Heroes for the real world: the marvel of Stan Lee’s genius
The Daily Telegraph obituary celebrates the creator of a timeless superhero universe
Stan Lee, who has died aged 95, made his name by dreaming up such popular superheroes as Spider-Man, the Silver Surfer, the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk, and transformed the comic book art into a multimillion-dollar industry.
Starting out as a writer for comics in the late 1930s, Lee went on, as writer and editor of Marvel, to spearhead in the 1960s what became known as the “The Marvel Age of Comics”, creating a new breed of superheroes while breathing life into old favourites such as Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub Mariner.
In his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, Lee wrote no fewer than two and as many as five complete comic books per week, as well as newspaper features, radio and television scripts and screenplays – an output so large that many people assumed Stan Lee must be a nom de plume for a factory of writers.
Lee pitched his appeal at adolescents of all ages, combining the usual superhero fisticuffs with ironic in-jokes, such as the asterisked comment annotating the onomatopoeic “Kabooom!” (“* the third o is obviously silent”), and social commentary (including stories about racism, drug abuse and prison conditions). He not only identified with his readership but found an idiom in which to address them. Expressions such as “Excelsior!” “Hang Loose” and “Nuff Said!” became catchphrases for a generation.
Lee’s heroes lived in the real world, not in Gotham City or Metropolis, and, with their flesh-and-blood human faults and frailties, they offered a radical departure from the straight-arrow heroics of Superman and his ilk. Spider-Man’s alter ego is a puny, pimply high-school misfit, racked by teenage angst. The X-Men are outcasts from society, and The Thing is tormented by its grotesque physical appearance.
To make his characters more three-dimensional, Lee invented the thought balloon, a device that gave readers new insight into their heroes’ inner thoughts and troubles.
Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber, on December 28 1922, the son of Romanian immigrants who struggled to make a living in New York during the Depression. He relieved the grinding poverty of his childhood years by writing stories for friends. After leaving school early, he worked, variously, as an usher in a theatre, an office boy and a sandwich delivery man, and even did a stint as an obituary writer for a news service.
Then, in 1939, aged 17, he got a job with Timely Comics as a proofreader and soon graduated to writing. His first effort was a piece of prose in Captain America No 3. He signed it “Stan Lee”, he later recalled, “because I felt someday I’d be writing the Great American Novel and I didn’t want to use my real name on these silly little comics.”
In 1942 he enlisted in the US Army, becoming a writer for the Signals Corps training film division, working in Queens, New York. He enjoyed the distinction of becoming one of only nine men in the army to be given the military classification “playwright”.
When the war ended, he returned to Timely (later renamed Marvel) where, following a series of defections, he was rapidly promoted to editor and chief writer. This was not quite the grand position it sounded, for he had no editorial independence. His boss, the publisher Martin Goodman, was a martinet who allowed his writers no freedom to experiment. As a result, Marvel struggled to compete with rival DC Comics, whose superheroes, Batman and Superman, had caught the imaginations of post-war readers.
By 1960, Lee had become bored and depressed. It was his wife, Joan, who was indirectly responsible for Lee’s decision to explore a new genre of fantasy. Just as he was about to resign from Marvel Comics, she suggested he might try ignoring Goodman’s strictures and write a few stories in his own style: “The worst that can happen is that you’ll get fired,” she observed; “but you want to quit anyway.” So he wrote a strip called The Fantastic Four, featuring a bendy man, an invisible woman, a human torch and a dermatologically challenged Thing, a quartet distinguished less by their magical powers than by their adolescent bickerings.
The strip was an immediate success, so Goodman allowed Lee to develop other characters, writing about them in his own style. The idea for Spider-Man came to him in 1962 when he saw a fly crawling on a wall and thought it would be an interesting idea to create a hero who could stick to walls and ceilings like a fly. Goodman hated the idea, arguing that it would never sell in a nation of arachnaphobes.
