My friend sent me a Facebook message while I was walking to Galen Stone Tower on Monday in the mid-afternoon. I stood frozen in the archway leading up from Pendleton West to the academic quad when I read the message: Stan Lee had passed away at 95. Many people recognize Lee from his iconic Marvel Cinematic Universe cameos, and many more knew him from his illustrious career as editor-in-chief of Marvel comics. I knew him as the creator of some of the most meaningful fictional characters in my life.
Born to two Jewish immigrants from Romania in 1922, Stan Lee (originally Stanley Lieber) spent his childhood in Manhattan with his parents and younger brother, Larry Lieber, who would go on to write comics with him. From a young age, he knew he wanted to be a writer, though his ambitions were more traditional in nature at first. He graduated high school early in 1939, ready to write the next great American novel.
A short time later, he got a job as an artists’ assistant at Timely Comics, the predecessor to the company Lee himself would help create called Marvel Comics. He was hired by Joe Simon, an editor at the company. Although he spent the first year or so of his career getting lunches and cleaning up sketches, he soon got the chance to work on one of Simon’s projects: a new political comic featuring a hero who was meant to make a statement about the United States’ lack of response to the atrocities being committed in Nazi Germany. In May 1941, 19-year-old Stanley Lieber debuted in issue #3 of “Captain America” under the pseudonym Stan Lee. He has said in interviews that he wanted to save his full name for more literary work. What Lee didn’t realize at the time was that his career in comics was about to take off to unprecedented heights.
Only a few short months later, he created his first superhero: The Destroyer, a popular character at the time who has since fallen into obscurity. As editor-in-chief in the 1950s-1960s, he went on to create some of the most well-known characters in comics today: “The Fantastic Four”, “Spider-Man”, “Daredevil”, “Victor von Doom”, “Iron Man”, “Thor” and “Black Panther” were all Lee’s brainchildren. He didn’t stop there. He created a new kind of credits panel that credited more than just the writer and penciller for each issue, and ushered in a more casual interaction style with fans. He created an environment in which comics fans could have meaningful conversations with their favorite writers. He continued the precedent his old editor had set and, along with his staff of writers, produced comics with political storylines highlighting important events such as the Vietnam War. He wrote plotlines about important social justice movements and student activism, making comics that were both fun and timely. His later career as publisher of Marvel Comics only served to further his goal of making comics accessible for everyone. He spoke at conventions, wrote comics for kids and even went on to create a YouTube channel with big names like Mark Hamill. He continued to create a space where people could talk about comics not as writer and fan, but as a group of people who all treasure the same incredible characters and stories.
Though I was a fan of Marvel movies throughout middle and high school, I only recently got into the comics. Still, Lee’s legacy is evident, even in more modern series featuring his classic heroes. Story arcs like the iconic “Demon in a Bottle”, featuring Tony Stark’s first battle with alcoholism, or “Secret Empire”, highlighting Captain America’s struggle to remain faithful to a country that has lost its ideals, showcase superheroes as real, flawed people. They remind us that anyone can be a superhero, even if you weren’t lucky enough to be born an alien from the planet Krypton.
We are going to miss you, Stan Lee. Thank you for 77 years of thoughtful, compelling content. Excelsior!