Obituary: Stan Lee

For millions of fans, Stanley Lieber was Marvel Comics, which grew into a multimedia empire


For millions of fans worldwide, Stan Lee, who died on Monday aged 95, was Marvel Comics. Stanley Lieber, the son of Romanian-born Jewish immigrants, first entered the offices of Timely Publications, the company that would eventually become the blockbuster entertainment giant Marvel, in 1939.

The teenager was put to work filling inkwells and fetching sandwiches for the artists working on characters such as the Human Torch and Captain America. It was for the patriotic superhero that Stan wrote his first comic book story, adding the ability to hurl his shield like a giant Frisbee to Cap’s impressive range of talents.

Lieber chose a pen-name, Stan Lee, because he was saving his real name for the great novels he hoped he would some day write. Lee, still in his teens, quickly rose to the position of editor but he left Timely in 1942 to join the military, serving in the US Signal Corps. He spent his wartime years writing training manuals and films.

When asked about his military classification, he said that he was one of only nine US military personnel during the Second World War classified as ‘playwright.’ Stan re-joined Timely – also known during this period as Atlas Comics – in 1945.

Through the late Forties and into the Fifties, Lee wrote stories in a wide range of styles; romance, western, science-fiction, until superhero stories came back into vogue in the early 1960s. Responding to the trend, in 1961 Lee collaborated with artist Jack Kirby on a brand new team of costumed adventurers called the Fantastic Four.

Lee said: "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 colourful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay."

The immediate success of the family-based team of super-powered science nerds, whose adventures took them from real, recognisable New York locations to the outer reaches of the cosmos, prompted a superhero renaissance.

Lee, often working in tandem with artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, dreamed up a slew of new super-powered over the next few years, including Iron man, The Hulk, Thor, the X-Men and perhaps most famously Spider-Man.

The nerdy teenager whose relatable travails at home and high school were enlivened by a radioactive spider-bite that gave him amazing powers quickly became one of the world’s most beloved heroes – rivalling old-established names such as DC Comics’ Superman and Batman.

One of Lee’s innovations was the now-standard ‘shared universe’, with heroes from different titles wandering in and out of one another’s adventures. Lee also assembled Marvel’s premier heroes into a team, The Avengers. Lee’s heroes not only lived in the real world, mostly in and around New York, they dealt with real world issues too. Lee’s stories often addressed social issues such as racism and drug abuse.

Lee also cheekily wrote himself into some of the stories, for example Stan and his collaborator Jack Kirby appeared as themselves in The Fantastic Four #10 (January 1963).

He married Joan Clayton Boocock in 1947. Their daughter Joan Celia "J.C." Lee was born in 1950. Another daughter, Jan Lee, was born to the couple in 1953 but only lived for three days. In 1972, Lee stopped writing monthly comic books to assume the role of publisher.

His final issues of The Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four were in July and August of that year respectively. In 1981, Lee moved to California to develop Marvel's TV and movie properties. He still worked on occasional print titles during this period but more importantly he laid the groundwork for what would eventually become an all-conquering entertainment giant, putting out three or four blockbuster movies as part of the Avengers franchise and licensing other hit properties such as X-Men at Fox and Spider-Man at Sony.

It’s a feature of these colossally popular films that Stan Lee almost always popped up in them, delivering a twinkly-eyed cameo that always raised an affectionate groan and chuckle amongst superhero cognoscenti.

The first Marvel hero film we see without Stan’s cheeky smile will be a sad landmark in a long-running cultural phenomenon that began with a skinny 18-year-old filling inkwells in a New York comics studio.

Stanley Martin Lieber. Writer, film producer, philanthropist. December 28, 1922 – November 13, 2018

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