We’re all longtime comic fans and were devastated by the passing of Stan Lee. Here we take a few minutes to reflect on the man, his career and achievements, and some of the quirky stories that made him the mogul we would come to know and love. Stan Lee was an American comic book writer, editor, and publisher who was active from the 1940s to the 2010s. He rose through the ranks of a family-run business to become Marvel Comics’ primary creative leader for two decades, leading its expansion from a small division of a publishing house to a multimedia corporation that dominated the comics industry. In his youth, Lee enjoyed writing and wanted to pen the “Great American Novel” one day. He worked such part-time jobs as writing obituaries for a news service and press releases for the National Tuberculosis Center; delivering sandwiches for the Jack May pharmacy to offices in Rockefeller Center; working as an office boy for a trouser manufacturer; ushering at the Rivoli Theater on Broadway; and selling subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. At fifteen, Lee entered a high school essay competition sponsored by the New York Herald Tribune, called “The Biggest News of the Week Contest.” He won the prize for three straight weeks, goading the newspaper to write him and ask him to let someone else win. The paper suggested he look into writing professionally, which Lee claimed “probably changed my life.”
With the help of his uncle Robbie Solomon, Lee became an assistant in 1939 at the new Timely Comics division of pulp magazine and comic-book publisher Martin Goodman’s company. Timely, by the 1960s, would evolve into Marvel Comics. Lee’s cousin Jean was Goodman’s wife, and helped him get formally hired by Timely.
Lee joined the United States Army in early 1942 and served as a member of the Signal Corps, repairing communications equipment. He was later transferred to the Training Film Division, where he worked writing manuals, training films, slogans, and occasionally cartooning. His military classification was “playwright” – only nine men in the U.S. Army were given that title. While in the Army, Lee received letters every week on Friday from the editors at Timely, detailing what they needed written and by when. Lee would write, then send the story back on Monday.
In the late 1950s, DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz revived the superhero archetype and experienced a significant success with its updated version of the Flash, and later with super-team the Justice League of America. In response, publisher Martin Goodman assigned Lee to come up with a new superhero team. Lee’s wife suggested that he experiment with stories he preferred, since he was planning on changing careers and had nothing to lose.
Lee acted on that advice, giving his superheroes a flawed humanity, a change from the ideal archetypes that were typically written for preteens. The first superheroes Lee and artist Jack Kirby created together were the Fantastic Four, based on a previous Kirby superhero team, Challengers of the Unknown. Working with Kirby, Lee co-created the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and the X-Men; with Bill Everett, Daredevil; and with Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange and Marvel’s most successful character, Spider-Man.
Lee became a figurehead and public face for Marvel Comics. He made appearances at comic book conventions around America, lecturing at colleges and participating in panel discussions. Lee was briefly president of the entire company, but soon stepped down to become publisher instead, finding that being president was too much about numbers and finance and not enough about the creative process he enjoyed. Lee stepped away from regular duties at Marvel in the 1990s, but continued as Marvel’s Chairman Emeritus. In 1998 he and Peter Paul began a new Internet-based superhero creation, production, and marketing studio, Stan Lee Media.
In his later career, Lee’s contributions continued to expand outside the style that he helped pioneer. An example of this is his first work for DC Comics in the 2000s, launching the Just Imagine… series, in which Lee re-imagined the DC superheroes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash. Manga projects involving Lee include Karakuri Dôji Ultimo, a collaboration with Hiroyuki Takei, Viz Media and Shueisha, and Heroman, serialized in Square Enix’s Monthly Shōnen Gangan with the Japanese company Bones. The Stan Lee Foundation was founded in 2010 to focus on literacy, education, and the arts. Its stated goals include supporting programs and ideas that improve access to literacy resources, as well as promoting diversity, national literacy, culture and the arts. Lee donated portions of his personal effects to the University of Wyoming at various times, between 1981 and 2001.
On July 6, 2017, his wife of 69 years, Joan, died of complications from a stroke. She was 95 years old. In April 2018, The Hollywood Reporter published a report that claimed Lee was a victim of elder abuse; the report asserted that among others, Keya Morgan, business manager of Lee and a memorabilia collector, had been isolating Lee from his trusted friends and associates following his wife’s death, to obtain access to Lee’s wealth, estimated to amount to US$50 million. In August 2018, Morgan was issued a restraining order to stay away from Lee, his daughter, or his associates for three years. On November 12, 2018, after being rushed there in a medical emergency earlier in the day, Lee died at the age of 95 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. The immediate cause of death listed on his death certificate was cardiac arrest with respiratory failure and congestive heart failure as underlying causes. It also indicated that he suffered from “aspiration pneumonia.” His body was cremated.
Roy Thomas, who succeeded Lee as editor-in-chief at Marvel, had visited Lee two days prior to his death to discuss the upcoming book The Stan Lee Story, and stated “I think he was ready to go. But he was still talking about doing more cameos. As long as he had the energy for it and didn’t have to travel, Stan was always up to do some more cameos. He got a kick out of those more than anything else.”