Thanks to his many pop culture cameos over the years, Stan Lee, who died Monday at 95, is nearly as famous as the many superheroes he helped create. Working with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other artists back in the 1960s, Lee breathed life into Iron Man, Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and so many other superheroes that have dominated pop culture ever since. Long after he stopped writing Marvel comics himself, issues featuring Lee’s creations still carried the tagline “Stan Lee Presents,” and his many appearances in Marvel movies cemented his creative legacy. His creations have passed through many hands since the ’60s, but by going back to the source material you can see the specific and unique elements Lee brought to these world-famous characters.
Before Marvel, there was DC. The story goes that Marvel publisher Martin Goodman was playing golf in 1961 with a rival executive from DC, who bragged to him about their best-selling comic Justice League of America. Goodman returned to the Marvel offices (or Timely, as the company was called until 1962) and ordered Lee, at that point one of his only employees in the comic department, to come up with a superhero team of their own. Lee teamed up with artist Jack Kirby, who decades earlier had co-created Captain America for Goodman, and together they created a superhero comic that would change everything.
It was on Fantastic Four that Lee and Kirby developed what came to be known as “the Marvel Method” — a creative process in which Lee would come up with a short plot outline, then Kirby would design and illustrate a comic based on a mixture of that synopsis and his own ideas, and then Lee would return to fill in the dialogue and captions. Though this method would prove quite successful at allowing Lee to write so many comics at once, it also created an ambivalence about which ideas belonged to which creator. This created tension over the years, and after their partnership dissolved Kirby and Lee would later offer up conflicting versions of the creation and development of Fantastic Four. But in its prime, their creative collaboration worked like a charm. Over the first 100 issues of Fantastic Four, Lee and Kirby introduced readers to many now-iconic characters and concepts, from Black Panther to the Inhumans to the world-eating Galactus. While Kirby illustrated terrifying villains, out-of-this-world monsters, and kinetic superhero brawls, Lee provided the essential voices of the characters. Unlike the Justice League, the Fantastic Four was a family, and they acted like it — complete with all the angst, in-fighting, and self-doubt that would come to define Marvel characters and set them apart from their genre peers.
Plus, the 1965 comic Fantastic Four Annual #3 — which focused on the wedding of protagonists Reed Richards and Sue Storm — featured the first of Lee’s fourth-wall breaking cameos. He and Kirby showed up in the pages of the comic trying to attend the wedding, but got kicked out when it turned out they didn’t have invitations.
There’s no ambivalence about who first created the high-flying Sentinel of the Spaceways. When Kirby came back with illustrations for the three-part “Galactus Trilogy” story he and Lee were working on in Fantastic Four, Lee was astonished to see a character that hadn’t been in his original outline: A silver figure riding a surfboard. Eventually, though, Silver Surfer would become the focus of some of Lee’s most personal and introspective work. While Kirby had intended the character to be a cold, Spock-like alien being, Lee really related to the character’s nobility and his angsty rage at being trapped on Earth in the wake of the “Galactus Trilogy” (perhaps analogous to Lee’s own occasional dissatisfaction at being stuck writing comics when he originally wanted to be a novelist). Lee took the character for his own, writing a 17-issue comic and advising other writers not to use him.
One of the few Marvel superheroes Lee did not co-create with Kirby would end up being the company’s most popular character of all. After Kirby tried and failed to come up with an engaging design for a spider-themed superhero, Lee turned instead to Steve Ditko, the other artistic titan of Marvel’s golden age. While Ditko provided the stunning costume-design and acrobatic fight scenes, Lee provided the character’s personality. Whenever Peter Parker puts on that red mask, he shifts from an outcast nerd to a wise-cracking daredevil, a perfect distillation of Lee’s own legendary humor. As journalist Sean Howe wrote in Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, “Lee’s brilliant touch was to have Parker deliver a nonstop parade of corny jokes when he was in the Spider-Man costume: a convincing manifestation of obsessive nervous thinking, yes, but more importantly an effective mood-lightener.”
Over the years, Spider-Man’s origin has been told and retold many, many times. But no adaptation has matched the efficient storytelling of Amazing Fantasy #15, nor has anyone ever come up with a better summation of Spider-Man’s heroism than Lee’s six legendary words from that issue: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
The X-Men were latecomers to the Marvel universe, arriving in the wake of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, and so many others. By that point, Lee was tired of coming up with some new variant of radiation to explain each new character’s superpowers. With the X-Men, he finally came up with a simple solution to the problem: Just call them “mutants.” These characters would be born with their powers, no radioactive bombs or spiders needed. As a result of having natural powers, these characters looked a lot like normal humans, except for one trait that set them apart.
This became a fertile metaphor in the era of civil rights protests. Despite saving the world on a regular basis, the X-Men faced only prejudice and xenophobia from their fellow man. They were fighting mutant-hating maniacs at the same time that white supremacists were bombing the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. From a certain angle, the nonviolent Professor X and the more separatist Magneto could even be construed as metaphors for Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
The X-Men were not the most popular of Lee’s collaborations with Kirby, but over time they would grow to become Marvel superstars. Later creators would diversify the characters and complicate the civil rights metaphor, but from the very beginning, Lee imbued the X-Men with a strong sense of social justice that they retain to this day.
Lee was co-creating his Marvel superheroes in the early ’60s — a time of great upheaval, protest, and conflict. Some characters (such as the X-Men) played directly into the era of civil rights and Vietnam protests, which is one reason they became so popular among college-aged readers at the time. But there was one character Lee deliberately designed as a counterpoint to the prevailing youth culture, and his name was Tony Stark.
“At the time we did Iron Man, I was really feeling cocky. I’m a little ashamed of myself. It was a time in the war, and young people throughout the country hated war, they hated the military-industrial complex, hated everything, and rightfully so,” Lee often said. “So I said, I’m going to come up with a character that represents everything everybody hates, and I’m gonna shove it down their throats. I was younger then, and what do you know when you’re younger? So I decided to come up with a guy who actually manufactures armaments. He’s a multi-millionaire, I fashioned him a little after Howard Hughes, and a little after me also. I wanted him to be very wealthy, and of course like every Marvel hero, he had to have an Achilles heel, so I figured we’d give him a weak heart… The funny thing is, the book did very well.”
Decades later, Tony Stark would finally propel Marvel to dominance on the big screen. It’s safe to say that his wisecracking witticisms, played so convincingly by Robert Downey Jr., owed a great debt to Lee’s sense of humor.