Born Stanley Lieber in New York in 1922, Stan Lee originally wanted to become a novelist. He instead entered the comic book scene at age seventeen, as assistant editor for the Timely Comics group. His first script was the 'Captain America' text story 'Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge' (1941), in which he gave the superhero his iconic shield-toss. That same year he created his first characters, the Destroyer (with either Jack Binder or Alex Schomburg; Historians still debate the issue), as well as Jack Frost (co-created with Frank Giacoia and Carmine Infantino) and Father Time, whom Lee thought up in collaboration with Jack Alderman. In 1942 Lee was promoted to editor. He also became one of the major scriptwriters of the company, after Jack Kirby and Joe Simon had left. During this period he mostly wrote stories for the above mentioned series, as well for 'Sub-Mariner', 'Young Allies', 'The Witness' and 'The Human Torch'.
In the 1950s, after Timely renamed itself "Atlas Comics", he penned scripts for superhero comics starring 'The Whizzer' and 'Black Marvel', but also horror, romance, comedy, SF, western and fantasy adventures. Together with Dan DeCarlo Lee took over the comic strip 'My Friend Irma' (1950-1955) from Jack Seidel, which was based on the succesful radio sitcom of the same name. However, this broader scope of genres and quicker production couldn't prevent Atlas from going bankrupt in 1957. At the time their comic books were predominantly assembly line work that didn't allow Lee to show off his own originality. By 1961, when the company renamed itself Marvel, he was on the brink of quitting comics for good. Lee's wife convinced him to try a final story more in line with his personal taste. This comic book, 'The Fantastic Four' (1961), drawn by Jack Kirby, unexpectedly became an over-nite sensation. It not only saved Marvel, but also transformed them into the major competitor of rival company DC.
Lee naturally decided to stay and received more creative freedom. He co-created a great many popular titles, such as 'Spider-Man' (1962, with Steve Ditko), 'Thor' (1962, with Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber), 'The Incredible Hulk' (1962, with Kirby), 'The X-Men' (1963, with Kirby), 'Iron Man' (1963, with Lieber, Kirby and Don Heck), 'The Avengers' (1963, with Kirby), 'Sgt Fury and His Howling Commandos' (1963 with Kirby and Dick Ayers), 'Doctor Strange' (1963, with Ditko), 'Daredevil' (1964, with Kirby and Bill Everett), 'Hawkeye' (1964, with Heck) and his personal favorite 'The Silver Surfer' (1966, with Kirby).
The strength of Lee's scripts was that he endowed his characters with super-human abilities, yet with human failings and emotions the reader could identify with. The Fantastic Four, for instance, often argue with one another. Peter Parker ('Spider-Man') is a geeky teenager who is often bullied and full of recognizable teenage self-doubt, even questioning why he - of all people - should be saving mankind? Characters like the Thing ('The Fantastic Four') and the Hulk are ultra strong, yet have a monstrous appearance that feels more like a curse than a blessing to them. Iron Man is forced to wear armor due to a shrapnel stuck through his heart. Another break with tradition was the absence of sidekicks and one-dimensional villains. Dr. Doom ('The Fantastic Four') and The Green Goblin ('Spider-Man') weren't simply evil for the sake of being evil, but had personal problems which explained their motivations and made readers sometimes pity them. Lee enriched dialogue by having characters speak in slang and use language that fit their respective personalities.
"Stan the Man" also introduced the concept of a "shared universe". Characters from different Marvel franchises all co-exist in the same world, making frequent cameos and crossovers possible. While other superhero comics tried similar ideas Lee and his colleagues took it to another level, where the team-ups felt part of a larger story instead of being mere guest spots. Marvel's series also drew attention by addressing real-life issues, such as racism, social activism, drug abuse and actual death. The Black Panther (co-created with Jack Kirby, 1966), The Falcon, (co-created with Gene Colan, 1969) and Luke Cage (created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr., 1972) were the first African-American super-heroes.
