Stan Lee, the single greatest contributor to comic book culture and creativity in the history of the format, has died at the age of 95.
According to TMZ, Lee was taken by ambulance to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles early Monday morning. He passed away a short time later.
Born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28th, 1922, Lee was responsible for most of the major Marvel Comics characters today known the world over, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Avengers, and more. His comic career began in 1939 when, at 16 years old, he was hired by his uncle, publisher Martin Goodman, as an assistant for what was then known as Timely Comics. His first brush with superhero writing was for a story called “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in May 1941’s Captain America Comics #3, in which the character’s trademark shield-throwing abilities were introduced.
When editor Joe Simon and Lee’s future close collaborator artist Jack Kirby departed Timely in 1941, the 19-year-old Lee was made interim editor. However, his career was halted by World War II, when he enlisted as a member of the Signal Corps. He later wrote training films and manuals, gaining the rare military classification “playwright.” When he returned in 1945, his editing job at Timely was waiting for him, eventually leading to the editor-in-chief position until he took over as publisher in 1972.
Through much of the ’40s and ’50s (at which time Timely became Atlas), war, horror, Westerns, and romance comics were the big sellers, while superhero stories were considered a dying breed. However, DC Comics revitalized the genre with its first super team, Justice League of America. Tasked by Goodman to create Marvel’s own squad of masked men and women, Lee took the advice of his wife, Joan, and went out on a limb with his stories. Instead of crafting characters in the ideal of the indestructible do-gooder, Lee and Kirby co-created a team of flawed, bickering, multifaceted heroes: The Fantastic Four. The group debuted in its own comic series in November 1961, launching Marvel Comics and what would become known as the Marvel Age.
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Over the next decade, Lee and Kirby would create iconic characters like Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and the X-Men; Lee also is credited with coming up with Daredevil alongside artist Bill Everett, and both Spider-Man and Doctor Strange with Steve Ditko. The Avengers, Silver Surfer, Doctor Doom, Magneto, Loki, the Falcon, Nick Fury, Ant-Man, Black Widow, the Inhumans, and dozens if not hundreds of other characters all owe their origins to Lee and his collaborators during the superhero revival of the 1960s. His heroes had relatable issues — Spider-Man had to wrestle with complicated romances as well as bad guys, the Hulk was a literal manifestation of Bruce Banner’s anxieties and rage — and his villains were morally as well as psychologically complex, expanding the idea of what a comic book could be and broadening their appeal.
Not only did Lee revolutionize the type of heroes that wore capes and cowls, but the nature of the stories in which they were featured. His naturalistic approach to character extended to plot, with his heroes battling communism, political turmoil, and bigotry instead of just mad scientists attempting world domination. The X-Men, a group of genetic misfits hated and feared by the world at large, were essentially a metaphor for homophobia and racism. Lee created the first black character to maintain an integral supporting role with The Amazing Spider-Man’s Robbie Robertson; he and Kirby introduced what many consider mainstream comics’ first African superhero, Black Panther, in July 1966’s Fantastic Four #52.
Lee was also partially responsible for bringing the idea of an interconnected universe of heroes and villains to the forefront, something that has recently overtaken movies thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Other comics had featured crossover stories before, but Lee and his collaborators went to extra lengths to truly build a universe. Peter Parker might show up in the background of a Fantastic Four story, for example, or perhaps Daredevil would need to reach out to Doctor Strange for advice.
With so many projects under his control, Lee invented what’s come to be called the Marvel Method of comic writing. He would pen an outline — often no more than a few sentences for close collaborators like Kirby and Ditko — off of which an artist would draw an entire book. Lee would then go back and add the dialogue and captions. The unique process often led to disputes about credit, but it also allowed for greater creativity in the way artists formatted a comic’s panels. Ditko famously took Doctor Strange in psychedelic directions, while Kirby explored surrealist pop art layouts in Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. They would even at times draw themselves into cameos in the books. Lee also was the first to include a credits splash page that gave recognition to inkers and letterers.
His influence extended beyond the page, as well, as Lee fostered a community of fans and creators with his Stan’s Soapbox and Bullpen Bulletin pages. He would write in a friendly, humorous style that connected with his readership on a congenial level. As he would in his stories, he’d address activism and political issues of the day. He also coined his own nicknames like Stan “The Man” Lee and Jack “King” Kirby, as well as catchphrases like “Excelsior!,” “‘Nuff said,” “True Believer,” and the “No-Prize,” all terms that any comic fan is still familiar with even 50 years later.
In a 1971 three-issue subplot featured in The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98, Lee challenged the long-standing Comics Code Authority (comic books’ now defunct self-regulation board). At the request of the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, the story saw Peter Parker struggling to help his friend Harry Osborne through a pill addiction. The CCA refused to give its seal of approval to the issues because they depicted drug use, even though they did so in an anti-drug context. The issues were published without the CCA’s seal — something unheard of at the time. When the numbers proved sales weren’t affected, the agency restructured its own guidelines, allowing for more freedom in how comic book creators addressed serious real-world issues.
Lee stopped writing comics on a monthly basis in 1972 when he took on the position of Marvel Comics’ publisher; he first was named president of the company but stepped down to remain more active in the creative process. In ’75, he narrated the Fantastic Four radio series and the Spider-Man: Rock Reflections of a Superhero record, and would go on to add his voice to any number of Marvel-related productions, from video games to animated movies. In 1977, he launched the Spider-Man newspaper strip alongside John Romita Sr.
In the 1980s, Lee spearheaded Marvel’s move to Hollywood. Live-action TV shows like The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man had seen some success prior to Lee’s handling of the properties; he was responsible for later entries like the animated Spider-Man and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends series, and the direct-to-video Captain America movie in 1990. That film would mark the first time Lee was given an executive producer credit, something he held for nearly every Marvel production from then until his passing. That includes most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe entries like Iron Man, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Netflix’s The Defenders shows, and more, as well as other companies’ productions like X-Men, Spider-Man, The Runaways, numerous animated shows and movies, and more. He also cameoed in nearly every live-action Marvel movie to date, whether in the MCU or otherwise. Rumor has it he filmed a number of still unseen cameos before his death.
In the later era of his career, he launched the Internet-based Stan Lee Media (which went under following illegal stock manipulation by co-founder Peter Paul) and POW! (Purveyors of Wonder) Entertainment. He continued creating new characters, occasionally returning to Marvel for one-off stories or special releases. He even reimagined some of the biggest names in DC’s catalog in a series of one-shots called Just Imagine…
Lee founded The Stan Lee Foundation in 2010 to support programs addressing literacy, education, and the arts. He received a Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 2011, the American National Medal of Arts in 2008, The Life Career Award from the Saturn Award in 2002, and was inducted into The Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1994.
Throughout his life, Lee kept an approachable demeanor, always exuding a boyish wonder and appreciation for the fantastical. Simply by indulging his creative instincts and daring to go against the established norms, he co-created some of the most enduring and beloved characters in any form of entertainment. Few authors of any sort have an oeuvre as full of timeless works as Lee’s, the man who stoked wonder in the minds of readers over nearly six decades of writing, producing, and creating tales to astonish.
Lee had suffered a number of health issues in the later years of his life. In 2012, he underwent surgery to insert a pacemaker. Last year, he battled pneumonia. There were also troubling allegations of elder abuse directed at his daughter, Joan Celia “J.C.” Lee, as well as his hired caretaker over the last year.