Talking about Stan Lee’s legacy is not all that easy. It’s not as simple as viewing him as the adorable old man who had funny cameos in films based on characters he created. Lee, who died today, was more than that. His story is far more complex.
Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922. He graduated high school in 1939 at the age of 16 and a half and almost immediately started work for his cousin’s husband’s company.
The cousin in law was Martin Goodman and he was publisher of Timely Comics. Lee was hired as a gopher–filling ink wells and picking up lunches for the staff. Eventually, this led to a small text piece in an issue of Captain America Comics. Lieber use the pen name “Stan Lee” for the story, intending to use his real name on the “Great American Novel” he was going to write one day.
He never wrote that novel. Instead, Stan Lee stayed with Timely until it became Atlas and at Atlas until it became Marvel Comics. He rose up the ranks from a fill-in writer to a regular writer to editor-in-chief, a trek that took all of 3 years to complete and culminated in 1941 while Lee was only 19. He would remain editor-in-chief, except for a brief period when he was called into service during World War II, for the next 31 years, giving up the job in 1972. Although, his tenure with the company almost ended 10 years prior.
The story, as Lee told it, goes as follows. As the 1950s came to an end, Lee was burned out and contemplating leaving the comic book industry for good. Martin Goodman, hearing about how good DC Comics was doing with its Justice League of America series, came to Lee to do a new superhero team book for Marvel. Lee’s wife Joan encouraged him to do book on his own terms, one that he wanted to see, since he was going to quit comics anyway.
That comic book was Fantastic Four #1 and it changed the landscape of comic books as the world knew it. DC Comics was the top publisher, but their comics were staid. Plot would involve Batman fighting space aliens or Superman having his head replaced with a lion’s head. Marvel’s comics were more down to Earth. Their characters had women problems. They had to worry about paying their rent. They constantly bickered with one another. These were qualities seldom seen in comic books up to that point.
The result is that Marvel Comics became a sensation. More and more people were drawn to reading their books. The comics were popular on college campuses, not just with kids. This brought a whole lot of attention from the media. Esquire, the New York Times and Rolling Stone all wanted to find out about these comics. And since Stan was listed in the credits as writer and editor, the press came to him. Never one to shy away from the spotlight, especially when it would help sell books, Lee dived in feet first into the publicity, becoming Marvel’s biggest and most bombastic ambassador.
However, the press got it wrong. Lee was a writer, but he worked in what would become known as the “Marvel Style.” He wouldn’t give full scripts to his artists. Instead, he’d give a basic plot–sometimes a page full of paragraphs, other times a sentence offered during a phone call, depending on how much he trusted the artist–and the artist would then construct a story based on what Stan gave them. Lee wasn’t totally removed from the process, but more often than not, the artists had to do the narrative heavy lifting.
So when Lee took the lion’s share of the credit without doing the lion’s share of the work, bad feelings developed. Especially with Jack Kirby, who was Lee’s most prolific and popular partner. The pair created the Fantastic Four, the Inhumans, Black Panther, Galactus, Silver Surfer, Thor, Hulk and The Avengers. Even though he did get co-plotting credit on some titles, his not getting full credit for the work he did for Marvel was one of the main reasons
Bad feelings also developed between Lee his other great collaborator, Steve Ditko, with whom he created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. Ditko fought for the type of partnership and credit Kirby had with Lee. Lee appeared to have less faith in Ditko than he had in Kirby, and applied a more hands-on approach to their partnership. This rankled Ditko, who had his own ideas about what Spider-Man and Doctor Strange was and how the should be portrayed, ideas that greatly differed from Stan’s. The clashes between the two were legendary. By the end of their working relationship, they only spoke to each other through surrogates.
By 1970, both Kirby and Ditko had enough of Lee and Marvel and parted ways with the man and the company. While both men would work for Marvel again–after Lee stepped back from an active role with the company, of course–each would publicly speak out about Lee’s creative input–or lack thereof–on the characters he help co-create. This created the image in the minds of a lot of fans of the artists that Lee was a smooth-talking charlatan who maliciously became rich and famous by denying the credit to Ditko and Kirby they so richly deserved. Even now, message boards are filled with vitriolic posts from people who seem to hate Stan and everything he stood for.
The exact level of Stan Lee’s contributions have been lost in a morass of bad memories, bad feelings and misunderstanding. But his impact on the world of comic books would be legendary no matter if he wrote every book he said he did or he was as big of a hack his critics accuse him of being. His instincts in making Marvel different worked. Through his monthly “Stan’s Soapbox” column or in his many public appearances, he made Marvel seem like the hippest, swingingest party on the block. He presented his creators as crazy people his readers wanted to hang out with, even though the creators were generations removed from Marvel’s audience. His talents as a salesman were often referred to dismissively, but without them, Marvel wouldn’t have seemed as inclusive or as fun as he made it out to be. Without his cheerleading, we might not have a comic industry today, let alone films adapted from them to dominate the box office.
Lee also led the way socially. By now even non-comics readers are tired of hearing how Lee and Kirby’s X-Men provided a veiled commentary on prejudice. But it was under Lee’s reign that the first black superheroes arrived in mainstream books in the form of Black Panther and Falcon. He would also use his most popular book, The Amazing Spider-Man, to work with the U.S. Government to promote drug awareness. The storyline, which ran from issue #96 to issue#98, put Lee and Marvel at odds with the Comics Code Authority, who refused to give their seal to put on the books. Lee published them without it.
Lee stepped back from active writing around the same time he stepped down as editor-in-chief in 1972. He first was promoted to President for a brief time, but his distaste for the business side of the job made him return to the title of publisher. Lee was thought of as being essentially figurehead during this period, but while he wasn’t involved with every aspect of the day-to-day operations of the comics, he would be responsible for a publishing decision from time to time. An example of this was his initially refusing, then ultimately accepting a licensing tie-in with the film Star Wars.
In 1981, Lee moved to California to try and interest Hollywood in adapting Marvel Comic characters to television and the movies. It is unknown exactly role Lee played–Marvel had agents in Hollywood at the time already in the process of shopping Marvel characters around–but the results of whatever he did weren’t good. It was a case of diminishing returns. Howard the Duck started off good, with George Lucas set to produce, but it was a critical and commercial failure. But at least it got released in the U.S., unlike 1989’s The Punisher, which Lee is credited as “Executive Consultant.” It only was released overseas and was only shown at festivals here. 1990’s Captain America didn’t even get that, it only was released overseas but Lee was bumped up to the title of “Executive Producer”. And the problems with 1994’s Fantastic Four cause it to never be released at all.
During this time period, Lee only co-created two characters of note for Marvel. First, in 1980, he created She-Hulk, a distaff version of the Hulk created essentially for copyright purposes, with artist John Buscema. The character became a vital part of Marvel continuity with several series to her name. His next creation? Not so much. In 1992, he and artist Paul Ryan created Ravage 2099, an eco-friendly Mad Max type created as part of an initiative by Marvel to show readers what their universe would look like in 2099. The character only made two appearances since that initiative ended.
Outside of comics, Lee would create Stan Lee Media in 1998 with Peter Paul with the idea to create exclusive animated web content feature the Backstreet Boys and original ideas by Lee. The company would go bankrupt in 2000, and Paul would be arrested for stock manipulation. Lee cut ties with the company, but future owners of the company would sue him and Marvel, saying he signed the rights to his Marvel creations to Stan Lee Media, and they now owned the copyrights to Spider-Man, Hulk and the rest. The matter was repeatedly litigated, with judgements against Stan Lee Media coming every time.
Lee would co-create another production company in 2001. Named POW! (Purveyors of Wonder) Entertainment, it became more successful than his previous effort. Notable productions of POW! include the Pamela Anderson adult cartoon Stripperella for Spike TV, and reality shows Who Wants To Be A Superhero? on SciFi and Stan Lee’s Superhumans on History.
