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Stan Lee: the Midwife of the Marvel Universe

The brilliant and controversial writer-editor who guided the Marvel Universe into existence is dead.

VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty

“Stan Lee” was a fiction, a mask that eventually became a face. It was a pen name designed by a teenage boy, not to gain fame but to hide work he thought would embarrass him.

The man who would become the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics was born Stanley Lieber, the child of Romanian Jewish immigrants, in New York City. A verbally adept child and lightning fast writer, he attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, already famous as a nursery for writers and artists (James Baldwin and Neil Simon would also one day elevate the alumni list).

He dreamed of writing the Great American Novel and took the name Stan Lee when he started writing comic books because he wanted to keep the Stanley Lieber name for the serious work he would one day produce. Stanley Lieber would never write those novels but instead, under the guise of Stan Lee, achieve as much of a global impact as he could have wanted.

After graduation in 1939, he went to work for Timely Comics, owned by Martin Goodman, the husband of one of his cousins. Aided by family connections, he quickly rose in ranks, becoming the editor of the entire Timely Comics line in 1941, when he was only 19. His rise was accelerated by the fact that Timely had lost its two most popular creators: Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, the team that birthed the best-selling Captain America series, had left after a financial dispute with Goodman. Timely Comics would re-invent itself every decade or so, first as Atlas Comics in the 1950s and then as Marvel Comics in 1961, but Lee remained at the editorial helm until 1972, interrupted only by his wartime service.

When Lee joined it, the comics industry was the disreputable bottom rung of pulp publishing, with many companies run as fly-by-night operations and mobster-run money laundering schemes. It was notorious for low wage rates and general exploitation of artists. It was a boom and bust industry, with huge sales after the creation of characters like Superman or Captain America followed by quick busts, sometimes spurred on by censorship (there was a Senate investigation of horror comics in 1954) and poor distribution.

Even within that dismal industry, Timely was held in low repute, best known for doing knock-offs of popular genres. When Archie comics took off, Timely hit the stands with a spate of teen comedies, and then repeated the trick with the rise of westerns, romance comics, and horror comics.

Lee remained at the top of Timely—hardly an enviable position. He’d frequently have to let staffers go. “It’s like a ship sinking, and we’re the rats,” he told an artist in the 1950s. “And we’ve got to get off.”

Lee fell back on his core gifts: an eye for talent, a gift for gab, and an endless supply of energy. He was a prolific writer but not a particularly distinguished one (his cornball dialogue paled in comparison the urbane snappiness of Carl Barks’s Uncle Scrooge or John Stanley’s Little Lulu). But more than any other editor in comics, Lee was sensitive to dynamic art, and he was able in 1956 to recruit the two most visionary artists to ever work in superhero comics, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

In the late 1950s, Ditko and Kirby were already helping to energize Lee’s line with popular monster comics, done in the spirit of Godzilla movies. But the real revolution would come in 1961 when Lee and Kirby launched The Fantastic Four, the cornerstone of Marvel Comics, featuring a blended family that took on the mantle of superheroes even though they bickered amongst themselves. One of the cast members, the Thing, looked like an escapee from a monster comics. The blurring of the lines between good and evil would be a recurring theme of the series. In characterization and soap opera plots, the Fantastic Four, which quickly evolved to a sprawling cosmic roman-fleuve, owed much to the romance comics Kirby pioneered in the 1940s.

The title set the pace for Marvel Comics (as the line was now called). The formula for Marvel Comics evolved helter-skelter as Lee and Kirby poured out many monthly titles: flawed heroes, stories that mixed folklore with space opera, open-ended plots, and allegorical allusions to contemporary politics (frequently touching on the evil of discrimination). Lee and Kirby brought this formula to a host of characters: Thor, the Hulk, the X-Men, the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther, many more. Less prolific, Ditko collaborated with Lee on the gritty Spider-Man and the psychedelic Doctor Strange.

Because Lee encouraged Kirby and Ditko to cross-pollinate their narratives, Marvel Comics started to gain the cohesion of a shared universe, an innovation in popular culture that would later be replicated when Hollywood producers shaped the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

As Lee was the public face of the company, while Kirby and Ditko were freelancers, early press accounts, encouraged by Lee’s credit-hogging tendencies, tended to portray him as the mastermind behind the Marvel Universe. “I’ll take any credit that isn’t nailed down,” Lee once joked.

Lee as creator of the Marvel Universe was a myth. Kirby and Ditko were the main creators of the characters and they plotted out most of the stories they worked on. Lee added the dialogue in after the fact. And the dialogue was always the weakest part of any comic he worked on.

Lee’s true genius was not as a writer or creator but as an editor, who brought the best talent to Marvel and pushed writers in the right direction, helping them flourish. Lee’s jokey hyperbolic carnival barker prose, alliterative and infectious, also helped give the Marvel line a comfortable cohesion that made them fan favorites.

But the success of Marvel Comics left Lee dissatisfied. Ditko left Marvel in 1966, Kirby in 1970, both men complaining bitterly that Lee took credit for their work. During the last years of their lives Kirby (who died in 1994) and Ditko (who died earlier this year) rarely spoke of Lee without rancor. Soon thereafter Lee himself stopped writing comics full-time and moved to the California, to try to sell Marvel characters to Hollywood. Initially it was hard going, but once special effects caught up with the visual imagination of Kirby and Ditko, the Marvel Universe, for better or worse, became a fixture of global cinema.

Comics made Lee world-famous, but part of him was always uneasy with that achievement. “I can’t understand people who read comics!” he told the film director Alain Resnais at a cocktail party in 1969. “I wouldn’t read them if I had the time and wasn’t in the business.”

In a 1971 panel discussion, Lee offered even harsher words. “I would say that the comic-book market is the worst market that there is on the face of the earth for creative talent, and the reasons are numberless and legion,” he complained. “Because even if you succeed, even if you reach what might be considered the pinnacle of success in comics, you will be less successful, less secure and less effective than if you are just an average practitioner of your art in television, radio, movies or what have you. It is a business in which the creator, as was mentioned before, owns nothing of his creation. The publisher owns it.”

Stanley Lieber transformed himself into Stan Lee, but there was always part of him that regretted the change.

Stan Lee, the midwife of the Marvel Universe, died on November 12, 2018, at age 95.