As we mourn the loss and celebrate the life of the beloved author Stan Lee, let’s take a look back on his life and legacy.
Ever the humble man, Stan Lee said in a 2014 interview with The Chicago Tribune, “I used to think what I did was not very important. People are building bridges and engaging in medical research and here I was doing stories about fictional people who do extraordinary, crazy things and wear costumes. But I suppose I have come to realize that entertainment is not easily dismissed.” In fact, during the economic downturn in 2008 the entertainment industry was one of the few that did not experience severe recession.
Lee’s influence on entertainment and culture cannot be overstated. You know him as the creator of revolutionary comics such as Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Mighty Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Black Panther, Daredevil, and Ant-Man. While he was certainly a titan of the entertainment industry, he was also a constant advocate for the arts. He always stayed humble no matter the circumstances in his life. From his impoverished upbringing to the exceeding heights he reached, his attitude was constant.
He was born Stanley Martin Lieber to Romanian-born Jewish immigrants in 1922. Originally in Manhattan, Stanley and his family moved around New York often during his upbringing. He experienced the Depression firsthand as a child as his parents struggled to maintain what little they had. While young Stan shared a room with his brother Larry, his parents slept on a pull out couch. Despite the multitude of challenges early in his life, Stan enjoyed writing. One of his dreams was to author the “Great American Novel” as an adult. As was his way, he graduated high school early at 16½ years old and found himself in the workforce straight away.
Overcoming adversity was a constant battle that Lee had to endure very early on. This seems to have instilled a unique drive within him that would present itself frequently in his life. After an assortment of odd jobs in his youth, Lee caught his first chance in the entertainment industry.
In 1939, a 16 year old Stanley got his first break as an assistant at the Timely Comics division of a pulp magazine. Early tasks included getting lunch for artists, proofreading, and erasing pencil from finished pages. It was here where Stan Lee (a pseudonym at the time) first met Jack Kirby, a frequent collaborator later in his career. Once Kirby and editor Joe Simon left Timely, Lee was named interim editor. He was 19 years old. He impressed enough to maintain his position as editor-in-chief until WWII.
Once the U.S. became involved in WWII, many young men signed up to serve. Lee did so in 1942, initially tasked with repairing telegraph poles and other communications equipment. He was eventually transferred to the Training Film Division. That is where he was given the classification “Playwright”, a title only nine men in the US Army ever bore. He left the service in 1945 and went back to his role as editor-in-chief.
By the mid 1950’s, Lee’s employer was now known as Atlas Comics. He wrote in multiple different genres at this time. This included romance, horror, western, science fiction, and medieval adventures. However, by the end of the decade Lee had become dissatisfied with his career and was considering quitting the field entirely.
As he was planning to change careers, Lee had nothing to lose. He was tasked with creating a new superhero team to rival the newly-minted Justice League. At his wife’s suggestion, Lee experimented with a new kind of superhero. He began giving his characters a flawed humanity. This was a contrast to the typical superhero archetype that normally consisted of perfection. As a result, Lee’s characters were easier to relate to. The were complex, naturalistic characters that had more of a realistic flavor. These new superheroes worried about everyday problems like paying bills or impressing their girlfriend.
Stan Lee’s first madly successful superhero team was the Fantastic Four. This was followed by Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, X-Men, and, his most famous, Spider-Man. His success is well known in popular culture. However, his generosity and philanthropy is often overlooked.
From his early love for writing to his impressive achievements in the entertainment industry, Stan Lee has always had a heart for the arts. In 2010, the Stan Lee Foundation was founded with a focus on literacy and the arts. The foundation’s mission statements include:
Provide people access (all ages) to literacy resources helping them to participate and communicate in an engaged, and interdisciplinary, learner-centered environment for self-improvement and self-sufficiency.
Promote diversity, national literacy, culture and the arts.
Embrace innovation, integrity and scholarly and artistic engagement to build a community of learners, collaborators and creators.
Beyond his Foundation, Stan Lee was a frequent guest at conventions and was always willing to speak with his fans. A man of his stature did not have to be as accessible as he was. His fictional stories inspired countless people but his life and attitude are as equally impressive.
Like his characters, Stan Lee was vulnerable and had self-doubt just like the rest of us. However, he persevered and ascended to the top of the entertainment industry. The road was not without challenges but he overcame those to create some of the most memorable characters of our time. He is an inspiration to us all and someone to look up to. Stan, you will be missed. Excelsior!