Stan Lee: the likeable hustler who remade the comic

Stan Lee © Getty images
Stan Lee: Spider-Man’s creator

Stan Lee may never have written the Great American Novel he dreamed of, but his superhero creations were beloved by millions and he created a franchise that made billions.

Stan Lee, who died this month aged 95, was “the embodiment of an old-fashioned American archetype”, says The Economist – “the likeable, industrious hustler” whose enthusiasm for his product was contagious.

The co-creator of Marvel Comics superheroes, including Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and the X-Men, Lee “revolutionised his industry”, rescuing the comic superhero from obscurity in the 1960s and later creating a string of Hollywood blockbusters, says The Guardian. His creations “are still inspiring new generations to flock to the cinema”.

Creating nuance

Lee’s superheroes were “beloved by millions” as much for their “grounding in real-life situations” as for their fantastical powers, says the Financial Times. Unlike characters created by Marvel’s rival publisher DC Comics, they tended to be based in real cities – Spider-Man’s alter ego, Peter Parker, lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side – and often had “earthy” concerns. His comics also “reflected the political and social change that swept through the period”.

The Black Panther, which debuted in 1966, “was the first black superhero to get his own comic”. In an Esquire poll a year earlier, Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk were ranked alongside Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as the favourite revolutionary icons of students.

The Marvel franchise made its billions because Lee understood that “nuanced characters” were essential, says The Economist. That was partly because he always viewed himself as a novelist manqué – the urge to write the Great American Novel never left him.

Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922, to Romanian Jewish immigrants, he was raised in the Bronx and got into cartoons almost by accident. After serving, briefly, as a signalman in the army, he held down a series of part-time jobs as a delivery and office boy before landing a job at Timely Comics – the precursor to Marvel. “Stan’s first job was to fill the inkwells, collect lunch, erase pencil lines and proofread,” says The Guardian.

His first work, a story about Captain America, was published in 1941 (the first in which he used the pen-name Stan Lee). But he was frustrated with the dumb content and was poised to quit until his wife Joan persuaded him to write “one story the way you want to do it”. He ripped up a lot of conventions and never looked back.

Making money

There were some business disasters along the way, says Fortune. Stan Lee Media went bankrupt in 2000, partly because of a fraud committed by Lee’s business partner. He later sued two partners in another venture, POW!, for conspiring to use his name in deals with Chinese companies. Indeed, constant disputes with associates made his “late-in-life period” rather “tragic”.

Lee continued working well into his 90s, “but the characters he created in the 1960s were his most enduring and successful”, says the FT.  He “missed out on the fortunes they earned from movie adaptations”, particularly when Walt Disney acquired Marvel in 2009, because he never owned the rights to them. But he didn’t lose out completely.

In 2006, Lee sued Marvel, agreed a sizeable out-of-court settlement, and relations with his former employer were subsequently good – he continued making “wisecracking cameo appearances” in every Marvel movie. He might have missed out on a fortune, but Lee remains as “indelibly linked” with his creations today as in their 1960s heyday, when he signed off every comic with his trademark farewell, “Excelsior!”