:

    That’s a great piece of writing, Michael.

  8. A wonderful piece about Lee, neither too complimentary or critical, just factual and informative.

  9. Michael Hill says:

    Not cousins: Lee’s actual uncle, Robbie Solomon, was married to Goodman’s sister.

  10. Michael Hill says:

    Kirby was neither in decline nor “egged on” during his TCJ interview. His writing was fully mature when he returned from the war, and it only got better through his S&K stories, a decade of being overwritten by Lee, and with his own voice into the ’80s. He told Gary Groth the same truths he’d been been telling interviewers for twenty years. A quarter of a century after Kirby’s death, people are still taking their cue from Lee and pissing on Kirby.

    Michael, I *think* you’re saying that the origin of the Voltaire quote being pure Stan Lee was the way he swiped it and claimed it as his own. I have no doubt that the Marvel Method worked somewhat in the way you describe with some of Lee’s collaborators, but it was different with Lee’s actual writers, Ditko and Kirby. Ditko said he would emerge from a story conference with a synopsis, but the story conference was where he talked Lee out of his hare-brained ideas and replaced them with his own. A Kirby story conference was where the story was revealed to Lee for the first time in the penciled pages: Kirby described what was happening and Lee took notes.

  11. Robert Martin says:

    If Kirby was not in decline then that makes his comments all the more unfortunate and dilutes the deserved reputation of the man because, frankly, his claims in that interview are infactual and clearly disproven by decades of established fact.

    It’s a shame that a death prompted this. Over on social media, sometimes-Fantagraphics artist James Romberger posted a nasty, insulting post about Lee; it was immediately jumped on by his cronies who all miss the irony that Romberger just self-published a fawning essay about Steranko’s Marvel period. One shudders to think what biases lurk there.

  12. James Van Hise says:

    I don’t know who has it now, but a few years ago the auction house Profiles In History sold all of the original art for Fantastic Four #12 and it was shown on their short-lived Sci-Fi Channel show. They pointed out that in the margins of the pages were Jack Kirby’s hand written notations telling Stan what was happening in the panels and what the characters were saying so that the page could have captions and dialogue written for it. In that same episode Stan Lee’s assistant was on the show and they mentioned in passing that Stan had a lot of original art in storage but I never heard any followup about that.

  13. Michael Dean says:

    Michael Hill raises a couple of points:
    Regarding Lee’s relationship to Martin Goodman: Lee described Goodman’s wife Jean as his cousin. Maybe that was his shorthand for the relationship you describe, but my head spins whenever I try to work it out.
    Regarding the authorship of the famous quote from Spider-Man, I mentioned Voltaire, because he has frequently been cited as the original source of the quote, but researchers have found no evidence of this in Voltaire’s writings. The sentiment has been around since at least the 18th century, but this particular phrasing appears to be original with Lee. QuoteInvestigator.com has a pretty thorough round-up on the research into this all-important question.

  14. New York Times has an interview with Lee. You can see he praises all his artists.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQGKjlTbIWg

  15. Mike Catron says:

    Re: Stan’s familial relationship to Martin Goodman.

    Here’s how he explained it to me in 2013. He called Goodman a “cousin-in-law.” The graphic referred to was updated and published in The Secret History of Marvel Comics (Blake Bell and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, Fantagraphics Books, 2013, http://www.fantagraphics.com/secrethistoryofmarvelcomics/):

    From: [Stan Lee’s email address]@aol.com
    Subject: Re: Martin Goodman’s family
    Date: June 11, 2013 at 9:01:15 PM PDT
    To: mikecatron@fantagraphics.com

    Hi, one mistake– Celia Lieber was Jean Goodman’s AUNT not cousin.. She was married to Jack Lieber and she was my mother (and Larry’s).

    Jean’s mother, Ida, was my mother’s sister, so Jean was my cousin.
    .
    Martin Goodman was my cousin-in-law– I hardly knew him till I worked there.

    That’s all I have time for.

    Good luck

    Stan

    In a message dated 6/11/2013 8:46:19 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time, mikecatron@fantagraphics.com writes:

    Dear Stan,

    You and I have met a few times, going as far back as Phil Seuling’s conventions, but just to shake hands and say hello.

    I am editing a book called “The Secret History of Marvel Comics.” It is primarily a look at Martin Goodman’s publishing efforts, along with a large portfolio of work that Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Alex Schomburg, and others drew for the pulps and other Goodman publications. It is written by two very thorough and dedicated researchers, Blake Bell and Dr. Michael J. Vassallo. Last year, you kindly provided some information to “Doc V,” as we call him, for the book.

    I’m writing you now to ask you to take a look at a graphic we are working on to illustrate your family relationship to Martin Goodman. Most people seem to think you’re a nephew (I’ve even heard son-in-law), so we thought we’d try to illustrate it visually. I think it makes you a cousin by marriage. Is that how you would shorthand it?

