News is beginning to circulate that comics-industry legend Stan Lee has died at the age of 95.
Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in New York in 1922, the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania. As a young man he became a proofreader and text-filler at Timely Comics, the company that would eventually change its name to ‘Marvel‘. In 1941, still a teenager, he penned a back-up Captain America story and he used the pseudonym ‘Stan Lee’ which he later admitted was because he wanted to write more weighty literature and hadn’t initially wanted his real name on comics. Ironically, the nom-de-plume would become synonymous with the format in the decades that followed. In the 1960s, in response to the more perfect and square-jawed heroes being published by DC, Lee began working on new characters with which people might be able to more readily identify. Spider-man‘s alter-ego Peter Parker was not some billionaire philanthropist but a high school kid who accidentally receives powers from a radioactive arachnid and whose life is as much complicated by the abilities he receives. Through tragedy he learns the maxim that ‘with great power comes great responsibility…’. The X-Men were a superhero team born with genetically-triggered abilities but however much they sought to protect humanity, they were often the target of hatred and suspicion – personifying the culture-clash of the era. The cosmic adventurers the Fantastic Four were a family-unit with all the dysfunction that suggested. Later characters such as Luke Cage and the Black Panther would be notable additions to the superhero roster that had been distinctly white until that point.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, Lee – as Marvel‘s President and Publisher – proved an indomitable force. His larger-than-life persona, full of enthusiasm, bravado and oft-repeated stories about his inspirations, became the sun-glasses and moustache-adorned face of the company. He clearly enjoyed the fame it brought, but never took it too seriously, perhaps knowing that one way or another his contributions to ‘pop-culture’ and beyond were already assured.
However Lee’s life and career wasn’t without controversy. For decades his name appeared on the credits page of almost every Marvel Comic and he formally received the singular credit and attention for creating some of the biggest and most recognisable names and characters. However there were later calls to re-evaluate the credits of the creative process and to acknowledge the key contributions of the artists involved. It was noted that Stan Lee came up with the basic idea for a story, the artists would fill out a lot of the details and pacing and then Lee would return to write in the specific dialogue – and it was a profitable arrangement for the company. Thanks to long, exhaustive and sometimes acrimonious campaigns, the likes of legendary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko eventually got more formal recognition and the famously reclusive Ditko, who passed away in June, is now formally seen as a co-creator of characters such as Spider-man).
Towards the end of his life, Lee was notable for the cheeky cameos he made in many a Marvel big-screen movie adaptation (though the deals he made early in his career were work-for-hire and he didn’t see much financial reward from the billion-dollar-deal when Disney bought Marvel). He was still making convention appearances though he had had to cancel several due to a bout of pneumonia earlier this year and it was clear he was getting more frail. There were growing concerns about his workload. In the last few years – after the death of his beloved wife of nearly seven decades, Joan – there were several law-suits regarding personal and business ventures and there also, sadly, appeared to be a struggle as to who could provide him the best care and truly represent his best interests. There were claims and counter-claims by associates, family and friends as to how he was possibly being exploited by the others. Complicating the issue, Lee produced videos and testimonies at different points supporting and then disavowing the same individuals and various high profile comic creators began to express their concerns on which were true.
Regardless of the details of the financial rewards or his eventual estate, there’s little doubt that with the passing of Stan Lee, an important era in comics draws to a close. It is without doubt true that without him, one way or another, the comics and wider entertainment industry would have been a very different place…