December 28, 1922, is the birthdate of Stan Lee, founding editor and longtime public face of Marvel Comics, which created a stable of fallible, even troubled, superheroes, whose success in print has only been exceeded by their popularity in a series of blockbuster movies.
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Stanley Martin Leiber was born in New York City, to Jewish-Romanian immigrants Jack Leiber and the former Celia Solomon. Jack worked in the garment industry as a dress cutter, but once the Depression began, he was often out of work, and the family moved, first from Manhattan’s Upper West Side to Washington Heights, and then to the more remote Bronx.
Stan was an incessant reader as a child. Later he would recount how one of his favorite presents was a bookstand, which he was allowed to keep on the family dining table so that he could read through dinner.
He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1939. He had a cousin, Jean, whose husband, Martin Goodman, owned Timely Comics, an early comic-book publisher. At Goodman’s behest, Timely’s editor, Joe Simon, gave Stan a job.
He started with filling inkwells and buying coffee for writers and artists, and soon moved up to proofreading and then writing a text-only story to serve as filler in a May 1941 “Captain America” comic book.
This is when he began calling himself “Stan Lee,” intending to save his full name for the future occasion when he became a writer of literary fiction.
Within a few months, Lee was creating new superhero characters with names like “Jack Frost” and “Father Time,” and writing their stories. And when Simon quit the company, together with star artist Jack Kirby, the 19-year-old Stan Lee was appointed acting editor-in-chief.
Other than the three years he spent in the U.S. Army (first in the Signal Corps, and then in the training-film division), during World War II, Lee held that position for the next two decades. Within time, though, he began to feel he was in a rut. In fact, Lee was seriously thinking of leaving the business in the late 1950s, when Martin Goodman asked him to come up a new line of superheroes, to compete with DC Comics, publisher of Superman and Batman.
By then, Jack Kirby had been lured back to Timely, and it was together with him that Lee created the “Fantastic Four,” who made their first appearance in August 1961. They gained their super-powers from exposure to cosmic rays. Later, when he dreamed up “The X-Men,” in 1963, said Lee, he was tired of thinking up explanations and, “I figured I’d take the cowardly way out and I’d just say they were born that way, they were mutants.”
Years later, when Stan Lee had become a well-known celebrity and was known as the “creator” of so many Marvel characters, Kirby would claim that most of the creative work had been done by him, and that Lee had taken the credit without cause. Lee would respond by praising Kirby’s artistry, but saying that “I really think that the guy who dreams the thing up” — by which he meant himself – “created it.”
A similar clash over credit for the “The Amazing Spider Man,” from 1964, took place between Lee and artist Steve Ditko.
The new superheroes were an almost instant hit. They may have had supernatural powers, but their emotions were normal and they even had relationship troubles. And they were all interconnected, and lived in New York, so that one character could show up in another’s story; in order to be fully up to speed, readers had buy all the series. Additionally, through messages from Lee and a lively letters column, Marvel made readers feel that they were part of the family, not just consumers.
Lee left his fulltime work at Marvel in 1998, and even sued the company in 2002 over a dispute regarding future profit-sharing. That was a significant coup, as by the early 2000s, the film franchise had become a money machine for Marvel. In 2001, he started a new comics company, POW! Entertainment, which he still runs today, as he turns 94. Marvel was acquired by Walt Disney in 2009.