Stan Lee, the writer, editor, and former publisher and president of Marvel Comics who co-invented Spider-Man and was responsible for turning superhero comic books into a phenomenon, died Monday at the age of 95. Lee was taken to Los Angeles’ Cedars Sinai Medical Center on Monday after suffering a medical emergency; he was declared dead shortly afterwards, Lee’s daughter confirmed to Variety.
“He felt an obligation to his fans to keep creating,” his daughter J.C. Lee said of her father in a statement to Reuters. “He loved his life and he loved what he did for a living. His family loved him and his fans loved him. He was irreplaceable.”
“Stan Lee was as extraordinary as the characters he created. A super hero in his own right to Marvel fans around the world, Stan had the power to inspire, to entertain, and to connect. The scale of his imagination was only exceeded by the size of his heart,” The Walt Disney Company CEO and chairman Bob Iger said in a statement. Marvel Comics also paid tribute to their Chairman Emeritus.
To some, Lee was one of the greatest pop-culture creators of his era – the primary voice behind Marvel’s golden years and the mind that introduced characters every schoolkid knows: Not just your friendly neighborhood web-slinger but also the Fantastic Four, X-Men, Iron Man, Daredevil, the Hulk, the Avengers, and on and on. To others, he was a shameless huckster and glory-hound who reaped the rewards for the hard, brilliant work done by artists like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck and Gene Colan. Both schools are correct.
Born Stanley Lieber on December 28th, 1922, Lee was not the kind of solitary creative genius whose role in his work is easy to grasp. He was best known as a writer, and his prose was not, by most standards, especially good. (Had he quit comics after his first 20 years in the industry, he’d be unknown today.) But he was an extraordinary collaborator, coach and businessman, and the comic books he banged out at top speed between 1961 and 1972 throb with power and joy.
At the beginning of that period, Lee was singlehandedly running the little comic book company where he’d first been hired (by his cousin’s husband, publisher Martin Goodman) in 1939. Marvel was publishing 10 comics a month in 1961 – romances, Westerns, war stories, teen comedies and monster tales, almost all of them written by Lee himself. To save time, rather than writing full scripts, he’d come up with quick story synopses, pass them off to the stable of artists he worked with, and then fill in dialogue and captions when the artwork came back.
Fantastic Four #1, drawn by industry veteran Jack Kirby and cover-dated November 1961, was an experiment: a hybrid of monster and superhero comics, a genre that had been hugely popular during World War II but had since become archaic. Nine months later, the final issue of Lee and Steve Ditko’s sci-fi series Amazing Fantasy introduced Spider-Man, a shocking inversion of superhero tropes: a scrawny, bitter teenager who gets weirdly monstrous powers, and whose first adventure ends with him sobbing in horror and shame.
Both were hits, and over the next few years, the superhero series Lee wrote and edited came to dominate American comics. As Tales of Suspense and Journey Into Mystery and Strange Tales gave way to Iron Man and Thor and Dr. Strange, Lee’s next great innovation kicked in: cross-continuity. All of the characters he was writing lived in the same world, and regularly dropped into each other’s series; subplots from a Sub-Mariner story could be resolved in a Captain America story and have repercussions in a Daredevil story. It was an ingenious trick and one that still works (it’s the idea behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for instance).
Lee eventually ceded even more of his comics’ plotting to Marvel’s artists, and encouraged them to stretch out stylistically – which just made the work better and bolder. He was the ringmaster overseeing the show, hyping the “Merry Marvel Marching Society” fan club, cracking jokes about his collaborators in every issue’s credits (where his name always appeared up top), and generally elbowing readers in the ribs. By the mid-1960s, he’d developed his public persona: “Stan the Man,” a cheerful, alliterative, slightly disreputable, faux-megalomaniacal carnival barker.
Lee scripted both the first 100 issues of The Amazing Spider-Man and the first 114 issues of Fantastic Four, and they’re the wellspring from which modern superhero comics still draw. (Ditko and Kirby both later claimed, reasonably, that they didn’t get enough credit for their creative roles – but their collaborations with Lee were the best work of their careers.) Even the supporting characters in his stories were unforgettable: the gloating newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson; the silent monarch Black Bolt; the Falstaffian warrior Volstagg. And, as corny and overstuffed as Lee’s dialogue could be, it had an inimitable sparkle; the occasional episodes of Thor or Ant-Man credited to other writers were leaden and airless by comparison.
When Lee moved out to Hollywood in 1972, he gave up his last few monthly comics-writing gigs and settled into his role as Marvel’s spokesman. (He was usually careful to praise the contributions of the artists with whom he’d worked, but journalists tended to gloss over his collaborators’ names, which reinforced Lee’s reputation as the guy who took credit for others’ achievements.) “Stan Lee Presents” subsequently appeared on every Marvel comic’s title page for decades – although, by all reports, he scarcely read any of them – and he wrote a chatty monthly column, “Stan’s Soapbox,” that appeared in their back pages.
In the last four decades of his career, Lee wrote an occasional one-off Silver Surfer or Spider-Man story, and a handful of other comics, none particularly noteworthy. Still, he’d put his name on just about anything, especially after the Internet production company Stan Lee Media collapsed in 2000: he worked with everyone from the National Hockey League to Ringo Starr on projects. Mostly, though, he was always around to give his blessing to the work descended from his own. He made cameo appearances in nearly every Marvel-based movie, voiced the Mayor in the animated Super Hero Squad Show, and signed fans’ treasured back issues at convention after convention well into his nineties, happy to have become as much a beloved character as any he’d co-created.
Although Lee’s creations dominated the big screen and box office over the last decade of his life, reported money issues and allegations of elder abuse against both his daughter J.C. and a former business manager marred Lee’s final years; outside parties wrestled over Lee’s estate following the death of Joan Lee, his wife of over 70 years, in 2017.
In October, Lee conducted his first interview in months to discuss the allegations of elder abuse and reveal that he was under the care of his daughter. “When I wrote all those characters, and I wrote the Hulk — I handled everything. I paid all the bills, I did all the bookkeeping, I handled everything. But then, a little money started coming in, and I realized I needed help. And I needed people I could trust. And I had made some big mistakes,” Lee said. “And my first bunch of people were people that I shouldn’t have trusted.”
DC Comics tweeted following news of Lee’s death, “He changed the way we look at heroes, and modern comics will always bear his indelible mark. His infectious enthusiasm reminded us why we all fell in love with these stories in the first place. Excelsior, Stan.”
Marvel Cinematic Universe producer Kevin Feige tweeted, “No one has had more of an impact on my career and everything we do at Marvel Studios than Stan Lee. Stan leaves an extraordinary legacy that will outlive us all. Our thoughts are with his daughter, his family, and his millions of fans. #ThankYouStan #Excelsior!”
When Rolling Stone asked Lee in 2015 what kept him working, he replied, “Greed. Pure greed. No, I love working on stories, and luckily that’s the one thing that age doesn’t really stop you. You don’t have to be incredibly powerful like the Hulk in order to dream up stories.
Additional reporting by Daniel Kreps