The superhero whose comics took over the world
What did Stan Lee teach us about life? The mastermind behind Marvel’s success has died aged 95. From Spider-Man to the Hulk, he helped to create many of the world’s most beloved superheroes.
When Stan Lee was around 40 years old, he was fed up with writing comics. He had been at the same company for two decades, where he was known as “the ultimate hack”, churning out Westerns and horror stories with little nuance or interest. With sales in decline, his wife Joan encouraged him to try writing the kind of characters he really cared about.
He agreed. In 1961, that company changed its name to Marvel Comics — and Lee (along with the artist Jack Kirby) launched The Fantastic Four.
Unlike previous superhero stories, its characters acted like ordinary people. They were misfits who bickered and doubted themselves, chasing celebrity over secret identities. As Lee put it: they were “flesh and blood”, they had “faults and foibles”. They also changed the comics industry forever.
On Monday, Lee died aged 95. “We’ve lost a creative genius,” wrote Hugh Jackman (who starred in Marvel’s X-Men movies).
“He changed the way we look at heroes,” tweeted rival publisher DC Comics.
Indeed, after the success of The Fantastic Four, Lee continued creating new, more relatable characters. Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Thor — he was behind them all. The stories confronted real-world issues at the time, such as racism and the Cold War.
Not every venture was a success; he became embroiled in copyright issues with artists who felt he had taken credit for their work, and he launched an online business in 1998 that ended with his partner being jailed for fraud. “I’ve been very careless with money,” he told The New York Times in April.
But his stories endured. And in the 2000s, Marvel began making the big-budget, all-star superhero movies that still dominate cinema today. Since Iron Man was released in 2008, the 20 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have made over £11.5 billion worldwide.
“I love working on stories,” Lee told Rolling Stone in 2015. “Luckily […] age doesn’t really stop you.”
What is his enduring message?
Stan, a legend
The message of all superhero stories, say some, and the message he gave in a cameo at the end of Spider-Man 3: “I guess one person can make a difference.” Superheroes remind us that extraordinary people exist, whether they are comic book writers or web-slinging teenagers. The outpouring of grief after his death proves that one life can touch millions.
What made his characters shine was their ordinariness, say others. He showed that heroes have problems too, but they try their best anyway. He once defined a hero as “someone who is concerned about other people’s well-being and will go out of his or her way to help them [...] who helps others simply because it should or must be done.” That could be any of us.
- Are comic books art?
- Can anyone be a superhero?
- As a class, brainstorm all of the characteristics that you think make someone a hero.
- It is time to produce your own comic book! Invent a superhero you think the world needs in 2018. Draw and write the opening panels. Inspired by Stan Lee, make sure your hero has flaws as well as strengths.
Some People Say...
“If you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing.”Stan Lee
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Stan Lee was born Stanley Lieber. His relative Martin Goodman owned the company that became Marvel, and Lee started work there as an assistant in 1939. He quickly began helping to write the comics, and initially used the pen name “Stan Lee” so that he could save his real name for more serious writing. However, he legally changed it to Lee in the 1970s.
- What do we not know?
- His exact contribution to Marvel, while large, is hard to pin down. He wrote his first successful comics using the “Marvel Method”, where he would give story ideas to artists and then fill in the dialogue; but the artists may have changed parts of the original story in the process. Although he said he came up with characters himself, sometimes artists accused him of taking credit for their ideas.
- He was taken to Los Angeles’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center on Monday after a “medical emergency”, and declared dead soon after.
- Cold War
- For example, The Fantastic Four get their powers while the US is trying to beat the Soviet Union to space. In Iron Man, Tony Stark was a weapons manufacturer at the height of America’s war in Vietnam.
- Copyright issues
- Jack Kirby’s family spent many years fighting for royalties from his artwork. However, as Kirby was hired as a freelancer, these were denied. The family eventually settled for an unknown amount in 2014. He is now acknowledged as one of Lee’s co-creators.
- The company, Stan Lee Media, crashed and almost went bankrupt in 2000. Its co-founder, Peter F. Paul, went to prison for securities fraud. Lee was not charged.
- Marvel Cinematic Universe
- The shared world of The Avengers movies and their characters. Many MCU movies have broken records — most recently Black Panther.
- Lee was known for his small cameo appearances in most Marvel movies. His next has already been filmed (for the fourth Avengers film, out next year).