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.