Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.
– Babe Ruth
There aren’t a lot of people I’d truly call a legend in the world. To me, a legend is someone who doesn’t just accomplish, but define the meaning of an “accomplishment”. Stan Lee…I’d put him on the list of few because his legacy was rooted in creating heroes that never died. And in doing so, he redefined the idea of what a hero was. In fact, one would argue he helped make the idea of a “superhero” more reachable to ordinary folks like myself. I mean go through the list. Spider-Man, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Black Panther, the X-Men. In addition, in collaborating with his brother, co-writer Larry Lieber (As Lee’s birth name was Stanley Martin Lieber), he also co-created Ant-Man, Iron Man, and Thor.
These are characters we see a lot nowadays, particularly on the big screen. In some ways, Lee is responsible for setting the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe because he created character so rooted in the real world most of the time. He took heroes and they were no longer millionaires with fancy gadgets or invincible aliens who were charming, chiseled-jawed, and the most intelligent people in the room, so much so everyone else was dwarfed. Lee though saw the idea of a hero becoming the poor, bullied nerd that all the girls ignored. The blind kid who lost his father to corruption. The outcasts who have less-than-manageable powers but fight evil in the shadows for the very people who looked down on them because it was the right thing to do. Lee made the modern hero and inspired generations that weren’t the most popular ones in the room that they could be great in the ways that mattered. But he reminded us also to never take for granted the power given to us. Or, as he famously put it…
It’s hard to be saddened by Lee’s passing today at the age of 95. The man lived one of the fullest lives a person could, he inspired billions of people, he defined an industry. Even myself, the writer, could tell you his works helped me through some dark times as a kid when I was no one’s first choice. So instead of focusing on his death, this obituary will celebrate how he lived and how he himself was one of those down-trodden who found his own power to bring dreams to life.
Born on December 28, 1922, in Manhattan, New York City, Lee found himself the child of Romanian-born Jewish immigrant parents, Celia (née Solomon) and Jack Lieber, his father, trained as a dress cutter, worked only sporadically after the Great Depression. Even as a child, Lee was influenced by books and movies, particularly those with Errol Flynn playing heroic roles. A dream he kept alive even when, by his teens, the family was living in an apartment in The Bronx where Lee and his brother shared the bedroom, while their parents slept on a foldout couch. But it never stopped him. Lee enjoyed writing and entertained dreams of one day writing the “Great American Novel”.
It took awhile for him to get there, as he worked every part-time job one could including as writing obituaries and press releases, delivering sandwiches, working as an office boy for a trouser manufacturer, ushering at the Rivoli Theater on Broadway, and selling subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune newspaper. He was clearly destined for greatness though as he actually graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School early, aged 16½ in 1939, and immediately joined the WPA Federal Theatre Project.
In 1939, Lee became an assistant at the new Timely Comics division of pulp magazine and comic-book publisher Martin Goodman’s company. Timely, by the 1960’s, would evolve into Marvel Comics. He made his comic-book debut with the text filler “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge” in Captain America Comics #3 (cover-dated May 1941). It was here he first used the pseudonym Stan Lee, which years later he would adopt as his legal name. It was in this very issue that introduced Captain America’s trademark ricocheting shield-toss.
In 1942, Lee entered the United States Army, initially serving within the US as a member of the Signal Corps, repairing telegraph poles and other communications equipment before being transferred to the Training Film Division. Here he worked writing manuals, training films, slogans, and occasionally cartooning. His military classification, he says, was “playwright”; he adds that only nine men in the U.S. Army were given that title. Lee returned from his World War II military service in 1945 where he was inducted into the Signal Corps Regimental Association and gave him honorary membership of the 2nd Battalion of 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord at the 2017 Emerald City Comic Con for his prior service.
During the mid-1950’s, Lee wrote stories in a variety of genres including romance, Westerns, humor, science fiction, medieval adventure, horror and suspense. However, by the end of the decade, Lee had become dissatisfied with his career and considered quitting the field. But little did Lee know what was about to happen, as DC Comics, Marvel’s competitor, was reviving the superhero archetype so Goodman, in response, assigned Lee to come up with a new superhero team. Since he was planning on changing careers and had nothing to lose anyway, Lee’s wife suggested that he experiment with stories he preferred. It was from this Lee’s now trademark ideology of heroes came to be.
Lee chose to change the game and wanted to create more naturalistic characters that weren’t as idealistic, perfect people. He would give his superheroes a flawed humanity where they could have bad tempers, fits of melancholy, and vanity. Where they bickered amongst themselves, worried about paying their bills and impressing girlfriends, got bored or were even sometimes physically ill. In other words, he wanted his characters to be just like us.
So began a string of heroes that Lee and artist Jack Kirby would create together, the first of course being Fantastic Four. They would also team up to co-create the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and the X-Men. With Bill Everett, Lee co-created Daredevil, and with Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange and, of course, Marvel’s most successful character.
Living in a shared universe, Lee and Kirby gathered several of their newly created characters together into a team, The Avengers, and would revive characters from the 1940’s such as the Sub-Mariner and Captain America. Throughout the 1960’s, Lee scripted, art-directed and edited most of Marvel’s series, moderated the letters pages, wrote a monthly column called “Stan’s Soapbox”, and wrote endless promotional copy, often signing off with his now trademark motto, “Excelsior!”, which is of course the New York state motto (Lee’s home).
The rest, as they say, is history. Well, more precisely, Lee made history. Throughout the decades to follow Lee would find ways to introduce serious themes to the comic book world. He would help audiences deal with the wars, prejudices, and every challenges of life. He would become known for making cameos in television shows and movies based on his characters. These characters became more than ink on a page as Lee became more than just a man. He became a symbol of the potential our dreams and the ability to find a hero in our darkest times.
Lee was married to the same woman for 69 years, Joan Boocock Lee, who herself passed just last year. That woman who suggested he give one last shot to his dream is now reunited with her husband, wherever he may be. For if there is anything Lee really left behind, it was that you never know what could be next, even after this life ends. Even Lee himself once stated, when asked if he believed in God:
Well, let me put it this way… [Pauses.] No, I’m not going to try to be clever. I really don’t know. I just don’t know.
Stan and Joan are survived by there daughter J.C. (Joan Celia) Lee. But he will live on in ways most will not. Rest in peace Mr. Lee. For the final time, you sign off…Excelsior.