Last week the world of literature lost one of its modern legends. Not a novelist or a poet, but the creator of some of the best and most loved comic book superheroes of all time.
Born Stanley Martin Lieber, on 22nd December 1922, in Manhattan, New York, Stan Lee was the eldest son of Romanian immigrants. He grew up in Washington Heights and the Bronx. His love of writing at high school saw him write for the school magazine, the Magpie, and when he left school, Lee joined the Federal Theatre Project, before applying for a job at Timely Comics, as an assistant in the editorial office.
The Guardian newspaper records that, “Stan’s first job was to fill inkwells, collect lunch, erase pencil lines and proofread finished pages. His first story was as a text filler for Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge, in Captain America #3 (May 1941).” This was the first time he’d used the pen name Stan Lee.
Lee trained with the Signal Corps in the US Army for three years. His experiences during this time would lead to the creation of his very first superhero, Destroyer. In reality the character is Keen Marlow, a journalist caught behind enemy lines, but while a prisoner, Marlow is the subject of experimentation, and given a serum that turns him into the hero of the title.
Whilst still in the army, Lee became involved with Atlas Comics, working as their editor-in-chief from 1941. Despite the decline in popularity of comics after the Second World War, Lee, encouraged by his wife, kept going, and created a new monthly comic, which combined many of his creations and would be the first of his most famous series, The Justice League of America (JLA). With this change in approach, the company changed its name from Atlas to Marvel comics, where Lee remained as editor and later publisher until 1996.
Stan Lee’s superhero creations were legion. Amongst others, he created The Fantastic Four in 1961 as well as the Avengers (Hulk, Iron Man, Thor), Daredevil and Doctor Strange
Speaking to the BBC, Sir Patrick Stewart, who played Professor X in the X-Men films, said of Lee, “He loved to visit the set and he became famous, like Hitchcock, for appearing in his movies. He created flawed heroes and it was one of the things that made X-Men so interesting for all of us who worked on them. We were always very much aware that no matter what our superpowers were, we were human beings, we could make mistakes and things could go wrong. It was that quality which gave humanity to all of Stan’s work.”
Influenced by the world around him and works of classic literature, Lee’s Incredible Hulk was inspired by Jekyll and Hyde, whilst the Cold War world’s fears on the effects of nuclear power and radioactive material inspired his most popular creation, Spiderman; a boy given superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider.
The modern world will perhaps remember Stan Lee best for the big screen adaptations of his creations. The Marvel film series goes from strength to strength with each new film and many viewers have enjoyed spotting Stan’s cameo appearances in them. His success also brought him more critically tangible appreciation, though. In 1994 he was inducted into the comic book industry’s premier Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame, and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame a year later. He received the NEA’s National Medal of Arts in 2008. Ten years later, his death, not long before his 96th birthday, leaves a void in the world of entertainment and comics in particular that will be hard, if not impossible, to fill.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.