Emotions and doubts in Amazing Spider-Man #97: 'Green Goblin Reborn!' (art: Gil Kane)
One particular 'Spider-Man' story in issue 96-98 (1971) dealt with Peter Parker's best friend coping with his drug addiction. The Comics Code heavily objected against the depiction of this taboo subject in a children's medium. However, after publication the story drew so much praise that the Comics Code lost a lot of their authority. Within a few years they practically ceased out of existence, allowing more creative freedom for U.S. comics publishers. One of the groundbreaking stories that otherwise wouldn't have been published was the 'Spider-Man' episode 'The Night Gwen Stacy Died' (1973), written by Gerry Conway and drawn by Gil Kane, John Romita Sr. and Tony Mortellaro, which shocked audiences by having a major character in the franchise permanently die off.
By moving away from the safe, child friendly worlds of most super hero comics and writing more complex and contemporary tales, Marvel reached a more mature demographic. Colleges, magazines and talk show hosts invited Lee for readings and interviews. Film directors Federico Fellini and Alain Resnais told him in person how much they adored his work. Resnais even wrote a screenplay with Lee called 'The Inmates/ The Monster Maker', but this idea never materialized. Yet Lee did play the narrator in Resnais' film 'L'An 01' (1973): an adaptation of the eponymous comic book by Gébé.
In 1966 Steve Ditko left Marvel. Jack Kirby did the same in 1970. John Romita Sr. then emerged as Lee's main co-artist. In 1972, Lee became publisher and editorial director of Marvel. Two years later he and John Buscema wrote a book titled 'Origins of Marvel Comics'. 1998 saw the foundation of the marketing studio Stan Lee Media, but in 2001 the company filed for bankruptcy due to illegal stock manipulation. Lee himself had nothing to do with this crime and was thus never prosecuted. In the timespan of half a century "Stan the Man" created countless new comics series or one-shot albums. Even in old age he remained open for innovation and experimentation. In 1977 a comic book about the rock band Kiss was published. The book 'Just Imagine Stan Lee' (2001) reinvented several superheroes from rival company DC as a one-shot joke. He even delved into manga, with the publication of Hiroyuki Takei's 'Karakuridóji Ultimo' (2008-2015) and Tamon Ohta's 'Heroman' (2009-2012). In 2010 the Stan Lee Foundation was established to promote literacy, education and art projects.
Various TV and Hollywood adaptations have kept the public interest in Marvel Comics alive. Lee made it a contractual obligation to have a cameo in all of Marvel's film adaptations since 'Spider-Man' (2002). This, along with frequent appearances in talk shows, documentaries, sitcoms, video games and at comic-cons, made him arguably one of the most recognizable comics authors in the world. The comics veteran received the National Medal of Arts in 2008 and three years later his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2007, as an ultimate tribute, Marvel built an action figure modelled after him.
Typical tongue-in-cheek Marvel credit byline from Captain America #101
While the spiritual father of Spider-Man, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four has achieved a legendary status among comics fans Stan Lee was not free from controversy. The amount of credit he deserves for his innovations and creations has sometimes been contested. When preparing stories Lee usually only wrote a brief synopsis. His artists would then think and draw out the stories themselves. Afterwards Lee just filled in the speech balloons and captions. Thanks to his knack for self-promotion and the fact that he outlived many of his contemporaries he nevertheless became far more famous and respected than his former colleagues. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in particular held a lifelong grudge against him. While the debate still rages on to this day, it must be said that Stan Lee gave his artists more credit than previously had been the rule in the business. At the start of each story he cited the writer, illustrator and even the penciller, inker, colorist and letterer. Not only did this tighten the bond between creator and audience: it also made these previously anonymous people more familiar names to the outside world. The comics icon also deserves respect for saving the entire superhero comics industry from fading away in popularity. Without his risk-taking, impressive productivity and streamlining of different talents many of the most hailed artists in the field probably wouldn't exist in the same way.
Stan Lee caricature by Drew Friedman