Stan Lee, creative mastermind and co-creator of many of Marvel Comics’ most popular comic book characters and franchises, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man and Fantastic Four, passed away on November 12 at the age of 95. Alongside legendary comic book artists/writers Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee left a massive footprint on America’s pop cultural landscape, taking Marvel, which was at the time just a small division of a comics publishing house and transforming it into a multibillion dollar, global media empire (Marvel Worldwide Inc.). The company went onto have myriad hits, including the X-Men animated TV series, which ran from 1992-97 and laid the groundwork for the live-action film franchise of the same name and the recent blockbuster success of Black Panther on the silver screen, Marvel’s first film with a black director and all-black lead cast (which also had the fifth-biggest opening weekend of all time). Whether you’ve ever read a comic or not, Lee and his creations are everywhere.
The American comics visionary also became known for his short but memorable cameos in movies, TV shows and video games produced by Marvel or based on characters from the Marvel Universe (Lee always got an Executive Producer credit for those cameos). Lee’s first appearance in a Marvel project was as a jury foreman in the 1989 TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk (he’d also previously narrated the ’80s Incredible Hulk animated series). These cameos succeeded in introducing Lee’s trademark tinted glasses, mustache and slightly goofy sense of humor to new generations of fans. Later in his career, after he was named Chairman Emeritus of Marvel, Lee became so active as an ambassador to the greater comic book industry that he became an unofficial figurehead of it, making appearances across the globe at comic book conventions, on panel discussions and even lecturing on college campuses.
The Marvel Universe has become an international phenomenon, helping to support a multibillion industry that benefits media giants such as Sony, Twentieth Century Fox and Disney, which bought Marvel Entertainment in 2009. I asked Skidmore College’s Visiting Professor of Media and Film Studies, Aaron Pedinotti, to weigh in on Lee’s legacy: “On one side, there’s the simple fact that Stan Lee—along with his artist-collaborator Jack Kirby, who should never be omitted from any discussion of Lee’s accomplishments—created a slew of characters that have become iconic outside the realm of comics per se. On the other side, there’s the fact that Lee was a very skilled self-promoter who helped to shape the public image of Marvel and eventually became its most recognizable public figure and official liaison to Hollywood.”
Born in Manhattan in 1922, Lee got his start in the comic book industry at the age of 17 as an office assistant at Timely Comics, which would morph into Marvel Comics by the ’60s. He gradually worked his way up from one of Marvel’s core writers and creators to the company’s Publisher in ’72. During this golden era of Marvel creativity in the ’60s, Lee collaborated closely with Kirby (co-creator of characters from X-Men, The Hulk and Fantastic Four) and Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man) on some of Marvel’s most successful creations. However, Lee had a falling out with both artists over rights and ownership of characters, first with Ditko, who left Marvel in 1966, and then with Kirby, following suit in ’69. “To compare them to another famous duo, it’s not an exaggeration to put Lee and Kirby on par with Lennon and McCartney in terms of their cultural impact and influence on subsequent creators,” says Pedinotti. “[Lee] contributed to a media narrative that portrayed him as the company’s core creative genius. This led to strains and eventual estrangement in his relationship with Kirby and other artists, as well as accusations that he had taken too much personal credit for collaborative work.” And against those allegations, Lee fought back hard.
For years, Lee and Kirby remained locked in a dispute over rights and royalties to certain Marvel characters, and finally, in September 2014, long after Kirby had died, Lee and Kirby’s estate reached a settlement, finally giving Kirby credit for the work he’d done with Lee. “Despite harboring some disappointment in his public conduct over the past several decades, I can’t help but admire him and his many accomplishments,” says Pedinotti. “If there’s one thing I’ve taken from his oeuvre, it’s the import of his famous maxim, first articulated in Amazing Fantasy #15″ (the issue first published in August 1962, and was the first official appearance of Spider-Man): “With great power there must also come great responsibility.” Lee may have left behind a complicated personal legacy, but the comics and characters he helped create will live on as the stuff of legends.