If you’re reading this, I sincerely believe that your life has been touched by Stan Lee. There are some obvious examples, a large majority of you have probably either read a comic or watched a Marvel movie. If you haven’t done that, you’ve at least watched or read visual media created in the last 50 years and felt his influence regardless. We all know who Stan Lee is, but it’s hard to truly grasp how much he fundamentally changed the face of almost everything we see, so let’s talk about it.
Stanley Martin Lieber was born in 1922, in New York City. His family, Jewish immigrants from Romania, lived in a small apartment in the Bronx while Stanley found odd jobs to keep them all afloat. Stanley was hired by Marvel (at the time known as Timely Comics) when he was only a teenager. He quickly rose through the ranks, to become an editor. Believing comic books to be silly, he wrote under a pseudonym. “I’m not gonna use my real name, which I’m saving for posterity, for these silly comic books” he told the New York Times, “So I cut my first name into two.” And thus, Stanley’s alter ego was born: Stan Lee.
For 20 years, Stan Lee churned out what he considered to be formulaic comic books, growing increasingly disinterested in his job. While they were the comic books he had loved reading growing up, he now began to muse on what these spectacular heroes were doing when they weren’t fighting dastardly super villains.
DC Comics (at that time known as National Comics) were having an incredibly successful run with their Justice League comic books. As a result, Stan Lee was encouraged by his publisher to make his own superhero group. At the end of his rope, Stan Lee was ready to quit. His wife then encouraged him to write a comic the way he wanted it to be written, as the worst that could happen was that he would be fired. “If we have to do a team, that’s fine, but we’re gonna do it differently than anybody else does it,” Stan Lee recounted.
Stan Lee then co-created The Fantastic 4 with artist Jack Kirby. While the four showcased fantastic powers, they also had real human faults that would reflect in both their epic fights and less epic personal drama. Reed Richards had incredible elasticity, but was also an egomaniac. Johnny Storm had control of fire, but was incredibly reckless. Sue Richards could turn invisible at will, but lacked confidence. And most infamously, Ben Grimm had incredible super strength, at the cost of looking like a grotesque rock monster. Grimm would repeatedly interpret his appearance as the loss of his humanity.
These human elements interlaced with classic superhero stories were a massive success. And this success allowed him to cocreate more superheros with artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. “What I tried to do was take these characters, who are obviously bigger than life and fictitious, and make them seem real,” Stan Lee explains “They’ve got these powers, they do wonderful things. But what are the things they worry them? What are the things that frustrate them?”
And it showed as he created some of the most iconic characters of all time. Tony Stark, a genius arms dealer trying to find better ways to help people, while suffering from his alcoholism. Thor, a literal god attempting to learn how to be human. Steve Rogers, the perfect WWII soldier who finds himself in a era he doesn’t understand. Bruce Banner, a scientist trying to escape his horrific self-destructive nature. The X-Men, mutants facing endless persecution and oppression for the way that they’re born. The Silver Surfer, a cosmicbeing traveling the universe and trying to live a life of pacifism. And Peter Parker, whose tragic origins have ensured that he will always put the greater good before himself, no matter the personal toll.
Stan Lee loved and understood people, and it showed in his work. These comics influenced other comics, movies, and most of the media we consume today. Stan Lee showed us that the measure of a hero isn’t how effortlessly they beat up the bad guy, but rather how they persevere despite the odds, how they get up despite being knocked down, and how they always choose to do the right thing. In the words of Spider-Man, “No one can win every battle, but no man should fall without a struggle!”
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