Yes, he was an incorrigible egomaniac, and yes, he probably took too much credit for things that he wasn’t entirely responsible for, but for all his bitter ex-colleagues and sneering critics who just know the truth, there is one thing that is undeniable – Stan Lee, who died today aged 95, was the one constant factor in the creation of Marvel comics and superheroes as we know them today.
Lee began work at Timely Comics (which would eventually evolve into Marvel) in 1939, making his comic book writing debut on a Captain America strip. Lee then worked through the various comic book genres – action, western, horror, romance, etc – before he was tasked with coming up with an answer to DC’s Justice League superhero team. Together with Jack Kirby, he created The Fantastic Four, and in doing so, revolutionised the genre. While those early strips seem pretty crude now, at the time they were remarkable, giving new depth to the characters and immediately created a classic collection of heroes and villains. And this was just the start of a remarkable roll, with The Incredible Hulk, Spider-Man, Dr Strange, Thor, Daredevil, the Silver Surfer, the Avengers (with a revived Captain America) and others. Lee’s dialogue was florid and his characters never said one word when ten would do, but his stories were complex, his characters well-rounded and his narrative mix of action and soap opera unlike anything else out there.
Lee wrote furiously until 1972, when he stepped away to become Marvel Comics editor, building a cult of personality through his monthly column and trademark cry of “excelsior!”. He became the face of comic books for many people, and his book Origins of Marvel Comics and assorted follow ups helped build his cult further. As a kid, I poured over the comics and the books, throwing away as much money as I could spare on both the UK Marvel weekly reprints and the US imports. The Spider-Man cartoon series, the Incredible Hulk TV series and other Marvel movies and TV shows – though variable in quality and often only vaguely similar to the comic books – just built the legend even more. Stan Lee was, without question, my childhood idol alongside Christopher Lee.
In later years, Lee’s career saw him move from Marvel to DC, then back, then to assorted start-ups and short-lived publishing and media businesses, while his final days were a mess of law suits, claims of elder abuse levelled against his family and assorted stalled projects, but at the same time, the characters that he’d created went from strength to strength, as Marvel movies became the dominant force as the box office – each having their Stan Lee cameo that increasingly became the only part of the film worth watching. While some in the comic book world seemed to take curious delight in belittling Lee – and he certainly made enemies – for most of us, he would always be the face of Marvel, and the most iconic figure in the history of comics.
Lee’s Marvel era was, arguably, the greatest US comic book era, a period of intense creativity, artistic revolution and commercial success. Without Stan Lee, my childhood would have been a much emptier place.