Stan Lee, force behind Marvel stable of superheroes, dies at 95

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Stan Lee, founder of Marvel Entertainment Inc., poses next to a Spider-Man model in his office in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., in this file photo taken on Dec. 18, 2008.
Stan Lee, founder of Marvel Entertainment Inc., poses next to a Spider-Man model in his office in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., in this file photo taken on Dec. 18, 2008. Credit: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg

Stan Lee, who brought a modern sensibility to comic books and provided lucrative fodder for Hollywood as co-creator of such sympathetically imperfect superheroes as Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, X-Men and Iron Man, has died. He was 95.

Lee died on Monday in Los Angeles, according to the Associated Press.

From his start as a writer for Timely Comics in 1941, Lee rose to editor and publisher of Marvel Comics. He made his mark starting in the early 1960s by conjuring superheroes with troubled lives and temperamental personalities, a leap from the comic-book characters of the past.

"For once I wanted to write stories that wouldn't insult the intelligence of an older reader, stories with interesting characterization, more realistic dialogue and plots that hadn't been recycled a thousand times before," Lee wrote in his 2002 memoir, "Excelsior: The Amazing Life of Stan Lee." He was describing the 1961 creation, with artist Jack Kirby, of the Fantastic Four, the human quartet who gain special powers after being exposed to cosmic radiation.

So pleased was Lee with the quick success of the Fantastic Four that he added to the cover of follow-up issues the slogan, "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine."

He followed up by helping create the Incredible Hulk -- he said he asked Kirby, "Can you draw a good-looking monster, or at least a sympathetic-looking monster?" -- then the Mighty Thor, Iron Man and X-Men in the early 1960s.

'World's Greatest'

In 1962, Lee found an opportunity -- the final edition of a comic called "Amazing Fantasy" -- to introduce a character with spider-like capabilities to stick to walls and ceilings. In true Lee fashion, this superhero, Spider-Man, was a normal angst-ridden teenager during off hours, an orphan named Peter Parker who lived with his aunt and uncle and struggled with such mundane foes as allergies and the first stirrings of romantic feelings.

"Except for his superpower, he'd be the quintessential hard-luck kid," Lee later wrote. He found Kirby's early sketches of Peter Parker to be too handsome and confident, so he turned to another artist, Steve Ditko, who came up with the character's unique look. Introduced in 1962, Spider-Man became its own comic a year later and went on to be Marvel's most successful character.

Lee and Ditko were said to have had a falling-out that led to Ditko's departure from Marvel a few years later. In July 2018, after Ditko's death at age 90, Lee saluted him on Twitter as "certainly one of the most important creators in the comic book business."

Marvel Method

With Kirby, who died in 1994, Lee developed the collaborative writer-artist relationship that became known as the Marvel Method. Lee's other fictional characters -- created with Kirby, Ditko, Bill Everett, Don Heck and Larry Lieber, among others -- included Daredevil, the Avengers, Doctor Strange and Mighty Thor.

While turning his attention to film and television in later years, he remained chairman emeritus of Marvel, which was bought by Walt Disney Co. in 2009 for more than $4 billion. The acquisition added Marvel's 5,000 characters to the family of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Disney also spent $2.5 million for a 10 percent stake in Lee's POW! Entertainment Inc.

"Stan Lee was as extraordinary as the characters he created," Bob Iger, Disney's chief executive officer, said in a statement. "A superhero in his own right to Marvel fans around the world, Stan had the power to inspire, to entertain and to connect. The scale of his imagination was only exceeded by the size of his heart."

In early 2018, Disney released "Black Panther," a movie based on an African tribal chief character created in the mid-1960s by Lee and Kirby who was the first black superhero in a mainstream American comic.

Lee was famous for making cameos in Marvel movies, often dispensing wisdom or providing a bit of comic relief. In "Venom,'' released last month, he played a dog walker in San Francisco. In last summer's "Ant-Man and the Wasp,'' he attempts to get into a car that vanishes: "Well, the '60s were fun, but now I'm paying for it,'' he says.

"If you enjoy what you're doing, you don't feel as though you're working," Lee said in March 2010. "Other men, they're excited they're going to go out and play golf. I'm excited I'm going to come to the office."

Savoring Words

Stanley Martin Lieber was born on Dec. 28, 1922, in New York City, the first of two sons of Romanian-Jewish immigrants, Jack, a dress cutter, and Celia.

A voracious reader, Lee graduated at 17 from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. An uncle helped him land a gofer job at Timely, the comics publishing company owned by Martin Goodman, the husband of Lee's cousin. Timely's most successful titles appeared under the name Marvel.

As the workload increased, Lee was given the chance to write, his first stories appearing in Captain America comics in 1941. Still hoping eventually to become a successful novelist, one not burdened by a paper trail of comic stories, Lee decided to use pseudonyms including S.T. Anley, Stan Martin and Stan Lee. Later in life he changed his name legally to Stan Lee.

After a year at Timely, Lee joined the U.S. Army in 1942. Rather than being sent aboard, he was assigned to a U.S.-based Signal Corps unit to write training film scripts and instructional manuals and draw the occasional poster. He returned in 1945 to Timely, which became Atlas Comics.

Lee's Vision

After writing romances and westerns, Lee was assigned to a new superhero team at Atlas and began pursuing his vision of the imperfect hero, prone to human vanity, frailty and other flaws. It was Lee who came up with the idea of changing Atlas's name to Marvel. He became Marvel's head writer and editor-in-chief and, in 1972, succeeded Goodman as publisher.

In 1980, he became creative head of Marvel Productions in Hollywood and developed films based on Marvel characters. He continued his TV-and-movie efforts after Ronald Perelman bought Marvel in 1988 and had his title downgraded to chairman emeritus after Marvel sought bankruptcy protection in a legal battle that culminated in Carl Icahn becoming chairman in 1997.

Stan Lee Media, which he formed in 1998 to offer animated episodes on the Internet, went bankrupt in 2001. A federal investigation culminated in criminal charges against Lee's partner in the venture, Peter Paul, who pleaded guilty to stock fraud. No allegations were made against Lee.

Movie Focus

Lee then created POW! Entertainment and focused on working as a writer and executive producer for film and television productions of Spider-Man, Iron Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four and other creations.

In August of this year, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered a former business manager to stay away from Lee for three years, and restored oversight of his affairs to his daughter, J.C., and her attorneys, according to the Associated Press.

The huge box-office appeal of Marvel characters -- "Spider-Man 2" (2004), starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, had $800 million in ticket sales worldwide -- led to a round of litigation over which Marvel employees deserved what cut. In a 2002 lawsuit, Lee said Marvel Enterprises had failed to honor a contract that promised him 10 percent of profits from TV and film productions. The parties settled in 2005, with Lee receiving a reported $10 million.

Lee received a National Medal of Arts in 2008 "for his innovations that revolutionized American comic books."

In 1947, Lee married the former Joan Clayton Boocock, who died in July 2017. They raised a daughter, Joan. Another daughter, Jan, died days after her birth.

—Bloomberg News

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