    I’d appreciate it if you could take a look and let me know if we got it right. (I fully expect it will be copied and posted to the internet, so we don’t want to do something that you’ll always be having to correct.)

    Here’s the information we have that the graphic is based on:

    Goodman also employed many relatives, including in-laws. Jean came from money, but her cousin, Celia Solomon, did not. Celia had married Jack Lieber, and they became the parents of Stanley and Larry Lieber. It was Celia’s brother, Robbie Solomon, who recommended young Stanley to comic book editor Joe Simon for the job of assistant at Timely in 1940. Stanley Leiber soon took up the pen name of Stan Lee, took over Simon’s editorship when Simon and Kirby left Marvel, and ultimately co-created much of the Marvel universe with the likes of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Dick Ayers, Bill Everett, and many others, including his younger brother, Larry. Along the way, Lee became the public face of Martin Goodman’s comic book company.

    Complicating the family tree even further, Robbie Solomon married Martin’s younger sister, Sylvia.[i] Many have assumed Lee got the job at Timely out of a Goodman gesture of softhearted nepotism, but the blood connection was to Martin’s wife, Jean. Martin was quite surprised to see Lee the first time they saw each other in the office.[ii]

    [i] Information on the marriage of Robbie Solomon and Martin Goodman’s sister Sylvia comes from an email exchange between Stan Lee and co-author Vassallo on January 22, 2012.

    [ii] Lee, Excelsior, 25.

    And here’s the preliminary graphic. I’d appreciate your comments:

    stanleefamilytree.jpg

    Thanks,
    — Mike Catron
    Fantagraphics

    mikecatron@fantagraphics.com
    (206) 524-1967 x223

  16. Michael Hill says:

    Steven, praising “his artists” was the act of a thief, because they were the writer/creators and he was actually taking the page rate for their writing. Praising them as artists was his method of deceiving you and getting you to blame them. Try reading some Ditko essays on the subject: “Stan Lee had his ‘creative’ credit keeping method. Lee’s method served to unfairly upgrade him and downgrade others. It was done simply, easily, by his choice, by his way of identifying credit words, using false labels.” — Creative Crediting © 2008 S. Ditko

  17. Bill P says:

    On August 19, 2015 I was visiting Chicago and was over by the brand new Grant Park Skateboard Park when Stan & Joan came walking up. He noted his daughter had a condo there and they were in town staying there. Which makes sense as The Wizard World Comic Con was the next day. But, it was way over in Rosemont. You guys note he said and did things in a questionable manner. Hence, ask his daughter does she really have a condo in Chicago near the Grant Park Skate Park? He noted they were taking care of the dog, but it wasn’t with them. So do ask her where the dog goes to the bathroom at. We shot the shit a good while and it was a fun chance meeting the two of them. Interesting baseball cap he was wearing and how ironic they chose to check out the skatepark with a few Dare Devils vs walking around looking at all that poison ivy & flowers.

  18. RSM says:

    A few things.

    1) First of all, the “Robert Martin” above is a different person than Robert Stanley Martin. That’s not me.

    2) Contrary to Michael Hill, it’s pretty clear from accounts of Kirby from family members that he suffered from an apparently undiagnosed dissociative disorder that started to become conspicuous in the late 1950s. Roz Kirby, per Mark Evanier, said that around that time he started having babble-rants where she found it impossible to understand what he was talking about. I’ve watched his son describe on video an automobile accident in the late 1960s that was caused by a dissociative episode. The family determined at that time that it was no longer safe to let him drive a car.

    As for Gary’s interview with Kirby, keep in mind that Gary later characterized Kirby to Jim Woodring as “pixillated.” Knowing Gary’s affinity for Golden Age Hollywood, I have no doubt that he meant the word in the way it was famously used in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, which is mentally incompetent. And given Roz’s prompting of Kirby’s answers, such as with the question of Lee’s claimed plot outline of the FF #1, as well as the multiple instances of his slipping into repetitious meme-talk (“had to feed my family,” etc.) every time he felt on the defensive, it’s a legitimate question whether it was appropriate for Gary to conduct and publish that interview.

  19. Ron Koomas says:

    “There may be no figure in the history of comics who is simultaneously more revered and more reviled than Stan Lee…”

    Um, what? In keeping with the overall factual approach to this generally well researched and written piece, you might want to revisit that opening line. It lands with a thud to those of us who have traveled in 4 colour circles for a very long time (30+ years) while managing to avoid the viewpoint excesses given the naval gazing nature and echo chamber effect of the blog-o-sphere/social meds.

    Among the comic “hoi polloi”, he is *not* equal parts revered and reviled. Not even close. Those of us who have been comic book readers and have followed how the comic sausage was being made for a long time are aware that Stan was not without fault, but to say that he was AS reviled as revered is simply false. I have spoken to a lot of folks over the years at stores and conventions and the like, and in the real comic world, he is considered more often than not as a legend, an architect, and ceaseless cheerleader for an art form that deserved more of it. I am confident I am not alone in that assessment of how he is perceived by the comic crowd.

