On Monday, November 12, legendary Marvel comic writer and editor Stan Lee died.
When one looks back at the list of iconic characters that Lee helped create, it is quite dizzying. Spider-Man. The Fantastic Four. The Hulk. Black Panther. Thor. Iron Man. Doctor Strange. Ant-Man. Daredevil. The X-Men. And still more...
Creating any one of those characters would rightly make him remembered as an important figure in comics history. But when you consider that he co-created both The Avengers and The X-Men, well ... that is legendary status right there. These characters were basically all dreamt up by Lee and illustrators such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko during a highly creative burst in the 1960s. And here we are, over 50 years later, and the biggest movies in the world involve these same characters.
Why did Lee's work last? Ready for a quick blast of comic book history?
Superhuman? Or just more human?
In the Golden Age of Comic Books (the late 1930s to 1950), comic book heroes like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America all had similar personalities. They were honest and virtuous. They performed superhuman deeds with total confidence. Though they were characters that readers could look up to, they certainly didn't seem like everyday people. They were ideals—perfect people.
Stan Lee and his collaborators changed that. They started creating more realistic superheroes. Though groups like The Fantastic Four worked together when the stakes were high, they also complained and fought with each other. They made mistakes and had doubts. Like the rest of us.
Maybe no character displayed this more than Spider-Man. Peter Parker was still just a teenager when he got his powers. He had problems with bullies. He was awkward around girls and got yelled at by his boss all the time. And his life at home was full of feelings of both love and guilt. His powers made him strong, but they also made him a target—and were a difficult secret to keep.
Readers loved these new characters. Not because they were perfect, but because they weren't.
The shared universe
Stan Lee also helped bring in another innovation to comics: the shared universe. Before this idea, comic book characters basically stayed in their own world. Superman had Metropolis. Batman had Gotham. But Lee began to write in a way so that all of his characters lived in the same, massive world.
What happened in an Iron Man comic would affect a later issue of The Hulk ... and those books would both inform an issue of The Avengers. Over time, readers were plunged into a giant world that spanned literally hundreds of character arcs and thousands of issues. It was both highly imaginative and smart business. And like Lee's more realistic characters, readers loved it.
Stories are just beginning
Though it took a long time to really take hold, today Lee's biggest legacy is this:
This was on October 7, 2017. Ten years of Marvel Studios being celebrated on the set of the franchise's biggest film, Avengers: Infinity War. The Marvel films are a massive success—bigger than anything in movies. Yes, even bigger than Star Wars.
If you look closely in that video, you can see Lee, shaking hands and giving hugs. He's not the star of those movies, though his fun cameos in them made him a household name anyway. But every single megastar on that set knows that he is the reason that they are there together at all.
It will be interesting to see how Marvel handles the first film made without him. Until then, we'll clearly have plenty to remember him by.