Stan “The Man” Lee Journeys into Mystery

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The man born Stanley Martin Lieber, known around the world as Stan Lee, died Monday morning in Los Angeles. A writer, editor, and publisher who co-created some of the most popular and beloved characters in the history of entertainment, Lee became known for his larger-than-life persona, his ability to imbue his characters with humanity, and for his boundless love of comic books and their fans. He was 95.

Born in Manhattan in 1922, Lieber graduated high school early and began working for Timely Comics as an assistant in 1939. Doing everything from errands to proofreading, he eventually got the chance to write a story featuring Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s patriotic hero, Captain America, in Captain America Comics #3 in 1941. Lieber used the pseudonym “Stan Lee” and introduced Cap’s patented offensive move of throwing his shield like a discus. Although he once said that he adopted the pen name to save his birth name for potential literary projects, Lieber grew comfortable being Stan Lee and later legally changed it.

Young Stan Lee serving in the United States Army. (U.S. Army photo)

Lee began writing steadily and was made an editor at Timely at age 19. During World War II, Lee served in the United States Army as a member of both the Signal Corps and Training Film Division. Though Timely had become Atlas in his absence, Lee resumed his editorial duties upon his return to civilian life in 1945. As the popularity of super-heroes waned in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lee wrote in nearly every conceivable genre, including westerns, horror, romance, and science fiction. Lee married Joan Boocock in 1957. By early 1961, Atlas would embrace another new name: Marvel Comics.

Super-heroes had begun a resurgence at DC Comics in the late 1950s. Martin Goodman, Lee’s publisher (who was also married to Lee’s cousin) asked him to come up with a new super-hero concept to compete with what would be DC’s Justice League. Encouraged by Joan, Lee decided to embrace realistic characterization, creating characters with flaws and recognizable emotional baggage; teaming up with artist Jack Kirby, the pair created the Fantastic Four in 1961. And the floodgates opened.

The cover of Fantastic Four #1 from 1961; art by Jack Kirby with George Klein, Stan Goldberg, and Artie Simek. (©Marvel Entertainment)

Marvel spear-headed a super-hero revolution in the 1960s. Lee and Kirby created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, the Avengers, Black Panther, and the X-Men. Stan’s brother Larry Lieber joined them in creating Ant-Man and Thor. That trio, along with Don Heck, created Iron Man. Lee and artist Steve Ditko also created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange; additionally, Lee and artist Bill Everett created Daredevil. Lee and Kirby also revived Captain America and had him join the Avengers. The new characters bred massive success for Marvel, cutting across demographics and building loyal readers who were hooked by the action and the compelling personalities of the characters.

Lee’s pop poetry began part of the American lexicon; from the Thing’s “It’s clobberin’ time!” to “Hulk smash!” to his underscoring of a dramatic cover with “’Nuff Said!” Lee had a way of putting memorable words on the page next to the dynamic art of Kirby and the rest. Perhaps Lee’s best known phrase as a writer is the understanding that Peter Parker — Spider-Man — achieves at the end of his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15. Discovering that he could have prevented his Uncle Ben’s death, Parker realizes that “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Lee also broke ground with Stan’s Soapbox, an editorial item on the letters pages of the comics where he addressed the fans, stories, and occasionally, social issues. In the December 1968 edition, Lee boldly attacked racism and bigotry, writing, “It’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn another race.” Indeed, the X-Men characters themselves were already Lee and Kirby’s ongoing metaphor for attacking those social ills. Lee ended his columns with the exaltation, “Excelsior!”

Taking over as Marvel’s publisher in 1972, Lee would stop writing monthly comics and become perhaps comics’ greatest cheerleader. He became a fixture at conventions, spoke on campuses, and did innumerable radio and television interviews. In 1981, he moved to California to work as a producer, transitioning Marvel characters to television, film, and animation. Although he would eventually leave the day-to-day functions of the company, Lee was made Chairman Emeritus, drawing an annual salary as he continued to promote Marvel and comics in general.

Stan Lee in 2007. (Photo by Mary Catherine; Wikimedia Commons)

In the past two decades, though he’s continued to write and embark on media ventures with various companies, Lee has become instantly recognizable to an entirely new generation of fans from his cameos in over 30 Marvel movies and various related television and animated programs. Lee’s various appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe of the last ten years became a sort of interactive game with the audience, who would invariably cheer and applaud when Lee would show up as a FedEx delivery driver or a bartender or a veteran that can’t handle Asgardian liquor (even uttering “Excelsior” on that occasion).

More recently, the aging Lee found himself in the center of complicated legal struggles over his care. After his wife of 69 years passed away in 2017, Lee’s daughter, J.C., and other parties battled over his care and conservatorship. Lee and his daughter spoke about this issue with The Daily Beast in October.

At this hour, though, friends and fans are remembering The Man. Lee helped shape modern popular culture, and the creators, actors, and readers he touched turned out in droves online to express their sorrow and to offer their thanks to Lee. On Instagram, Iron Man actor Robert Downey Jr. posted a picture of himself with Lee with the message, “I owe it all to you . . . Rest in Peace, Stan . . .” while the screen Captain America, Chris Evans, tweeted, “There will never be another Stan Lee. For decades he provided both young and old with adventure, escape, comfort, confidence, inspiration, strength, friendship and joy. He exuded love and kindness and will leave an indelible mark on so, so, so many lives. Excelsior!!”

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