Stan Lee, the comic-book mastermind who helped create some of pop cultures most enduring and popular characters—including Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, and more—has died at the age of 95, TMZ reported Monday. The Marvel founder had suffered from ill health over the past year or so, including pneumonia; according to The Hollywood Reporter, he died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Lee aspired to be a novelist, a playwright, a screenwriter, a filmmaker. He ended up crafting something far bigger, alongside Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko: the Marvel Universe. But Lees grandest and most complex creation was “Stan Lee,” the consummate salesman—someone who knew how to entice readers into buying more stories, a man with an irrepressible and tireless spirit as endearing as the yarns he spun. His outsized ambition and gift for showmanship would help him survive the collapse of an industry and usher in its rebirth; it would lead to wildly successful creative partnerships and the dissolution of those very same friendships. It would change the world.
Like many of the stories he told, Stan Lees began in New York City. Born Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922, to Jack and Celia Lieber, Lee spent his early life in Manhattan. His father, a dress cutter, often struggled to find work; the family eventually settled into the Bronx, where Lee attended DeWitt Clinton High School.
Lees early life was a window into the showman he would become—at least, according to Lee. In a March 1977 issue of the Marvel fan magazine Foom, he explained his origin story: how he made extra money by selling newspaper subscriptions to his classmates, using flattering pitches that taught him the importance of bombast.
“I must have been a little bit crazy,” Lee told Foom writer David Anthony Kraft. Once, he said, he spotted a ladder in the high-ceilinged offices of a school publication called the Magpie. “So I climbed up and wrote Stan Lee Is God on the ceiling, which was one of the earliest evidences of my overpowering inferiority complex.”
Its impossible to know if the young Stanley Lieber actually did pull such a prank, but that unique blend of ego-stroking levied with aw-shucks self-deprecation was a Stan Lee trademark—one he mastered early on.
Lees road toward pop-culture ubiquity was a long one, beginning in 1940, when Celia Lieber sent her son to meet her brother, Robbie Solomon, at his office. As journalist and comics historian Sean Howe recounts in his comprehensive history, Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Solomon was circulation manager of Timely Publications, and found his nephew a job running errands for his employees—namely, the famed writer-artist duo of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Stanley Lieber was only a teenager, but in mere months, Simon would expand the boys clerical busywork to include writing stories about Timely creations like Kirby and Simons Captain America. Lieber did so under the pseudonym he took on in high school, the one he would make famous—Stan Lee.
But first, the United States would enter World War II. Many Timely employees were drafted. As a romantic who idolized the heroes Shakespeare wrote and Errol Flynn played—as well as the occasional scribe of Captain Americas patriotic adventures—Lee enlisted.
Lee joined the Signal Corps in November 1942, stationed in North Carolina and transferred to Indiana. When word got out that he was a writer, Lee was assigned to draft instructional materials and posters—and occasionally, the odd Captain America comic. (Lee told Foom writer David Kraft that he was nearly court-martialed when he broke into the mail room to retrieve correspondence from editors at Timely.)
After Lee returned from armed service in 1945, he became editor of Timely Publications flourishing line of comics featuring patriotic heroes and anthropomorphic animals. In 1947, Lee met Joan Boocock, a British hat model, who was a year into an unhappy relationship. A judge in Reno, Nevada, granted her a divorce—Boocock and Lee were then married on December 5, 1947. Stan and Joan Lee would remain happily married for 69 years, until her death at 93 on July 6, 2017. They are survived by their daughter, Joan Celia.
The work Lee is most famous for would not come until his fortunes—and his industry—came crashing down. Changing trends, corporate downsizing, and a wave of scrutiny thanks to Fredric Werthams alarmist, anti-comics best-seller Seduction of the Innocent nearly toppled Timely, leaving Lee as one of its last employees. But that bad luck also brought Lee back into the orbit of one of his old bosses, Jack Kirby—a prolific, gifted, and proven artist who needed work. According to Howe, the duo would soon receive a request from Timely publisher Martin Goodman: DC Comics, their chief competitor, was having great success with a team of superheroes called The Justice League of America. Could Lee do them one better?
In later accounts, each man would play up his own importance in what happened next. But either way, the comic that bore both their names didnt just one-up the Justice League: it changed superhero comics. Published in the summer of 1961, Fantastic Four No. 1 hit newsstands under Timelys new name—Marvel Comics—and completely upended expectations of what a superhero comic could be.
