Stan Lee: the man behind Marvel

We know you know your comics. Most of you can probably reel off the first appearance of Spider-Man like you were listing your address. Comic books have long held an important place in pop culture, and they’re just as much a form of art and expression than a sculpture or a play.

Which is why we’ve decided to bring some attention to the real-life heroes behind the heroes on the page in our new series of posts.

We will take a look at some of the best illustrators, best writers, best creators in the industry, as well as exploring some of the lesser-known boundary-breakers throughout the decades.

Who to start with, we pondered?

And, of course, there was only one man. Stan the man. The man who helped transform the modern age of comic books into a titan of entertainment.

Stan Lee – a life spent creating

Stanley Lieber was born in 1922, in Manhattan. The child of Romanian-born Jewish immigrants, Stanley spent his youth honing what would later become his craft working jobs such as an obituary writer.

Stanley always dreamed of being a writer, with a vision of writing the next ‘Great American Novel.’ Such was his ambition that he actually thought writing comics would hinder his reputation as a ‘serious’ writer, which led to his pen-name Stan Lee.

Stan Lee

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves…

His first job in the industry came 1939, when he was hired as an assistant for Timely Comics, a division of pulp magazine and comic-book publisher Martin Goodman’s company.

Timely would eventually evolve into Marvel Comics by the 1960s, but Stan had to pay his dues.

As an assistant at Timely, he mostly refilled inkwells, fetched lunch and carried out proofing. He moved up in the job, eventually writing some minor lines of copy, under his new moniker Stan Lee.

His first original bit of writing featured in Captain America Comics #3 (cover-dated May 1941), where he pioneered the now-iconic Captain American shield toss.

As he begun to write more and more, he created new characters including the Destroyer (Mystic Comics #6, August 1941), Jack Frost (U.S.A Comics #1, 1941) and Father Time (Captain America Comics #6, August 1941).

His career took a slight hiatus as he joined the US Army during WWII, but even that wasn’t enough to halt our hero.

In Bob Batchelor’s book 2017 biography on Stan, he recounted just how far he would go to deliver his comics – and that included risking prison time.

Spider-man comic books

While in the US Army, which he joined in 1942, Stan would still receive letters from the editors at Timely telling him what they’d need written that week.

Never missing a deadline, he would write the issues and send the story back on time the following week.

However, one week, the mail clerk overlooked his letter, mistakenly telling him nothing was in his mailbox. Thinking this was a mistake, Lee went by the closed mailroom and saw an envelope with the return address of Timely Comics in his mailbox. Refusing to miss a deadline, Lee asked the officer in charge to open the mailroom, but he refused. So, instead, Lee took a screwdriver and broke into the mailbox.

The mailroom officer saw what he did and turned him in. His actions could have led to tampering charges and Stan Lee could have been sent to Leavenworth Prison.

Stan Lee and Joan Boocock Lee

Fortunately, he had a lucky escape – but that shows how dedicated he was to his craft, which only grew in the following years.

After returning from the war, Stan returned to his post and became a regular writer for what was then known as Atlas Comics. However, things became run-of-the-mill and he was contemplating quitting the comic book industry.

Until, in the late 1950s, DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz revived the superhero archetype and experienced a significant success with its updated version of the Flash, and later with super-team the Justice League of America.

As a response to this, publisher Martin Goodman tasked Lee to come up with a new superhero team, and he was allowed to flex his creative muscles, deviating from formulaic tropes and traps.

Lee created a new breed of superhero, filled with flaws, naturalistic and relatable problems and relationships.

How many characters did Stan Lee create?

The first team Stan created alongside artist Jack Kirby were the Fantastic Four. The immense, and immediate popularity, of this new type of superhero team cemented Lee’s legacy and reputation, and allowed him to go on to co-create Marvel’s most popular heroes including The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, The X-Men and Spider-Man.

Stan Lee, Excelsior! What did his famous quote mean?

As Marvel’s success grew, Stan wanted to be more than a creator and writer.

He became a figurehead and a bridge between the fans and the comic book creators.

He used his platform to introduce monthly columns, like Stan’s Soapbox, in which he would address fans of the titles as friends. He would use his column to touch on subjects facing the country (and the world) such as racism and homophobia.

He would always sign these off with ‘Excelsior!’, a Latin phrase that would become synonymous with the man himself.

Indeed, after he passed, the word trended worldwide on Twitter. 

Excelsior is a Latin word meaning ‘ever upward’ or ‘upward and onward.’ Stan Lee started using it way back in 1960 as a sign off for his columns, replacing some other ideas he had in the past.

How many movies did Stan Lee cameo in?

Stan Lee actually stopped writing for Marvel comics in 1972, though he remained pivotal in the development of the company.

Overseeing the evolution, he was instrumental in building the TV and film adaptations of many classic Marvel heroes. For long-time fans, a Stan Lee cameo was a highlight in the Marvel movie franchise.

He appeared in every Marvel film starting with Fox’s X-Men movie in 2000 right up until his final posthumous appearance in Avengers: Endgame in 2019.

In the film, Lee is digitally de-aged as a car driver in 1970, driving past army base Camp Lehigh and shouting, “Hey man, make love, not war!” The scene also features Lee alongside a digital recreation of his wife, Joan Boocock Lee, as she appeared in the year 1970. This was the final MCU film to feature a Stan Lee cameo, who passed away in November 2018.

It is impossible to overstate his importance in the comic book industry as we know it today.

Oh, and one last thing…


Stan Lee in stats:

  • Stan Lee’s first appearance as a writer: Captain America Comics #3, May 1941
  • Stan Lee’s final appearance as a writer: Fantastic Four #125, August 1972
  • Stan Lee’s movie cameos: 32

Who would you like to see us put under the spotlight next? Sound off about your favourite illustrators, writers and more in the comments!

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