By Aditi Agrawal
Stan Lee, credited with shaping the popular culture of the first two decades of 21st century through his comic book characters, died yesterday in Los Angeles. He was 95.
Born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922, in Manhattan to Romanian-born Jewish immigrants, Celia and Jack Lieber, Lee was the older of two brothers.
When he graduated from high school, he was hired at Timely Publications, a company owned by Martin Goodman whose wife was Lee’s cousin. Timely Publications would ultimately become Marvel Comics in 1961 as Lee’s superhero astronauts, the Fantastic Four, changed the comic book industry.
At Timely, he frequently collaborated with the artist Jack Kirby, who, with writing partner Joe Simon, had created Captain America. When Kirby and Simon left Timely to join a rival company, Lee was appointed the chief editor.
Lee married Joan Boocock, who would go on to lend her voice to several Marvel animated shows, in 1947. They had two daughters, Joan Celia “J.C.” Lee (born 1950) and Jan Lee, who died three days after her birth in 1953. His wife died last year of stroke-related complications. She was also 95.
Lee is survived by his daughter and his younger brother Larry Lieber, who drew the Amazing Spider-Man syndicated newspaper strip for years.
A new direction for comic books
In the mid-1940s, at the peak of the golden age of comic books, sales boomed at 600 million copies a year. However, as plots and characters became increasingly lurid, calls for censorship grew louder amongst adults. As a result, to avoid legislation, the comics industry established the Comics Code Authority to ensure wholesome content. However, in the process of censoring gore and moral ambiguity, sharp wit, intertextuality, and social issues were also blunted.
The resulting formulaic comic books started losing their audience and within a few years, sales declined by almost three-quarters. Competition from the then new medium of television exacerbated the problem.
This tired Lee and he was so embarrassed by what he wrote that he refused to put his real name in the byline. He assumed the dumb name “Stan Lee”, a phonetic bifurcation of his first name, which he legally adopted in the 1970s.
At this time, he was encouraged by his wife to write the comics he wanted, not just the ones that passed morality tests, or were considered marketable. The popularity of recently rebooted Flash at DC prompted his boss, Goodman, to make his revisit superheroes.
In 1961, the Fantastic Four were born. Lee and Kirby, whom the former had brought back years before, created a group of four superhumans who were equally afflicted with human issues such as internal squabbles, self-torment, as they were with the responsibility of saving the planet. As letters from fans poured in, Lee’s Marvel universe spawned Marvel Comics.
The quintessential Lee hero, created with the artist Steve Ditko, was Spider-Man who was introduced in 1962. A shy high school intellectual who famously gained his powers when he was bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter Parker was as introspective and prone to teenage insecurity as he was agile. The hero was no longer infallible.
A new generation of superheroes was ushered in, those that were not afraid to take on disability (Daredevil), racism and bigotry (X-Men), and black representation (Black Panther).
Lee’s Marvel method
Lee did not hand scripts to illustrators. Instead, he summarised the stories and let the artists draw them and fill in plot details as they chose. In this manner, he would discover new characters that had been added to the narrative. These characters, such as the Silver Surfer, created by Kirby, would lead to questions of character ownership.
Lee was often accused for not giving illustrators their due credit. Ditko quit Marvel in bitterness in 1966. Kirby left in 1969, but came back in 1978 to create a Silver Surfer graphic novel with Lee.
For years, the Kirby estate sought to acquire rights to the characters that Kirby had created with Lee. However, Kirby’s art was treated as “work for hire” in court, that is, art that he had sold without expecting royalties. Finally, in September 2014, Marvel and the Kirby estate reached a settlement. Lee and Kirby now receive joint credit on cinematic adaptations based on their work.
Going beyond comic books
Lee’s initial attempts in 1980 to develop Marvel properties into live-action television and movies were disappointing. However, Marvel’s Hollywood fortunes were revived by Avi Arad, an executive at Toy Biz, a company in which Marvel had bought a controlling interest. The animated X-Men series, that ran on Fox from 1992 to 1997, was particularly successful.
In the late 1990s, Lee was named the chairman emeritus at Marvel and looked at other projects. Stan Lee Media, which he started in 1999 with the aim to marry comics and internet, crashed in 2000, and landed his business partner, Peter F. Paul, in prison for securities fraud.
In 2001, he started a new company POW! (Purveyors of Wonder) Entertainment to develop movies and television programmes. However, he received no income from Marvel audio-visual properties until he won a court fight with Marvel Enterprises in 2005. In 2009, the Walt Disney Company, which acquired Marvel for $4 billion, announced that it had paid $2.5 million to increase its stake in POW!
Although Marvel movies may not have become a cash-cow for Lee himself, globally, they have endorsed over $24 billion.
In the last year, after the death of his wife, the circumstances of his business affairs and contentious financial relationship with his daughter attracted media attention. The reports of infighting amongst J.C. Lee, household staff, and business advisers were intertwined with claims of “elder abuse”.
While Stan Lee later withdrew his notarised document that three men had “insinuated themselves into relationships with J.C. for an ulterior motive and purpose,” to “gain control over my assets, property and money”, three of his longtime aides were either dismissed or had limited contact with him.
Lee wrote a memoir, Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee, with George Mair, in 2002. His 2015 book, Amazing Fantastic Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir (written with Peter David and illustrated in comic-book form by Colleen Doran), pays abundant credit to the artists many fans believed he had shortchanged years before.
His cameo appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and beyond have become a source of delights for fans.
Aditi Agrawal is the senior sub editor at Qrius.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius