Stan Lee, Comics Legend Who Co-Created the Marvel Universe, Dies at 95

Lee took Marvel from second-tier comics publisher to global entertainment empire in the process

Last Updated: November 12, 2018 @ 12:19 PM

Stan Lee, the legendary comic book writer and editor who helped redefine the medium when he co-created much of Marvel Comics’ vast library of characters and concepts, died Monday, according to a statement released by Disney. He was 95.

“Stan Lee was as extraordinary as the characters he created. A super hero in his own right to Marvel fans around the world, Stan had the power to inspire, to entertain, and to connect. The scale of his imagination was only exceeded by the size of his heart,” said Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO, The Walt Disney Company.

“We at Stan Lee’s Lee POW! Entertainment are saddened by the loss of our friend and mentor Stan Lee, the father of pop culture,” added Shane Duffy, CEO of Stan Lee’s POW! Entertainment. “His passing today marks a devastating and painful moment in time, but the legacy of Stan Lee, through his creative genius and his universes of characters, will continue to reach the world of true believers for generations to come. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and the fans of not only his work, but of him, as a friend who made the world a better place. He was a true iconic pioneer with no comparable second. It has been an honor to work beside him.”

Working alongside fellow comics titans like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby during the 1960s, Lee was instrumental in sparking what became known as “the Marvel revolution,” a shift in superhero comics that emphasized flawed protagonists expressing humanistic values. Concepts and plots remained as colorful and weird as ever. But Marvel characters, written with complex, realistic personalities and mundane private lives, often had to resolve family, dating and even financial challenges while protecting the public from an increasingly packed roster of supervillains.

This new approach to superhero comics debuted in “The Fantastic Four,” a team of superheroes presented as a dysfunctional but loving family unit that Lee co-created with Kirby in 1961. Lee credited his wife, Joan, for inspiration — he had been working for Marvel since the early 1940s, when it was known as Timely Comics, and frustrated with the creative restrictions of the medium, he was planning to quit his job and pursue a career as a novelist. It was Joan who told him to “write one comic you are proud of” before quitting, leading to “Fantastic Four.”

Lee later said in 1974 that he resolved “for just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading… And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they’d be flesh and blood, they’d have their faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they’d still have feet of clay.”

“The Fantastic Four” was a huge success, and the series was quickly followed by other soon-to-be iconic characters. In 1962, Lee co-created Ant-Man, the Incredible Hulk and Thor with Jack Kirby, and with Ditko he co-created “Spider-Man.”

Spider-Man proved another cosmic leap for Marvel, introducing the idea of a hero who didn’t just have personal issues, but problems — unpopularity at school, constant worries about money, a struggle to balance his role as a hero with his interpersonal relationships, and as he grew older, realistic concerns about his career and educational future — that were positively modern. Spider-Man would eventually become a Marvel flagship and alongside DC’s Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, one of the defining heroes of the comic book superhero genre.

Lee’s prolific output continued through the 1960s. In 1963 alone, he created Iron Man with Don Heck, Doctor Strange with Ditko, and again with Kirby he created The Howling Commandos, Wasp, the X-Men and the Avengers. Lee would go on to share credit for almost all of the characters Marvel debuted during the 1960s, including Black Panther, The Inhumans, Daredevil, Black Widow, S.H.I.E.L.D., and Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell).

Born in 1922 in New York City, Lee grew up in the Bronx and began his career right out of high school as part of the WPA Federal Theatre Project in 1939. That same year he was hired as an assistant at newly-established Timely Comics, where by 1941 he rose to writer and then interim editor-in-chief. After the outbreak of World War II, Lee served in the Army from 1942 to 1945, after which he returned to Timely as editor-in-chief, a position he held through Timely’s change to Marvel Comics and into the early 1970s.

During the ’60s, Lee was credited as writer, editor and art director on most of Marvel’s titles. He also wrote a monthly column, promotional copy, moderated reader letters and refined a method of pairing writers and artists to co-plot comic stories that became so successful it was known as the “Marvel method.”

The Marvel Revolution sparked by “Fantastic Four” affected more than just characterizations and stories. Lee introduced innovations such as a credit panel on the splash page naming not just the writer and artist but also inkers and letterers. He also introduced the iconic Marvel Bullpen Bulletins page, providing fans with information about future issues and news about Marvel staffers in Lee’s trademark conversational style, which included phrases like “nuff said,” “true believers,” and the trademark sign-off he made famous, “excelsior!”

