Wednesday 18 September 2019

Obituary: Stan Lee

Creative genius of Marvel, who devised superheroes such as Spider-Man and the Incredible Hulk

INNOVATIVE: Comic-book writer Stan Lee revolutionised his industry in the 1960s, when he created mythical figures
INNOVATIVE: Comic-book writer Stan Lee revolutionised his industry in the 1960s, when he created mythical figures

Stan Lee, who died last Monday aged 95, made his name by dreaming up such popular superheroes as Spider-Man, the Silver Surfer, the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk, and transformed the comic-book art into a multi-million dollar industry.

Starting out as a writer for comics in the late 1930s, Lee went on, as writer and editor of Marvel, to spearhead in the 1960s what became known as the "The Marvel Age of Comics", creating a new breed of superheroes while breathing life into old favourites such as Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner.

In his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, Lee wrote no fewer than two and as many as five complete comic books per week, as well as newspaper features, radio and television scripts and screenplays - an output so large that many people assumed Stan Lee must be a nom de plume for a factory of writers.

Lee pitched his appeal at adolescents of all ages, combining the usual superhero fisticuffs with ironic in-jokes, such as the asterisked comment annotating the onomatopoeic "Kabooom!" ("* the third o is obviously silent"), and social commentary (including stories about racism, drug abuse and prison conditions).

He not only identified with his readership but found an idiom in which to address them. Expressions such as "Excelsior!" "Hang Loose" and "Nuff Said!" became catchphrases for a generation.

Lee's heroes lived in the real world, not in Gotham City or Metropolis, and, with their flesh-and-blood human faults and frailties, they offered a radical departure from the straight-arrow heroics of Superman and his ilk.

Spider-Man's alter ego is a puny, pimply high-school misfit, racked by teenage angst. The X-Men are outcasts from society, and The Thing is tormented by its grotesque physical appearance.

To make his characters more three-dimensional, Lee invented the thought balloon, a device that gave readers new insight into their heroes' inner thoughts and troubles.

Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber, on December 28, 1922, the son of Romanian immigrants who struggled to make a living in New York during the Depression. He relieved the grinding poverty of his childhood years by writing stories for friends.

After leaving school early, he worked, variously, as an usher in a theatre, office boy and sandwich delivery man, and even did a stint as an obituary writer for a news service. Then, in 1939, aged 17, he got a job with Timely Comics as a proof-reader and soon graduated to writing.

His first effort was a piece of prose in Captain America No 3. He signed it "Stan Lee," he later recalled, "because I felt someday I'd be writing the Great American Novel and I didn't want to use my real name on these silly little comics." In 1942 he enlisted in the US Army, becoming a writer for the Signals Corps' training film division, working in Queens, New York. He enjoyed the distinction of becoming one of only nine men in the Army to be given the military classification "playwright".

When the war ended, he returned to Timely (later renamed Marvel) where, following a series of defections, he was rapidly promoted to editor and chief writer. This was not quite the grand position it sounded, as he had no editorial independence.

His boss, the publisher Martin Goodman, was a martinet who allowed his writers no freedom to experiment. As a result, Marvel struggled to compete with rival DC Comics, whose superheroes, Batman and Superman, had caught the imaginations of post-war readers. By 1960, Lee had become bored and depressed.

It was his wife, Joan, who was indirectly responsible for Lee's decision to explore a new genre of fantasy. Just as he was about to resign from Marvel Comics, she suggested he might try ignoring Goodman's strictures and write a few stories in his own style: "The worst that can happen is that you'll get fired," she observed; "but you want to quit anyway."

So he wrote a strip called The Fantastic Four, featuring a bendy man, an invisible woman, a human torch and a dermatologically challenged Thing, a quartet distinguished less by their magical powers than by their adolescent bickerings. The strip was an immediate success, so Goodman allowed Lee to develop other characters, writing about them in his own style.

The idea for Spider-Man came to him in 1962 when he saw a fly crawling on a wall and thought it would be an interesting idea to create a hero who could stick to walls and ceilings like a fly. Goodman hated the idea, arguing that it would never sell in a nation of arachnophobes.

At that point Lee and his illustrator Steve Ditko were producing a title called Amazing Fantasy, which had not been selling well and was about to be closed down. As it was the final issue, Goodman grudgingly agreed that Lee could use it to test Spider-Man. Billed as "the hero that could be you", Spider-Man, the science nerd who acquires magical powers after being bitten by a radioactive arachnid, proved an immediate success. When the sales reports came in a few weeks later, they showed that the final edition of Amazing Fantasy had become the best-seller of the decade. "Stan, you know that Spider-Man idea I liked so much?", Goodman said. "Why don't we turn it into a series?"

With Spider-Man heading Marvel's new gallery of heroes, sales of the company's titles exploded from 7m in 1961 to 13m in 1963, then to a record 50m in 1968. In 1964, Captain America, the hero who at one time had put Timely into the top rank of comic publishers, was resurrected. Instead of modernising him, Lee froze him in an Arctic plane crash in 1944, then thawed him out as a misfit in the modern world. Also in 1964 came Doctor Strange, a practitioner of White Magic, who became a cult-figure for hippies who saw the series as an endorsement of hallucinogenic drugs. In 1965 a psychedelic rock happening in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury was called "A Tribute to Dr Strange".

The Silver Surfer, a futuristic being assigned to warn Earth of its impending doom at the hands of the galaxy-swallowing Galactus, was another perfect hero for the 1960s pop-culture intelligentsia. Cursed to wander in Earth's atmosphere lamenting his lost freedom and bemoaning the folly of humankind, the Silver Surfer was Lee's surrogate philosopher, a Christ-like figure viewing mankind with fresh eyes.

Lee also enjoyed the challenge of making heroes out of less promising material, however. Iron Man, for example, is a billionaire industrialist who invents and manufactures weapons and munitions and sells them to the American military; yet at a time when young people were marching for peace and civil rights, he became one of Marvel's great successes.

His autobiography, Excelsior!, was published in 2002.

In 1947, Stan Lee married Joan Boocock, a British-born fashion model, with whom he had a daughter. His wife died last year, and another daughter died in infancy.

© Telegraph

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