Lee and Kirby had fashioned contemporary superheroes borne of Cold War paranoia, fear of the atom bomb, and the existential angst that would give rise to the youth counterculture of the 60s. The Fantastic Four introduced scientist Reed Richards, siblings Johnny and Susan Storm, and pilot Ben Grimm in a comic that left readers shell-shocked. It chronicled the teams petty disagreements, radiation-fueled disaster, and macabre transformation. Before Fantastic Four #1, superhero comics were stoic and straight-laced—and Marvels living, breathing world made them look downright wooden in comparison. There was no going back.
After the Fantastic Four came others: the Incredible Hulk, the Mighty Thor, the X-Men. The Marvel Universe began to take shape, largely spinning out of the creative Big Bang that was Lee and Kirbys collaboration. Steve Ditko, a reclusive and wholly unique talent, also began working for Lee, co-creating Spider-Man with Lee and pitching him Doctor Strange. The characters that would, decades later, populate movie screens around the world began to appear in newsstands across America, the product of a creative frenzy that the comics industry had not seen before or since.
As Marvel grew, Stan Lees fortunes rose with it, and his relationships with his collaborators began to slowly deteriorate—especially with Kirby and Ditko, the co-creators of Marvels biggest heroes. Over the years, accounts of who created what and how much work was actually done by Lee have varied, calling Lees legacy into question—a dark cloud that would hang over his career for the rest of his life. What remains consistent, however, is Lees reputation as a salesman, comics fiercest advocate and most affable huckster, forever hawking Marvels wares on college campuses and in interviews. Without Lees tireless boosterism and unwavering persistence, its hard to imagine Marvel wouldve ever grown past its four-color origins.
It was a role he relished, and beginning in the 70s, it became his primary focus—not just advocating for the medium as the most famous man in comics, but trying to get his companys characters onto movie and TV screens. Eventually, Stan and Joan Lee would relocate from Manhattan to Los Angeles. While Marvel Comics went through boom and bust periods, Lees presence remained inseparable from the Marvel brand. While Marvel heroes would appear in numerous cartoons, and several attempts at live-action series and movies were made in the decades that followed, few of Lees overtures to Hollywood resulted in any real success. Its true that Marvel would rule the box office one day—but Lee wouldnt get to broker the deal that made it happen.
Reorganization and acquisition of the company he helped build put new leadership in charge. Lee would eventually sue the company for movie profits he claimed he was owed per his 1998 contract, and in 2005, a settlement was reached, finally ending Stan Lees relationship with the publisher he once christened the “House of Ideas.”
Stan Lees life has been obsessively chronicled by fans, critics, historians, and journalists, which is only fitting; Lees work gave rise to a generation of obsessives. But his exploits after leaving Marvel were considerably less illustrious, even tragic. Following his lawsuit, Lee started a company, Stan Lee Media, during the dot-com bubble, only to be taken advantage of by his business partner, convicted felon and white collar criminal Peter Paul.
Lee severed ties with the company that bore his name, and started a new venture, POW! Entertainment—short for Purveyors of Wonder!—where Lee would pitch high concepts that eventually became TV shows, movies, and mobile games. None would have anything close to the success of his Marvel work, despite his tireless efforts to promote everything that bore his name, well into his nineties. Though he never ceased in his endeavors to create something new, his most famous work in the 21st Century would still be connected to Marvel—Lee would cameo in nearly every film starring a Marvel character.
Late in his life, and perhaps provoked by his failure to replicate past successes, Lee began reflecting publicly about his time in the industry and the work-for-hire arrangements that he and collaborators like Kirby and Ditko worked under, which allow Marvel to reap billions of dollars in perpetuity—thanks to contracts that entitled creators neither to royalties nor to ownership. “I should have been greedier,” read the headline of a 2016 interview he did with The Hollywood Reporter.
In 2005, Jeff McLaughlin, a philosophy professor at Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia and editor of the book Stan Lee: Conversations, asked Lee if there was one question he would ask himself among the thousands he had received in his lifetime—one query he wished someone had thought to ask him.
“I wouldnt,” Lee said, as self-deprecating as ever. “Theres nothing really I want anybody to know about me particularly.”
After his display of humility, he laughed.
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:Behind the Scenes of Vanity Fairs Exclusive Marvel Cover Shoot