    And if your opening line was to include the greater general public who are aware of who he was thanks to comic content’s full on invasion of the mainstream these days, well, short media attention spans and lack of true spotlight on the industry makes that statement ring even more hollow. Rightly or wrongly, he is considered a saint by a lot of the general public, which, is, in its own way, a kind of shame, but it makes your statement no less incorrect.

    I am not an apologist for him, do not get me wrong. He has done some problematic things in his lifetime while in a position of power and has certainly earned the “huckster” label over the years which you accurately reference in your comprehensive write up. And you would justifiably be considered ignorant in either sense of the word if you were to dismiss the number of creators left with tread marks and not much else by the great comic machine largely powered by the Big 2 while Stan was a key part of said machine (but also, a victim of it with regards to creative ownership). While there is a recognizable current of dislike for the man, it is flowing off to the side of a much wider river of overall respect for him. My opinion? May the man whose contributions far, far outstrip the harm attributable to him rest in well deserved peace.

  20. Michael Hill says:

    Ron, those of us I claim to represent make Michael’s opening statement correct. Thank you for your explicit declaration that you’re no Lee apologist: it helps to know you’re an impartial observer when the content of your post says otherwise.

  21. Mark says:

    After Gary Groth’s tasteless article about Stan this was a nice read. Thanks.

  22. geoff says:

    rip funky flashman
    one of the best long cons in history

  23. Michael Hill says:

    Michael and Mike, thanks for taking the time to refute my clarification. It’s funny, because my source was actually the Fantagraphics book for which all the research was apparently done. While Lee was alive, he was actually the worst person to ask how he was related to Goodman, because he spent nearly fifty years trying to disown his “uncle” (how he identified him to Dick Ayers in 1958). In recent versions of the Marvel Story, Lee was careful to not mention Goodman; as an intermediate step to erasing the man from history, answering a newspaper ad and surprising Goodman on his first day of work was more palatable to Lee than the truth. No matter, Mark Evanier has repeated the version with which I’m familiar on his blog this week.

  24. J Goodman says:

    One thing that people need to get straight is that the actual creator of these Marvel characters is Martin Goodman whether u like it or not because it’s not hip to give credit to the actual man who said to his employees “make a comic about this” and then he would give it the title, the concept, and expected them to execute it

    Martin Goodman came up with all concepts and not only approved the titles but he is the one who took the risk and made the investment and its long overdue for history to give him his credit I told the twomorrow editor the same thing, the Goodman family has long been disregarded and disrespected by your articles and Stan Lee always resented that he wasn’t in the Goodman family I have stories and this was a huge deal that he never got over

    In 1984 we saw him and Miss Joan for the first time in a long time and Joan had champagne and said “Kirby had problems everywhere he go” and how Stan Lee had helped him and she was upset the writers were mad at Stan but the TRUTH is that Martin GOODMAN is the one who wanted Kirby after burned his bridges according to my Dad but you will always yell at the executive they say, because he has the status and the money

    2019 is gonna be the year that the Goodman family gets the proper credit for Martin Goodmans vision and benevolent business practice, Gary Friedrich left me a message years ago that said Martin Goodman was the best comic publisher he ever knew and there are many such accounts. Martin Goodman had the vision to start Marvel Comics and it was his approval and patience that enabled the Marvel Comic Universes to begin and noone can dispute that! Where is Martin Goodman in these tributes it is a laughingstock for your magazines.

  25. Matt Seneca says:

    ^^^i wanna chop this up and snort it

  26. Jason Goodman says:

    typical response from fans who want to drink the kool-aid. when the secret history book was published they still didnt give Martin Goodman the credit but the truth is that its Goodman responsible for the NAME “Marvel” and the impetus to TELL Stan Lee to make a comic called this the same way he told them to make Capt America in the 40s. It is Goodman who APPROVED Jack Kirby being rehired it is Goodman who APPROVED Spider-Man, my Uncle told me Stans story that he “snuck it in” to Amazing Fantasy is ridiculous because Martin Goodman saw EVERYTHING.

    Stan said he was going to quit but Miss Joan said do it your way this is BS my family explained to me that Miss Joan spent so much and had a lavish lifestyle and Stan had to maintain it and that he had no other prospects but to work at Marvel so where was he going to quit to, why is this never discussed by the quote unquote “historians” like Doc V and this author here?? Stan wasnt gonna quit because he had a big house in Long Island and my Uncle said Stan and Joan had to keep up appearances because Stan was insecure and Joan would leave him so the entire story of how he pioneers the Fantastic Four is so much BS

  27. While we’re at it, why do people call Kirby the ‘king’ of comics when we all know it’s Victor Fox? I mean he told people he was so it’s a fact. Publishers are the creators, their word is law, we all know this!!

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