New York City in the early 1920s was booming. The end of World War I had ushered in advancements in music, culture, alcohol fueled parties, and commerce. With almost six million residents, and thousands of immigrants flocking to the city to get their piece of the pie, New York City would rightly have been considered the capital of the Roaring Twenties.
But it wasn’t fun for everyone, especially not for one boy, who was born to a poor Jewish family on December 28, 1922. His father was a Romanian immigrant, who cut dresses for a living and only worked sporadically after the Great Depression. His family moved to Washington Heights, where the boy spent much of his childhood with his younger brother.
The boy attended high school in the Bronx, where he developed a passion for writing and dreamt of producing the “Great American Novel” one day. He dropped out at the age of sixteen to make money to help his struggling family. He took on a variety of odd jobs, including writing obituaries, delivering sandwiches, working as an office boy, and selling newspapers.
The boy’s name was Stanley Martin Lieber.
With the help of an uncle, Lieber would become an office assistant at Timely Comics in 1939, where he first met Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, legendary comic creators.
Lieber explained that he “did a little of everything. I went down and got people their lunches and I filled the inkwells and I did some proofreading and I did some copywriting.”
As Simon described it: “Mostly we had Stan erasing the pencils off the inked artwork and going out for coffee. He followed us around, we took him to lunch, and he tried to be friends with us. When he didn’t have anything to do, he would sit in a corner of the art department and play his little flute or piccolo, whatever it was, driving Kirby nuts. Jack would yell at him to shut up.”
After two years on the job, Simon gave Lieber the opportunity to write a story for Captain America Comics. He wrote a two-page “text story,” a fixture in virtually all comic books in those days, and decided to use the pen name Stan Lee.
A legend was born.
Here’s how he tells it: "I realized that people had no respect for comic books at all. Most parents didn't want their children to read comics. And I was a little embarrassed to be doing the work I did, and I figured someday I'll write the Great American Novel and I don't want to ruin my possibilities by having my name disliked this way. And I became Stan Lee."
For two decades he worked at Timely Comics, which eventually became Marvel Comics, taking time out to serve in World War II. As he entered his late thirties, Lee had become dissatisfied and was ready to switch careers, when he was asked by his publisher to create a superhero that could compete with DC Comics’ new Justice League of America.
His wife, Joan, said to him at the time, “If you’re planning to leave anyway, why don’t you just turn out a couple of books the way you think they should be done, and get it out of your system before you actually quit?”
And, so he did.
Lee’s main innovation was to create heroes that were relatable and flawed. Heroes that lived ordinary lives, with ordinary problems, but that possessed a superpower that enabled them to fight crime. It all started with Spider-Man, which debuted in 1962 and was the fastest-selling book of the decade. He launched the Amazing Spider-Man series a year later.
Lee also co-created the Fantastic Four with Jack Kirby in 1961. He oversaw the creation of The Avengers, The X-Men, The Incredible Hulk, and dozens of other Marvel titles between 1961 and 1972.
By 1965, Marvel was selling an estimated 35 million comics a year, or one comic for every five people in the United States. “He saved the comic-book industry,” says Michael Uslan, producer of the Batman films, comics writer, and historian. “He allowed comic books to grow up and find an older audience. And as we grow up, instead of leaving comic books, we stay with them for the rest of our lives. That’s an incredible thing.”
In 1972, Lee was made president and publisher of Marvel Comics. It marked the first time he would not be directly involved in writing new stories. Marvel had new owners and they wanted him to oversee the empire he’d been so instrumental in building.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1980 to convince studios that his superheroes could thrive onscreen. It proved to be challenging and Marvel’s owners at the time didn’t share his confidence about superhero fiction’s chances in live-action. “He was just a lone figure in the wilderness,” Spurgeon, his biographer, says. “He couldn’t take a paper out of his jacket pocket and work out a deal there with anybody. He was a PR and concepts guy.”
A few decades later and Lee’s vision has come to fruition. The Marvel Cinematic Universe series was the highest grossing film franchise in the world as of April 2020, with total worldwide box office revenue of $22.5 billion. Of the 23 films in the series, the average revenue was estimated at almost a billion dollars per film.