At that point Lee and his illustrator Steve Ditko were producing a title called Amazing Fantasy, which had not been selling well and was about to be closed down. Since it was the final issue, Goodman grudgingly agreed that Lee could use it to test Spider-Man.
Billed as “the hero that could be you”, Spider-Man, the science nerd who acquires magical powers after being bitten by a radioactive arachnid, proved an immediate success. When the sales reports came in a few weeks later, they showed that the final edition of Amazing Fantasy had become the bestseller of the decade.
“Stan, you know that Spider-Man idea I liked so much?” Goodman said. “Why don’t we turn it into a series?”
With Spider-Man heading Marvel’s new gallery of heroes, sales of the company’s titles exploded from 7 million in 1961 to 13 million in 1963, then to a record 50 million in 1968. In 1964, Captain America, the hero who at one time had put Timely into the top rank of comic publishers, was resurrected. Instead of modernising him, Lee froze him in an Arctic plane crash in 1944, then thawed him out as a misfit in the modern world. Also in 1964 came Doctor Strange, a practitioner of White Magic, who became a cult-figure for hippies who saw the series as an endorsement of hallucinogenic drugs. In 1965 a psychedelic rock happening in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury was called “A Tribute to Dr Strange”.
The Silver Surfer, a futuristic being assigned to warn Earth of its impending doom at the hands of the galaxy-swallowing Galactus, was another perfect hero for the 1960s pop-culture intelligentsia. Cursed to wander in Earth’s atmosphere lamenting his lost freedom and bemoaning the folly of humankind, the Silver Surfer was Lee’s surrogate philosopher, a Christ-like figure viewing mankind with fresh eyes.
Lee also enjoyed the challenge of making heroes out of less promising material, however. Iron Man, for example, is a billionaire industrialist who invents and manufactures weapons and munitions and sells them to the American military; yet at a time when young people were marching for peace and civil rights, he became one of Marvel’s great successes.
By the early 1970s Marvel had become the dominant comic-book publisher and, in 1972, Lee was named publisher of Marvel Comics (though he never owned the company). In 1977 he brought Spider-Man into the newspapers in the form of a syndicated strip which eventually appeared in more than 500 titles worldwide.
In 1981, after Marvel launched an animation studio on the west coast, Lee moved to Los Angeles to become creative head of Marvel’s cinematic side. He began to transform Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk into Saturday-morning television.
Goodman eventually sold the company, but while DC Comics’ Superman and Batman had become screen heroes, Marvel’s new owners failed to capitalise on success and exploit their own stable of superheroes; in early 1998, the company filed for bankruptcy protection. But within a year, it had begun to reap the benefits of film franchises, first with Wesley Snipes in Blade (1998), then with Bryan Singer’s X-Men, and in 2002 with the blockbuster Spider-Man (and about half a dozen follow-ups).
Lee, though “chairman emeritus” of Marvel, had little to do with the company by this time. In 1998 he ended his exclusive agreement with Marvel Comics and founded his own company to make animated cartoons for the internet; he also surprised many of his fans by doing work for DC Comics, reinterpreting the company’s superheroes in his own style.
In 2000, though, his internet company went bankrupt and his business partner absconded to Brazil where he ended up in prison. Subsequently Lee co-founded POW! Entertainment, which produces and develops storylines and projects.
In November 2002, Lee filed a $10m lawsuit against Marvel, alleging the company had reneged on an employment contract to pay him 10% of the profits of the films and television programmes that included Marvel characters. The disagreement was settled in 2005 and well into his 90s Lee was popping up in cameo roles in the countless smash-hit films of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”.
His autobiography Excelsior! was published in 2002.
Stan Lee married, in 1947, Joan Boocock, a British-born fashion model with whom he had a daughter. His wife died last year and another daughter died in infancy.
Stan Lee, born December 28 1922, died November 12 2018.
– © Telegraph Media Group Limited