These innovations built a relationship between readers and comic creators that has been a staple of comics culture ever since.

As pivotal as he was, Lee’s legacy and his reputation in the comics world are complicated. A gifted self-promoter, Lee turned himself into the rare comics industry celebrity known even to non-readers, and served as a sort of ambassador for Comics to the mainstream. But he was often accused of claiming oversized credit for the characters and concepts that made Marvel famous, and of dealing dishonestly with the artists he worked with.

His most notable critic was Jack Kirby, who died in 1994. Kirby believed Lee had robbed him of his rightful share of profits from their characters, and went on record repeatedly calling Lee a fraud. “Stan Lee and I never collaborated on anything,” Kirby told an interviewer in 1989. “It wasn’t possible for a man like Stan Lee to come up with new things — or old things, for that matter. Stan Lee wasn’t a guy that read or that told stories.”

Kirby’s estate spent years litigating with Marvel over credits and money for characters Kirby co-created. That fight would not be resolved until 20 years after his death, when Marvel settled with Kirby’s heirs for an undisclosed sum. The terms of the settlement are not public, and the true extent of Lee and Kirby’s actual collaboration may never be known.

Avengers Issue 4 (1964)Lee, for his part, maintained that his partnership with Kirby was equitable, and that the two had largely reconciled by the end of Kirby’s life. “I saw him at a comic book convention, and I walked up to him, and he said ‘Stan, you have nothing to reproach yourself for,’ which I thought was kind of an odd thing,” Lee said in a 2016 radio interview. “I liked hearing it, but it was odd for him to say it.”

And in 2017, marking the occasion of what would have been the artist’s 100th birthday, Lee said: “Jack practically invented the visual language of American comics through his visceral sense of action and story. He gave vision to characters that are still beloved around the world seven decades later. His imaginative mind and skilled pencil work envisioned superheroes for the entire world to enjoy.”

Lee stepped down as EIC and head writer of Marvel in 1972 after nearly 30 years in the job to become Marvel’s publisher, a career change later nodded to in Marvel Comics with Spider-Man-hating editor-turned-publisher J. Jonah Jameson. Lee’s final issues of “Amazing Spider-Man” and “Fantastic Four” came that year, but he continued to occasionally contribute as a writer and creator; his final new character for Marvel was She-Hulk, in 1980.

From the ’70s on, Lee became the public face of Marvel Comics, appearing at conventions, and lending his voice to animated projects like the early ’80s cartoon series “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.” He moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1981 to focus on developing the company’s movie and TV projects, going on to serve as an executive producer on Marvel films and television shows.

Even after his output slowed, Lee continued to serve as a public face for Marvel as the brand became a global powerhouse thanks to the success of Fox’s “X-Men” franchise, Sony’s “Spider-Man” films, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Disney. To younger audiences he is best known for his cameo appearances in Marvel films, which have continued even into 2018 with a cameo in “Black Panther” and a particularly poignant scene in the Playstation 4 video game “Spider-Man.”

In addition to his Marvel work, Lee was also behind several businesses in his own name, to limited degrees of success. In 1998 he founded Stan Lee Media, which he later disavowed after one of its investors was convicted of fraud. Lee was never implicated in that scheme.

Lee later formed POW! Entertainment, through which he published numerous books and graphic novels, established a kids content outlet, and lent his name and participation to Los Angeles-based Comikaze convention, which became Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo and is now known as L.A. Comic Con, among other ventures.

Lee’s relationship with POW! eventually collapsed into acrimony — he sued the company in 2018 for $1 billion, accusing the company and its co-founders of conspiring to “fraudulently” steal his “name, image, and likeness as part of a nefarious scheme benefit financially.” In 2018, Lee also sued his former manager, who Lee accused of stealing money, fraudulently selling his likeness rights, and even stealing samples of his blood.

But in the end, he was still wildly celebrated as a man who, perhaps more than any other single person, helped turn comic books from a niche interest enjoyed by kids and nerdy adults, into the source material for billion-dollar entertainment empires.

“All powerful? There is only one who deserves that name. And His only weapon … is love!” Lee wrote in a 1968 issue of “The Fantastic Four.” Whatever else he was, Lee gave that weapon to generations of comics fans. Excelsior, Stan. Nuff said.

Lee was married to Joan Lee for 69 years, until her death in 2017 at age 93. He’s survived by his daughter J.C.

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