Stan Lee was 95 years old, pushing 96, when he passed away on November 12. His wife of nearly 70 years, Joan, died last year. After her death, reports emerged about Lee’s own health issues and troubled personal life, including elder abuse and shady estate finagling. The writing was on the wall: the living legend’s time was coming.
Everyone whose life he touched – and they must number in the hundreds of millions – is affected. By now, the story is well-known. Lee, the editor of Timely Comics – later Atlas, and eventually Marvel – was frustrated with his industry and contemplating a career change. On his way out the door, and with two of the most imaginative artistic storytellers in the field, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, in his employ, Lee transformed a company known primarily for cheap genre comics into the leading innovator in superhero literature.
You could go further and say Stan Lee was one of the principal architects of America’s contemporary pop culture landscape. Lee’s co-creations dominate world cinema today. He introduced moral complexity into what had always been dismissed as a children’s medium. He took audience engagement to a new level, bringing into existence some of the first unabashed geek communities.
The superhero is America’s answer to Greek mythology. Lee cast out the statuesque, simplistic heroes of the 1940s and 50s and introduced Shakespearean heroes who waxed philosophic, suffered in anguish, and lost hope. Peter Parker fretted about dates and Ben Grimm brooded in miserable self-pity. Still they performed miracles, whether scraping together enough money for Aunt May’s operation or fighting off the world-devouring Galactus. Lee gave audiences not just the human side of his superheroes, but the superhero side of us humans.
As the editor of Marvel’s books through the 70s, Lee cultivated not just a fan club, but an entire culture, complete with its own lexicon (“Excelsior, true believers!”). He published correspondence between fans on his letters pages, championed the comic book as a medium or serious storytelling, and lectured on college campuses. With Ditko he made the mystical Doctor Strange an underground icon of the burgeoning psychedelic scene, and with Kirby he crafted timeless space operas of Homeric scope.
In the 1960s, everyone had something to say, and Lee ensured Marvel had a voice too. Under Lee, Marvel introduced the first black and African-American superheroes in mainstream comics. Supporting character Flash Thompson was sent to the Vietnam War and brought home demons. In 1969, Lee published a story on drugs that is hokey and naïve by today’s standards, but bucked a prohibition on the subject and in so doing broke the first major chain in the industry’s long period of self-censorship.
Comic books were supposed to reinforce, not challenge, prevailing wisdom and authority. Lee felt obligated to not sit on the sidelines of the tumultuous 1960s. Even when his characters weren’t confronting issues, Lee himself was, in the monthly Stan’s Soapbox feature in every Marvel comic. In one famous column, Lee writes, “It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul… None of us lives in a vacuum – none of us is untouched by the everyday events around us – events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives.”
This philosophy was visible in Lee’s run on Captain America in the late 60s. During this era, Lee evolved Captain America from a stoic, two-dimensional soldier to a conflicted man out of time, struggling to cope with the increased moral complexity of his age. Justice began to mean more than law enforcement, and Cap became aware that his government could be in the wrong. The books had a special reverberation in the political climate of Woodstock and Vietnam, and perhaps even more so today, as the fascism Lee and Cap both began their careers combating takes hold inside America.
For all his progressive contributions to the field of comics, Lee’s record wasn’t perfect. His female characters were mostly one-dimensional cheerleaders for the protagonists. Villains like the Mandarin and the Yellow Claw were defined by the crudest stereotypes. In his old age, Lee apparently descended into lechery, allegedly violating the nurses who cared for him in his final years.
Later in their lives, Lee and Marvel’s top founding artists, Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, bickered publicly over how much credit Lee deserved for creating Marvel’s iconic stable of characters, including Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, Dr. Doom, Dr. Strange, Black Panther, Loki, and the Silver Surfer. Ditko and Kirby too often don’t get the mainstream recognition they deserve, while Lee’s natural gravitation to the spotlight and marketing savvy made him the singular face of the company. Regardless, the imaginations of Ditko and Kirby needed Stan Lee’s guidance and characterizations to truly become art. The three of them are the Mount Rushmore of Marvel Comics.
Only Stan Lee, though, became a cultural icon in and of himself, on a plane comparable to Andy Warhol or The Beatles. He will be forever remembered by his famous cameo appearances and magnetic charisma. It’s a treat for the world that he lived long enough to see his co-creations seize the American imagination all over again, some 50 years after the original stories. He lived through World War II, the civil rights movement, the space age, and the failures of modern capitalism, and helped America tell its story all the way.