• 24 Nov - 30 Nov, 2018
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Obituary

Can you for once, imagine a world without Spider-Man jumping across the skyscrapers of New York City, Iron Man immortalised by actor Robert Downey Jr, or even Black Panther breaking big screen racial barriers, grossing huge numbers at the box-office? Or Hulk, the X-Men Thor and numerous other characters for that matter.

It is virtually impossible.

If these blockbuster movie franchises, gold-mine series and immortal superheroes can be navigated to one individual, it would be the Stan Lee, who breathed his last at 95, on November 12. It was Lee who revolutionised the comic book world in 60s, leaving an indelible mark on the vast pop culture landscape. It was his efforts which generated franchises worth billions, made the careers highlights of the actors we know today as Toby Maguire, Robert Downey Jr, Hugh Jackman, Chris Hemsworth, enthralled generations in its wake and made many people rich.

From cluttered work premises in Manhattan in the 60’s, the man imagined and dreamt an entire world of pulp-fiction heroes, which have become our imminent definition of pop-culture of the early 21st century.

Born to Romanian-born Jewish immigrant parents, and a father who trained as dress cutter during the Great Depression, much of his childhood was spent in Manhattan. As a child he was influenced by books and movies, particularly those with Errol Flynn playing heroic roles. His youth was dedicated to writing and dreaming of creating a ‘great American novel’, while he took on odd part-time jobs, including filling inkwells, collecting lunch, erasing pencil lines and proofreading finished pages.

For Lee, things began in 1939 when through an uncle’s help he joined the Timely Comics division of pulp magazine and comic-book publisher Martin Goodman's company. It was a time when the popularity of superhero comics had waned after the Second World War – their golden age – and the introduction of the comic’s code in 1954 had outlawed crime and horror comics with any real bite. Lee, then an editor at the publication watched the industry folding up around him but kept it going with a small staff and the tales of the romantic adventuress Millie the Model and Wild West gunslinger Kid Colt. At last, growing excessively tired of churning out dozens of semi-literate scripts each month, he planned on quitting, but his wife Joan opposed and advised him to carry on. She suggested, “Before you do [quit], why you don’t do one book the way you would like to do it? The worst that happens is Martin will fire you, and so what? You want to quit anyway.”

Lee acted on that advice, giving his superheroes a flawed humanity, a change from the ideal archetypes that were typically written for preteens. He gave birth to complex, naturalistic characters who could have bad tempers, fits of melancholy, and vanity; they bickered amongst themselves, worried about paying their bills and impressing girlfriends, got bored or were even sometimes physically ill. He took chance and created the Fantastic Four, a team with powers and problems in equal measure. The super-elastic scientist Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic) and his girlfriend, Sue Storm (Invisible Girl), try to hold the team together, while her brother Johnny (The Human Torch) and Ben Grimm (The Thing) bicker and fight. Lee’s instinct was to humanise the characters. Another innovation was to set the Fantastic Four series in New York rather than a fictional city and have the team visit real places. Briefly, Lee kept his new team out of spandex but was persuaded to have them don superhero costumes by fans of the new series.

Lee’s next character, the Hulk, was inspired by a combination of Jekyll and Hyde and the notion of the misunderstood monster exemplified by Boris Karloff’s depiction of Frankenstein’s creation.

But it was a radioactive spider that was responsible for Lee’s most popular creation. To many, Spider-Man was not about fighting malformed or transmuted enemies such as the Green Goblin or the Lizard but about Peter Parker, a shy, bullied young boy with a crush on a beautiful girl from his school but who lacks the confidence to ask her out.

"The characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to; they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty, and – most important of all – inside their colourful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay," explained Lee in his memoir. What this meant was that even his villains showed the potential to be good and his heroes were capable of mistakes and had deep flaws.

Live-action film success came with the first of the X-Men movies (2000) and the first of the Spider-Man series (2002), and superhero franchises continued with various studios. In 2001, Lee set up POW! Entertainment, working on projects ranging from the adult animated TV show Stripperella, the reality TV series Who Wants to Be a Superhero? The live-action movies did so well that Lee took Marvel to court over unpaid profits – Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 grossed more than £1bn worldwide – and in 2005 was rewarded with a multimillion-dollar decision in his favour. His half-century-year-old creations are still as enduring as ever - with X-Men, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Daredevil, Iron Man and the Avengers all given the Hollywood treatment.

Earlier this year, he dropped another lawsuit against POW!, with which he had cut his ties, for brokering what was described as a “sham deal” for the rights to his name. He was the subject of numerous books and co-wrote, with George Mair, his autobiography, Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee (2002) and a graphic memoir, Amazing Fantastic Incredible (2015).

In later years he lamented his deteriorating eyesight, which meant he could no longer read the comic books where he made his name. He told the Radio Times in 2016 that he "missed reading 100%".

In the words of Stan, over his luck gimmick in comics and later big-screen, he states, "Every time I go to a comic book convention, at least one fan will ask me, 'What is the greatest superpower of all?' I always say that luck is the greatest superpower, because if you have good luck then everything goes your way."

You shall live on, Lee. “Excelsior!” – Compilation