Stan Lee passed away on November 12, 2018, six weeks before his ninety-sixth birthday. His legacy continues to flourish today, providing us with thrilling escapes from reality and timeless characters to enjoy generations to come.
“I think he’ll be remembered as the guy who gave the world the Marvel universe,” says Roy Thomas, Lee’s successor at Marvel and one of his oldest friends and collaborators. “I know various others of us - Jack and Steve - were very important in that. But without Stan Lee, there is no Marvel universe. He’s the one who had the vision.”
Lee was inducted into the comic book industry’s Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1995. He received a National Medal of Arts in 2008. In 2016, Los Angeles declared October 28th “Stan Lee Day” to honor the start of his Comic Con.
Stan Lee never wrote the “Great American Novel,” but in the end, he didn’t have to. He created something more powerful than even he could have imagined.
Here are some things you might not have known about Stan Lee:
- He was nicknamed “Gabby” for his charm and talkative nature.
- The Incredible Hulk was originally supposed to be gray. A printing error turned him green.
- He once posed nude for a comic in the 1980s.
- While in the army, he worked with Charles Addams and Dr. Seuss.
- He actually couldn’t stand - and didn’t read - comic books.
And three lessons from his life:
Stan Lee developed a technique for producing new comics that was built on giving the artists more freedom over the storyline. The Marvel Method, as it is known, leaves the layout of the pages to the discretion of the artist, who works from a plot that is typically derived in collaboration with the scripter.
Lee would come up with a rough plot - “as much as I can write in longhand on the side of one sheet of paper” - that the artist would use to create the entire story from scratch. Once Lee got the artwork back, he’d interpret what he saw and add dialogue bubbles, narration, and sound effects.
“Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all,” Lee explained in 1968. “I mean, I’ll just say to Jack, ‘Let’s let the next villain be Dr. Doom.’ Or I may not even say that. He may tell me. And then he goes home and does it. He’s so good at plots, I’m sure he’s a thousand times better than I.”
By giving artists creative freedom, Lee was able to produce a dozen or more comics at once without compromising on their quality. When used properly, delegation can be a powerful tool to boost your productivity. Don’t be afraid to trust others in your journey.
By all accounts, Lee was a master salesman. His biggest trick was convincing the world that comics weren’t just for children. He was charming, confident, and engaging, and he used these qualities to boost an entire industry.
“What Stan did in the ’60s was really to go out there and evangelize, to be a P.T. Barnum or a Sol Hurok, a promoter of the fact that comics weren’t just a children’s medium and certainly not just a stupid children’s medium,” says longtime comics writer, executive, and historian Paul Levitz. “He seized on every bit of evidence that could be developed: the movie director, actor, the singer, the implied endorsement, the opportunity to talk on college campuses. He certainly enjoys the sound of his own voice and enjoys performing, but he’s really, really good at it.”
Later in his career, Lee used his charm to sell comics as a source for movies. Although it took a long time, he was ultimately able to persuade Hollywood executives to back his vision and it paid off handsomely.
Stan Lee was a talented writer at his core. However, it is unlikely that he would have accomplished as much as he did without his natural penchant for sales. He was a charismatic speaker with an engaging personality, and he used his charm throughout his career. No matter how talented you are, you will need to sell yourself at some point in your life, so get comfortable with self-promotion.
Follow Your Instinct.
Arguably the most pivotal moment in Stan Lee’s career was when, in his late thirties, he considered leaving Marvel Comics for good. He was charged with writing one last story and his wife persuaded him to go for broke. That story was Spider-Man.
His publisher ridiculed the idea, telling Lee that it was doomed to fail. But, Lee persisted with it. In his mind, he had nothing left to lose. It turned out to be the best decision he ever made. Spider-Man was a huge success and gave Lee the platform to create new superheroes.
It ultimately made his career. Without that fateful decision to go for broke and trust his instinct, Lee would not have the legacy he has today and Marvel Comics may not even exist.
It’s worth repeating: trust your gut. Other people will have opinions, but that’s all they are. Subjective thoughts, based on their own conditioning and perceptions. There is an exception to every rule. There is always new ground to be broken. If you feel strongly about something, you will always regret not pursuing it more than the alternative.