Stan Lee, one of the most influential writers and publishers in the comic book industry is dead. He left as big a stamp — maybe bigger — on the even wider pop culture landscape of today.
Think of Spider-Man, the blockbuster movie franchise and Broadway spectacle. Think of Iron Man, another Hollywood gold-mine series personified by its star, Robert Downey Jr. Think of Black Panther, the box-office superhero smash that shattered big screen racial barriers in the process.
And that is to say nothing of the Hulk, the X-Men, Thor and other film and television juggernauts that have stirred the popular imagination and made many people very rich.
If all that entertainment product can be traced to one person, it would be Stan Lee, who died in Los Angeles on Monday at 95. From a cluttered office on Madison Avenue in Manhattan in the 1960s, he helped conjure a line-up of pulp-fiction heroes that has come to define much of popular culture in the early 21st century.
Mr Lee was a central player in the creation of those characters and more, all properties of Marvel Comics. Indeed, he was for many the embodiment of Marvel, if not comic books in general, overseeing the company’s emergence as an international media behemoth. A writer, editor, publisher, Hollywood executive and tireless promoter, he played a critical role in what comics fans call the medium’s silver age.
Many believe that Marvel, under his leadership and infused with his colourful voice, crystallized that era, one of exploding sales, increasingly complex characters and stories, and growing cultural legitimacy for the medium. (Marvel’s chief competitor at the time, National Periodical Publications, now known as DC — the home of Superman and Batman, among other characters — augured this period, with its 1956 update of its superhero the Flash, but did not define it.)
Under Mr Lee, Marvel transformed the comic book world by imbuing its characters with the self-doubts and neuroses of average people, as well an awareness of trends and social causes and, often, a sense of humour.
In humanizing his heroes, giving them character flaws and insecurities that belied their supernatural strengths, Mr Lee tried “to make them real flesh-and-blood characters with personality,” he told The Washington Post in 1992.
Mr Lee was initially paid $8 a week as an office gofer. Eventually he was writing and editing stories, many in the superhero genre.
At Timely he worked with the artist Jack Kirby (1917-94), who, with a writing partner, Joe Simon, had created the hit character Captain America, and who would eventually play a vital role in Mr Lee’s career. When Mr Simon and Mr Kirby, Timely’s hottest stars, were lured away by a rival company, Mr Lee was appointed chief editor.
As a writer, Mr Lee could be startlingly prolific. “Almost everything I’ve ever written I could finish at one sitting,” he once said. “I’m a fast writer. Maybe not the best, but the fastest.”
Mr Lee used several pseudonyms to give the impression that Marvel had a large stable of writers; the name that stuck was simply his first name split in two.
Many found the sanitized comics boring, and — with the new medium of television providing competition — readership, which at one point had reached 600 million sales annually, declined by almost three-quarters within a few years.
With the dimming of superhero comics’ golden age, Mr Lee tired of grinding out generic humour, romance, western and monster stories for what had by then become Atlas Comics. Reaching a career impasse in his 30s, he was encouraged by his wife to write the comics he wanted to, not merely what was considered marketable. And Mr Goodman, his boss, spurred by the popularity of a rebooted Flash at DC, wanted him to revisit superheroes.
Turning to Live Action
Mr Lee moved to Los Angeles in 1980 to develop Marvel properties, but most of his attempts at live-action television and movies were disappointing.
In the late 1990s, Mr Lee was named chairman emeritus at Marvel and began to explore outside projects. In 2001, Mr Lee started POW! Entertainment, but he received almost no income from Marvel movies and TV series until he won a court fight with Marvel Enterprises in 2005, leading to an undisclosed settlement costing Marvel $10 million. In 2009, the Walt Disney Company, which had agreed to pay $4 billion to acquire Marvel, announced that it had paid $2.5 million to increase its stake in POW!
In Mr Lee’s final years, after the death of his wife, the circumstances of his business affairs and contentious financial relationship with his surviving daughter attracted attention in the news media. In 2018, Mr Lee was embroiled in disputes with POW!, and The Daily Beast and The Hollywood Reporter ran accounts of fierce infighting among Mr Lee’s daughter, household staff and business advisers. The Hollywood Reporter claimed “elder abuse.”
In a profile in The New York Times in April, a cheerful Mr Lee said, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” adding that “my daughter has been a great help to me” and that “life is pretty good” — although he admitted in that same interview, “I’ve been very careless with money.”
Marvel movies, however, have proved a cash cow for major studios, if not so much for Mr Lee. With the blockbuster Spider-Man in 2002, Marvel superhero films hit their stride. Such movies together had grossed more than $24 billion worldwide as of April.
Author: Staff Writer