How do you sum a life that spanned nearly a century and holds responsibility – in part or in whole (some more, some less, depending on who you talk to) – for some of the most iconic characters in modern fiction?
The answer is, you don’t. Anyone that tries to summarize it is on a fool’s errand, but there will be many who try. The best that can be done, what I’ll endeavor to do here, is to simply touch on some of the moments that defined the legend that is – not was, never was, never past tense – Stan Lee.
Born and raised in Manhattan and the Bronx shortly after the end of the first World War, Stanley Lieber spent his life watching towers climb higher and higher, the foundations of the fictional universe he would later create being laid out. Just out of school, Lieber went to work for Martin Goodman’s Timely Comics, doing such critical work as making sure the inkwells the artists used were kept full. While working at Timely, Lieber would meet names that would shape not only his life, but the entire entertainment industry, not just comics. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were others that helped guide Lieber to the road that lead him to become the man who – I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say – would reshape the world.
When Simon and Kirby left Timely, just before Lieber’s 19th birthday, Martin Goodman moved him into the job of interim editor. During the next decades, Lieber learned the ropes as both an editor and a writer, taking on the pen-name of Stan Lee so that he could still use his real name later, when he became a serious writer. Seeing Timely – later Atlas, and then Marvel – through trying times during and after WWII when superhero comics fell out of popularity, the early sixties would see Stan Lee reinvent the form, and radically change the way comics were seen, both inside and outside of the industry.
The revolutionary idea that Lee had? Make characters more relatable. Beginning in 1961, with the “first family of Marvel,” the Fantastic Four, Lee wrote and co-created characters that would be flawed, have troubles in the personal lives that were separate from those of their costumed counterparts. They were kids in school dealing with finals and asking the girl out the dance. They were husbands and wives dealing with paying bills during the day while battling world-devouring monsters after dinner. They were minorities in a world that said if you were like everyone else, you needed to get the hell away from me! He absolutely pulled his punches – he had to, under the Comics Code Authority – but he pushed boundaries and limits as far as he could, and then pushed just a little further, moving the lines on acceptability one inch at a time.
By the time the 1970s had rolled around, Lee had stepped back from the day-to-day writing at Marvel. His last regular monthly books hit the shelves in 1972, though he would continue to write with his peers on occasional works. In 1981, this New York boy packed up and moved to California with a crazy idea: That there was a place for Marvel characters in television and movies. There had be a few attempts to bring the characters to screen before, some more successful than others, and that trend would continue. The Bill Bixby-led “Incredible Hulk” series had come out of the seventies and into the eighties as a hit show and would spawn 5 made-for-TV films. The first Marvel name to hit the big screen was less welcomed. “Howard the Duck” didn’t fly, and neither did follow-ups “The Punisher” in 1989 or “Captain America” in 1990. The problem was that while the characters were there, the budgets weren’t. But Stan Lee knew there would be a time when the Silver Age of comic and the silver screen would mesh.
Following his departure from Marvel, Lee let his creatively flourish on a number of different projects. One that sparked the interest of fans was when he did a line for the “Distinguished Competition,” the “Just Imagine…” series saw Lee re-write the history of DC’s greatest legends – Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Justice League, and numerous others. This was 2001, an entirely new century, and a full forty years after his creation of the modern incarnation of superheroes. When most people would be thinking about retiring, Stan Lee took the opportunity to write for his friendly rivals down the street instead.
In 2008, there was another change in the landscape of entertainment. One of Lee’s creations – Tony Stark, the Invincible Iron Man – took flight across the big screen. Lee’s dream of seeing his characters in the movies, with solid backing, was finally happening. Others had been there before – the X-Men, Spider-Man, even Fantastic Four – but this was the first time it was a project controlled by the House of Ideas (Marvel) directly rather than licensed to another company to develop. The was the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Stan Lee has been there every step of the way. But he’s never been just the character making cameos in all of these films. Lee has advocated for literacy around the world through his Stan Lee Foundation. He continued to make appearances at conventions and signings for fans until just recently, pulling back due to the strain of travel and being so exposed to so many people as his age. In 2017, Stan had to say good-bye to his beloved Joan, his wife of sixty-nine years. Whenever he spoke of Joanie, you could see the sparkle in his eye and you simply knew there was no one else for him. Even in his grief, Lee gave of himself, making appearances in Hollywood to press his hands and feet, and inscribe his signature into the concrete at the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.
There will be countless tears today, from fans, from fellow creators. All of them are deserved, because there are no lives that are untouched by the work of Stan Lee. Whether you’re a comic book fan or not doesn’t matter. He redefined the artform, recreated what it means to create a hero. His name will forever be held in the same regard as Siegel and Shuster, as Kane and Finger, as Joseph Campbell, who defined the Hero’s Journey. Though the format of the stories are different, there are tales told by Lee that are known to this day, words that are echoed throughout different media and in day-to-day life. “With great power comes great responsibility,” words that could serve as a lesson to so many right now, were first penned by Lee. In this way, though some may roll their eyes at the comparison, Stanley Martin Lieber, Stan Lee to most of us, will have his words live on the same way as those of Doyle, of Stoker, of Twain.
Stan Lee has left our world today, but he’s still here. He’ll always be here. Just listen, and you’ll hear him, all around you.