Carson Hughes, A&E Editor
Few could claim to have a greater influence on popular culture than Stan Lee. The celebrated comic book writer, editor and publisher was the co-creator of some the most iconic superheroes: Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Panther, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, Ant-Man and many more. At age 95, Stan Lee passed away earlier this week in the Hollywood Hills, leaving behind a giant and complicated legacy.
Stan Lee began his writing career in 1939 as an assistant at Timely Comics, which would later be branded as Marvel Comics in 1961. Lee, whose real name was Stanley Lieber, had set out to become a great novelist, so when he began writing comics, he didn’t want his real name used since it was viewed as “low art.” Lee would never write his Great American Novel, but he did gain an appreciation for comic books.
In 1961, he and artist Jack Kirby revolutionized the comics industry and reinvigorated the dying superhero genre with a slew of superhero comics that began with The Fantastic Four #1. Lee and Kirby conceived superheroes that existed in real-world locations like New York City, where heroes like the Hulk and Spider-Man could interact with each other across titles. Lee sought to ground his heroes with real-world drama. Their flagship hero Spider-Man spent as much time fighting eviction notices as he was supervillains. Over his career, Lee would use his platform to address topical political issues, particularly Civil Rights. In 1963, he and Kirby created the X-Men, a team of “mutants” who fought for a world without discrimination, and, in 1966, the duo created the Black Panther, the first mainstream black superhero.
Lee wrote all of Marvel’s comics and did so with his signature over-the-top, hokey narration and dialogue such as “Never again will mortal eyes gaze upon the hideous countenance of Victor Von Doom!” and catchphrases like “It’s clobberin’ time!” and his own personal “Excelsior!” He was known for repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to talk to readers in his own books and through the Letters to the Editor and Stan’s Soapbox columns. He concocted a larger-than-life carnival barker-like persona that became easily identifiable at comics conventions and his numerous appearances in Marvel’s film and television programming.
However, behind the charming huckster is a complicated legacy. Lee’s self-promotion came at the expense of his collaborators, and he often took more credit than he deserved. In early interviews with the press, Lee would claim to be the sole creator of Marvel’s most iconic heroes, but in truth, the artists behind these characters contributed as much, if not more, to their creation and legacy than Lee. As part of the “Marvel method” that helped the publisher put out books at a rapid rate, artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko would plot and draw the stories while Lee edited and wrote dialogue. Though his collaborators were credited as artists, they never received writing or plotting credits. As Lee became the face and head of Marvel, he made millions while Kirby died in 1994 without receiving recognition for his creations. It wasn’t until 2014 that his estate reached an undisclosed settlement with Marvel. Nevertheless, Stan Lee has left an enduring legacy that is sure to last well into the future and he is sure to be missed.
This article was originally published in the Nov. 16, 2018 issue.