In 2000, X-Men premiered and helped usher in the era the comic book film. In this new era, Stan Lee became known to a new generation as the funny old man who has cameos in all the Marvel films. He would appear in cameos in almost every Marvel-based film over the next two decades, whether they be produced by Marvel Studios, Fox or Sony. His cameos at the ranged from dialog-less extra work to humorous bits with witty one-liners, playing everything from hot dog salesmen to strip club DJ’s.
It was also during this period that Lee toured the comic con circuit, selling his autograph and a photo op for a hundred dollars or more a pop. He continued these tours well into his 90s, with the occasional cancellation when health issues arose.
In the process of these two developments, and through Lee’s outliving Kirby and being more extroverted than Ditko, Lee became the predominant creator of the Marvel Universe for a whole new generation. It became the responsibility of comic book scholars, and often times Lee himself, to remind fans he didn’t do everything by his lonesome.
But there was another late-in-life event that would serve to reshape his legacy once again. On January 9, 2018, at the height of the #metoo anti-sexual harassment movement, The Daily Mail reported allegations from a nursing company was forced to cut ties with Lee because Lee had sexually harassed every nurse in their employ. They claimed he asked for oral sex in the shower, walked around naked and wanted to be ‘pleasured’ in the bedroom.
Two days later, the news outlet doubled down with more allegations against Lee, this time he was rumored to have masturbated in front of a female masseuse at a Chicago hotel after groping the woman and demanding sex in April of 2017 while in town to attend the C2E2 pop culture convention. The day before, an unnamed male comic book creator stated on Facebook that Lee groped and attempted to tongue kiss his wife at a meet & greet at a convention in 2017.
Lee’s defenders made all sorts of excuses for him, raging from pointing out the bad reputation the Daily Mail has to the probability Lee could commit the acts he was accused of in his advanced age to Lee just being from an older generation where getting handsy was more the norm. But in an era where sexual harassment is being exposed into the court of public opinion, the more allegations you have against you, the guiltier you look. And Lee’s reputation suffered for it.
On July 6, 2017, Lee’s wife of 69 years, Joan Lee died at home a week after suffering a stroke at the age of 93. By this point, Lee’s cancellations of his signing appearances became more and more common. And the conventions he did go to became sad displays for fans of Lee, like the 2018 Silicon Valley Comic Con, where fans expressed concern about Lee’s health and well being as they witnessed a weary and haggard Stan Lee having to be told how to spell his name, nod off in-between photos or autographs, and have to ask his representatives if he could take a break like he was a small child.
Joan’s death also marked a more sinister change in Lee’s life–a Machiavellian struggle for control over Lee’s fortune and name, played out by close associates and his own daughter who traded allegiances and defamations in order to reap the benefits when Lee finally died and to milk as much money from him until that time. All parties involved state that they were working in Stan’s best interests but all were accused of stealing everything from memorabilia for their Stan Lee museum to his blood for the ink for his signature on a high end collectables from him.
Like Groucho Marx and Mickey Rooney before him, Stan Lee became a supporting character in the third act of his life, a story that quickly turned into a horror show. Lee’s trusting, eager-to-please nature let a bunch of foxes into his hen house. And when he became to weak to do anything about it, the foxes took advantage of him in one form or another in what should have been his restful final days. Thankfully, resolution came mere months ago, giving Stan the Man at least a few weeks of peace and quiet before his passing. But the couple of months was much less than Stan Lee deserved.
So, Stan Lee’s legacy will be formed by the perceptions of how people viewed him, colored by they type and amount of contact they had with him. I cannot speak for any one else, but, for me, Stan Lee was the architect and champion of a media that I loved. He had a part in creating characters that will still be vital for centuries to come. He helped comic books become recognized as an art form and ensured its survival so a 12-year old kid in Northeastern Pennsylvania could find relief from being incessantly bullied in their pages. Stan was an icon. Stan was a brilliant promoter. Stan was “The Man” and now he’s gone. And the world of entertainment is far worse for it.