UPDATE: Stan Lee's official cause of death has been revealed
The passing of Stan Lee, aged 95, has seen the comic book and film industry shaken to its core. He was a legend, and there will be no one like Stan ever again.
In the early 1960s, Lee came close to quitting comics altogether, dispirited at the lack of success he was experiencing at the company then called Timely Comics. It was the encouragement of his wife Joan that kept him writing, and in 1961 he and Jack Kirby co-created the super-team known as the Fantastic Four. Though nobody knew it at the time, they were making history. Just shy of 60 years later, the strength of the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself - a big-screen box office juggernaut that's made over $15 billion worldwide - stands as testament to the creativity of Marvel's greatest heroes; Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko.
In June this year, Stan Lee was inducted into the famous Science-Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame at the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP). Lee is the only comic book figure whose cultural impact has been recognized in this way, with him honored alongside the likes of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Gene Roddenberry, and Terry Pratchett. With everybody in the entertainment industry - be they Marvel, DC or wider Hollywood - paying tribute to Stan Lee, it's clear the comic book and film industry has lost a legend who can never be replaced.
- This Page: That Made Stan Lee So Great
- Next Page: Why Stan Lee Can't Be Repeated
Stan Lee's Work Can Never Be Matched In Volume Or Influence
Stan Lee was one of the most prolific writers in comic book history. He was utterly, unshakably committed to his craft; when power cuts in New York in 1965 sent other Marvel writers home, he settled down to write by candlelight. It's almost impossible to work out just how many characters Lee created; in part, that's because he pioneered a new approach to writing comics, which became known as the Marvel Method. This involved the writer and the artist working together in such a close partnership that comic book historians have argued over who should get the credit for various characters for literally decades. Wherever you draw the line, though, all that matters is that between 1961 and 1964 Lee created (or co-created) heroes like the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man and the Wasp, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, the X-Men, Daredevil and the Inhumans. In 1965, though, Lee changed his focus slightly. The growth of the Marvel universe slowed, with Lee instead prioritizing building a cohesive shared universe, establishing relationships between the characters so readers would relate to the Marvel brand as a whole rather than to specific individual comics. It's a model that will be familiar to any moviegoer; it's the same one Marvel Studios took decades later, in 2008, when they launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So not only did Lee create all these tremendous Marvel characters, but he also fashioned the idea of the shared universe model.
Lee's countless superheroes endure because he insisted on treating them as characters in their own right. He told the story of men who would be gods, everyday people who were thrust into a world of superheroism, and whose personal struggles reflected so intimately the issues his readers battled with themselves. Lee was as interested in Peter Parker as in Spider-Man, in Tony Stark as in Iron Man; he fashioned characters who his readers could identify with, and who could point the reader onwards in their own moral journeys.
Meanwhile, for all society tended to dismiss the comic book medium, Lee insisted on viewing it as something important. As he explained in an editorial in Avengers #74, "It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul." He didn't ignore Vietnam, campus unrest, the civil rights movement, or the growing women's rights campaigns. Instead, Lee dared to write stories - and design characters - who stood at the cutting edge of social change. That's best illustrated by Black Panther. It's impossible to overstate how revolutionary this hero was when he made his debut in 1966, two years after the passing of the Civil Rights Act, with many States resisting the push for equality. Lee dared to fashion a black superhero who was the equal of the Fantastic Four, and whose African nation possessed advanced technology that even impressed Mr. Fantastic.
Comics Will Never Be As Big (Or A Community) As When Stan Lee Ruled
Stan Lee's comics had a unique degree of both cultural relevance and prominence, signified neatly by the fact so many of his characters have become firmly established superhero franchises. Ironically enough, although society back in the '60s tended to look upon the comic book boom with a degree of condescension and scorn, these were the comics that were absorbed into American culture. Nowadays, comic books are a niche industry, supported by a distribution model that focuses on select retailers rather than wide distribution. The Marvel Comics of 2018 is stood firmly in Lee's shadow, and so many of their new ideas are really "Legacy Heroes" who riff on his classics - characters like Jane Foster's Thor, Miles Morales's Ultimate Spider-Man, Ironheart, or Nadia Pym's Wasp. The comic book industry in 2018 is rightly viewed as significant in terms of literary merit, but it actually doesn't have a half as much cultural influence as Lee's books.
When did Marvel Comics lose its way? There's a lot of wider contextual changes, but it all grew as it became increasingly distanced from Stan Lee. Lee's whimsical style defined Marvel's brand, and he built a community of readers around himself. To be a Marvel comic book reader was to feel a kinship with Stan the Man, to consider him a friend. It meant every Marvel fan felt they had something - no, someone - in common. Meanwhile, Lee welcomed others into the fold. The second and third generations of Marvel writers were fans who had grown up reading Lee's books, and they arrived eager to work with him. There was a sense in which Marvel felt like a family, with Stan Lee as the "man of the house." Inevitably, as the years passed and Lee became significantly less involved in the day-to-day running of Marvel Comics, that sense of community lessened.
The sad truth is that the modern comic book industry simply couldn't create another Stan Lee; a man who single-handedly defines an entire company, who becomes the public face of comic books and draws the community together around him. His influence can never be duplicated.