Stan Lee: the father of the modern comic-book hero

Being the 'dumbest guy in the world' when it comes to finance and business didn't stop the creator of Spiderman from conquering Hollywood.

"I'm the dumbest guy in the world when it comes to finance and business," Stan Lee told an interviewer recently, "the DUMBEST." But that hasn't stopped the man seen as the father of the modern comic-book hero from conquering Hollywood, says The Economist. It's a fairly safe bet that next year, one of the ten bestselling films at the US box office will be based on one of Lee's superheroes.

Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, X Men, Iron Man the list stretches on (see below). In fact, Lee's characters, many dreamed up when he was editor-in-chief of Marvel comics in the early 1960s, have developed such a following among a younger generation that "the cartoon superhero has partly displaced the movie star".

The triumph marks a resurgence for Lee, now a sprightly 86. Despite a memorable TV outing for the Hulk in the 1970s, many of his creations languished in the decades following their initial heyday as comics fell out of fashion. By the mid-1990s, Marvel was bankrupt.

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Their renaissance came as special effects engineers caught up with the cartoonists' visions. "There is now nothing you can imagine that can't be shown," says Lee.

But even without the blockbusters, Lee's place in "the pantheon of great American creators whose art has left an indelible mark" would have been assured, says Entertainment Weekly. He's up there with Walt Disney. In fact, it's hard to convey to anyone who didn't grow up reading comics between 1961 and 1972 just how dramatically Lee shook up the genre.

Before Spider-Man et al, comic-book heroes had largely been cardboard cut-outs. Lee used thought balloons "to craft rich interior monologues full of torment and self-doubt". Italian director Federico Fellini even made a pilgrimage to Marvel's Madison Avenue offices in 1965 and, through a translator, bombarded Lee with questions. "I wanted to write characters I could relate to," says Lee. "And I couldn't exactly relate to Superman."

Like many of his characters, Lee was raised in New York, starting out as Stanley Lieber, the son of a Romanian immigrant couple who worked in the rag trade. The Depression hit the family hard. Lee used fiction as a means of escape.

He dreamed of becoming a novelist and at 16 took a part-time job penning obituaries. He happened upon comics almost by chance, says Investor's Business Daily. Hired as a gofer by Timely (later renamed Marvel) in 1940, he began writing scripts. When a dispute with the proprietor saw the main writer-artist team quit, he was made editor at the age of 18. It was meant to be a temporary arrangement: he stayed for three decades.

Lee has certainly had his ups and downs, becoming embroiled in legal disputes with collaborating cartoonists and once suing Marvel. His 1999 internet venture, Stan Lee Media, went bust "under hair-raising circumstances" when his business partner fled to Brazil, chased by the FBI and SEC, notes Entertainment Weekly. Lee replaced it with POW! (Purveyors of Wonder), which develops scripts for film and TV, and he still writes the Spider-Man comic strip seven days a week. As the current Marvel editor concludes: "Stan set up a world and we still play in it."

Lee's three most profitable comic book creations

1. Spider-Man (created 1962) Nerdy teenager bitten by radioactive spider. Gross box office: $2.5bn.

2. X-Men (created 1963) Mutant adolescents cope with prejudice and fight crime. Gross box office: $1.51bn.

3. The Fantastic Four (created 1961) Cosmic rays give squabbling scientists super-powers. Gross box office: $619m.