Stan Lee, the co-creator of Spider-Man, the Avengers, the X-Men, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four, is dead. He was 95. Kirk Schenck, the attorney for Stan Lee’s daughter, confirmed to Deadline that the comics culture legend passed away Monday morning after being admitted to Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
As a writer and editor for Marvel Comics, Lee became the most famous comic book creator in the history of the medium — he was the only creator in the field whose fame rivaled that of the characters he created. His career began in 1941 when — at age 17 — he got his first published work, a prose story that appeared in the fifth issue of Captain America Comics. It was the 1960s, however, when Lee minted his reputation and tapped into a vein of pop-culture creativity that made history.
“No one has had more of an impact on my career and everything we do at Marvel Studios than Stan Lee,” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said in a Monday statement, one of many industry reactions to Lee’s death. “Stan leaves an extraordinary legacy that will outlive us all. Our thoughts are with his daughter, his family, and the millions of fans who have been forever touched by Stan’s genius, charisma and heart.”
Feige finished his statement with the single word most associated with Lee — “Excelsior!” — an interjection that the Marvel writer and editor used for decades to capture his enthusiasm and sees of grandeur. As a persona, Lee was relentlessly enthusiastic about comics and comic book characters and his huckster charm made him an ambassador for American pop culture across the world. Filmmakers and studios made it a tradition of giving Lee cameo appearances in Marvel film adaptations — he appeared in three dozen of them, starting with X-Men in 2000.
Lee was born Stanley Leiber but opted to “save that name” for serious writing — he assumed as a teenager that comic books were a brief stop and that he would be a novelist and playwright in short order. Instead his career in comics would span seven decades. In lieu of moving upward to a more respectable medium, Lee helped transform the four-color American comic book into a powerhouse of pop culture creation and a major concept factory for Hollywood.
In fact Marvel’s three most recent blockbusters, all released over a mere five months, were adaptations of Lee creations — Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War and Ant-Man and the Wasp — and have grossed more than $3.7 billion, nearly matching the price Disney paid for Marvel in 2009. Since that purchase, Marvel has generated six of the top 20 global-grossing films, topped this summer by Infinity War crossing the $2 billion mark. On television, Marvel heroes are featured in 10 live-action series (spread across ABC, Fox, Netflix, FX, Hulu and Freeform) as well as five more animated franchises.
None of that would have happened if Lee hadn’t listened to his wife, Joan Lee, back in 1961. Marvel Comics was faring badly at the time — the comic book industry appeared to be on its last legs — and Lee was certain he would soon be out of a job. His wife counseled him: Before you leave, do one comic book that you will be proud of. Lee did just that and made history in the process.
It was Fantastic Four No. 1 in 1961, which teamed Lee with Jack Kirby, and its landmark success changed everything for Lee and for Marvel. It signaled the arrival of a new and dynamic brand of superheroes that were far different than the old-guard heroes of industry leader DC Comics (which published Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern). The Fantastic Four bickered with each other — one looked like a monster and none of them had secret identities. They were at times driven by ego, shame, profit, jealousy or pride. Fans loved it.
The Marvel melding of superhero concepts with the melodrama of soap operas continued with Spider-Man, created by Lee and Steve Ditko, whose first appearance came in Amazing Fantasy No. 15, in 1961. Peter Parker who was a bespectacled, scrawny teenager who often lost his battles, fretted about paying his bills, and routinely suffered indignities at the hands of school bullies and disinterested girls. Lee would say often that the character was the closest to his heart and to his own experience growing up in New York as a bookish kid with big dreams and a small life.
Joan Lee died last year also at age 95; the two had been married for 69 years. The comic book legend’s life became a swirl of turmoil after her passing set off a power struggle among friends, advisors, attorneys and managers. In August, a judge ordered Keya Morgan, a memorabilia dealer and one-time advisor, to stay away from Lee for three years amid allegations of elder abuse.
Tom Lallas, attorney for the comics pioneer, said in a Monday statement: “Stan Lee is, and forever will be, an American icon. All superhero fans around the world mourn his passing. There will never be another like him. Since the death of his beloved wife Joan on July 6, 2017, his most fervent desire was to join her. May they hold each other in the blissful, warm embrace of their love for eternity.”
The trying times for the aging comics pioneer were compounded when Ditko died earlier this year, a passing that weighed on Lee. The two were considered the last living links to the “Golden Age” of comics, which began with the June 1938 introduction of Superman, the first superhero, and ended in 1950.
The “Silver Age” of comics was the era, however, when Lee proved his mettle. The introduction of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man signaled the beginning of the Marvel Comics surge that redefined comics and superheroes — and created the intellectual property that have powered some of the biggest movie franchises in history. The heroes and villains that were churned out of Marvel in the 1960s would later lead to franchises for Sony (Spider-Man), Fox (X-Men, Fantastic Four) and Marvel Studios (Avengers, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man), and Lee had a direct hand in most of those creations.
Lee working with artists such as Kirby, Ditko, John Buscema, Wally Wood and Don Heck would fill the skies of the so-called Marvel Universe not just with superheroes but with aliens, gods, vampires, monsters and mutants, a bizarre pantheon that was cosmic in scale but also defined by heartfelt tales of yearning and outsider ethos.
The X-Men (created by Lee and Kirby) had amazing powers but they were reviled and misunderstood as mutants. Bruce Banner was a brilliant scientist but overwhelmed with guilt due to the uncontrollable rages of his alter ego, the Hulk, also created by Lee and Kirby. The same tandem introduced the forlorn Silver Surfer, a gleaming space traveler who sacrificed his freedom to save his home world.
Lee and Kirby became the Lennon and McCartney of the comic book world during the 1960s but by the end of the 1970s Lee was looking to Hollywood for the next act of his long and illustrious career. (The last true Marvel superhero Lee created for the company’s ongoing monthly adventures came in 1979 with She-Hulk, the female cousin of the green Goliath.) Lee moved to the West Coast in 1981 and became a familiar voice on Saturday morning cartoons that featured the likes of Spider-Man and the X-Men.
Marvel made its first leap to the big screen in 1986 with the ill-fated Lucasfilm adaptation of Howard the Duck. As hard as it is to imagine now, the reputation of Marvel in Hollywood up thought the 1990s was as a sad, second-place brand compared to DC Comics, which had mega-success on the big screen with Superman (1978) and Batman (1999). It wasn’t until Fox’s X-Men in 2000 and Sony/Columbia’s Spider-Man in 2002 that Marvel became a screen sensation on par with its publishing-world success story. Lee was right there on screen with his creations, ready for his Hollywood close-up and all the heroic success that followed.
Robert Downey Jr., the star of Iron Man, summed up his view of Lee’s contributions with a Monday Instagram post: “I owe it all to you. Rest in piece Stan.”
Deadline’s Dominic Patten contributed to this report.