If you’ve watched any Marvel movie, television show or even played the video games, it’s almost a tradition to expect Stan Lee to pop up in a cameo. You know it’s going to happen, it’s only a question of when.
As someone who has never quite missed a Marvel movie, or DC for that matter, each future Marvel Cinematic Universe offering is going to bring about a twinge of sorrow knowing that Lee’s amusing, usually cringe-worthy appearances are going to be a thing of the past.
An unrivalled legend in the comic world who has influenced nerd culture in a way very few have, Stan Lee died on Monday at the age of 95. A mischief maker of sorts for much of his career, Lee played an unparalleled role in spawning much of the Marvel Universe as we know it today and created or co-created Spider-Man, the X-Men, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and the many other superheroes that have nestled themselves well into the collective imagination of generations of fans.
It was under him that Marvel created more nuanced characters in an attempt “to make them real flesh-and-blood characters with personality,” as he told the Washington Post in 1992.
“That’s what any story should have, but comics didn’t have until that point,” he said. “They were all cardboard figures. Make them real, give them personality. Give them problems. You ask the audience to suspend disbelief and accept that some idiot can climb on walls, but once that’s accepted, you ask: What would life be like in the real world if there were such a character? Would he still have to worry about dandruff, about acne, about getting girlfriends, about keeping a job?”
Comics also became full of snappy, reference-loaded dialogue that struck a chord with fans.
Sure enough, the loners became heroes and all too human flaws were introduced to superheroes. Characters became complex, flawed and conflicted – essentially putting the ‘human’ in the ‘superhuman’. And the fans lapped it up.
The Stan Lee story
Lee started his career as an office boy at Timely Comics, a company which would later morph into Marvel, but he soon began writing. Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922, he picked up the pseudonym of ‘Stan Lee’ when he made his comic-book debut with the text filler “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in Captain America Comics #3 (May 1941) because as a budding, and possibly serious writer, he believed he didn’t wish to be associated with such a lowbrow art form.
Years later, he adopted Stan Lee as his legal name.
Lee’s luck changed less than a year after he began to work at Marvel when aces Joe Simon and Jack Kirby quit when they found out that Martin Goodman, the owner, who has been described an “industry boy wonder” was stiffing them out of royalties on Captain America.
It was then that 19-year-old Stan Lee replaced Simon as editor-in-chief despite his meagre experience. Lee, as he has said in multiple interviews, believed that the job was his only temporarily, but he believes that Goodman “forgot” to replace him.
Lee remained in the post for the nearly three decades, helping build the empire that only grew and grew more in stature through the 1960s, 70s and 80s with thanks to the storytelling and art in comics like The Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four. They had stiff competition from DC comics, which had hit it off with its Justice League series. That’s eventually how Fantastic Four came to be – born out of healthy competition between two competitors who are still at it hammer and tongs today.
Lee eventually became the face of the company but that created a lot of friction with the other members of Marvel’s “Holy Trinity” – famed artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. The latter left in 1966 and Kirby followed him out a few years later. He eventually spoke out controversially about how Lee didn’t write contribute much and just had his name “slapped on to projects”.
This was reiterated later by Daredevil artist Wally Wood who wrote that Lee only ever “came up with two surefire ideas … the first one was ‘Why not let the artists write the stories as well as draw them?’ And the second was ‘Always sign your name on top – BIG!'”
Many believe that Stan Lee cheated Kirby of royalties and credit, but in 2014, Marvel and the Kirby estate reached a settlement and both Lee and Kirby now receive credit on numerous screen productions together.
The rest of the story is something most fans are familiar with. Lee became Marvel’s publisher in 1972 and eventually went on to head the film division. In the realm of the pop culture industry, no one really predicted the Marvel Cinematic Universe becoming what it is today. It was a series of gambles that eventually paid off, but it cannot be denied that it was Lee who became a larger-than-life icon as that journey progressed.
Without the real-life superhero himself, we wouldn’t have Daredevil skulking about Hell’s Kitchen with epic moral battles raging within or Loki stirring up some apocalyptic mischief for Thor or be able to watch Peter Parker’s growing pangs again and again and again with the launch of every new Spider-Man franchise.
In one of his last interviews ever, with the Daily Beast in August this year, upon being asked what’s on his wish list, Lee said: “That I leave everyone happy when I leave.”
A quick list of a few of the unforgettable comic book characters Stan Lee created:
Betty Ross Banner
J. Jonah Jameson