Much like one of his greatest creations, much like myself, and much like many others who held issues of Spider-Man in their hands as children, Stan Martin Lieber came from very humble beginnings. In a way, that’s precisely why he will always be remembered as one of the greatest comic book creators that ever lived. He took the unstoppable – the unbeatable – and made them relatable and flawed. He gave his characters with the same kind of humble beginnings and human characteristics that he undoubtedly lived through, just like any of us dealt with. He brought his insecurities to the page. Before Stan Lee left his stamp on the comic book industry, everyone looked up to heroes, but Lee made everyone feel like they could be heroes, too, simply by dealing with the “every day.”
He began his work filling inkwells and erasing pencil lines for artists at Timely Comics in 1939. Two years later at the age of 19, he became interim editor. During those first two years, he would come to know Jack Kirby and gave Captain America his memorable ricocheting shield toss in a filler story in Captain America #3. (Never tell me that a project is too small to make a difference with.)
Creating comic books wasn’t his first passion, that was writing the great American novel, so when he became frustrated with comic books in the late 1950s and was planning to change careers, he took the advice of his wife to try something different and experiment since he had nothing to lose. The decision to do so changed everything. It changed the comic book industry, and it eventually changed the television and film industry. It changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of readers, young and old. The influence of his creations can never truly be calculated.
When I was a kid in the early 1980s, for the few years that I lived in Mississippi, I couldn’t imagine the idea of a comic book store. I didn’t know so much magic could be held in one place. No, I picked up my slightly tattered comic books from spin racks at local convenience stores. That’s when I discovered the X-Men, Hulk, The Avengers, Silver Surfer, and, of course, Spider-Man which eventually overtook the popularity of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s first creation, The Fantastic Four, to become the biggest comic book character from Marvel. It was an ever-expanding world of new adventures and discoveries for my young mind.
Lee worked with some of the greatest comic book creators of all time to bring these characters to life: Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Sr, and many others. While some of those collaborations led to legal disputes, especially with Kirby and the Kirby family, it’s hard not to see a pattern of iconic characters created over the course of multiple collaborations.
His “Marvel Method” of writing – in which he would brainstorm the plot with the artists and then let the artists visually structure the story before Lee came back and added dialogue – gave artists the ability to create these world-changing stories with him, and in the long run gave so many other creators a fertile land to continue to create new stories. Lee didn’t just create fun, enjoyable characters, he created universal characters that have stood the test of an ever-changing world and a wide range of creative styles.
Lee tackled subjects like the Vietnam War and drug addiction which changed the Comic Book Code from that time, allowing negative portrayals of drugs to be shown on the page. He created the first African-American superhero characters with The Falcon and Black Panther. His work was progressive, opening children’s minds to acceptance and understanding of the world around them. My personal experience with The Uncanny X-Men taught me to accept those that were different from me, and that I had a place to go when I felt different. Spider-Man gave me hope that even when I felt different, there was still something I had to offer, and that whenever I had the power to do good in the world, I should do it. As an adult reading Daredevil, it taught me that sometimes being a hero simply means trying to survive through depression and tragedy. The Hulk taught me that anger can be used for good if it’s not used to destroy. Lee created the bible of my young adult life that holds true to this day as I enter my personal middle ages.
Yes, these characters still play a pivotal role in my growth as a person, in my perception of the world around me, and my creative voice, and looking at my social media feeds, he meant the same for a lot of other people. In the last few years, as online social media drama began to affect him, all of those voices that he was there for over the years, spoke up and showed their support for him. One can’t deny the effect he’s had on so many people.
Before this new era of digital connectivity, Lee used his voice and his personality to always do right by others, giving lectures and going to conventions. He showed the utmost respect no matter who he was interacting with, to always embolden the people he met no matter what part of their career they found themselves in. The social media world brought those personal anecdotes to a larger audience and made his passion for stories and people recognized by all. He founded the Stan Lee Foundation in 2010 which focused on giving to literacy, education, and the arts. He won a number of awards, including the National Medal of Arts in 2008, and served in World War II from 1942-1945.
I don’t have any personal anecdotes, but a search online will give you a lot of them, and they are all beautiful and show a man that in his final years on Earth was humbled by the outpouring of love towards him and always showed that love in return.
A lot of creators preach through their characters, but Lee stood by his words: “With great power comes great responsibility.” He lived those words until the day he died, and to many people he was one of the greatest people they had ever met, simply because he made them feel like they were heroes in their own lives.
Joan, his wife of 67 years, died in 2017. He will be survived by his daughter J.C. and his creations: Peter Parker, Thor, Bruce Banner, Doctor Strange, Matt Murdock, T’Challa, Tony Stark, Sue Storm, Reed Richards, Galactus, Silver Surfer, and countless others…