Comic book fans know writer and editor Stan Lee like baseball fans know slugger Babe Ruth.
Both men were mythic. Their impacts and legacies are strong fuel for fan arguments. And both men changed the way the world looked at their professions.
But Lee — who died Monday at age 95 — helped create an entire universe.
Lee’s co-creations spawned what would become the Marvel Comics Universe — a fictional world where the superheroes not only had amazing powers but very human flaws. That characteristic alone turned the world of comics on its head. Until Lee came along, superheroes were more like Superman, who flew in to save the day and didn’t seem to have problems like actual people.
But in 1962, Lee — then editor and head writer at Marvel Comics — saw the success of a new set of Marvel characters called the Fantastic Four, a team with super powers but ordinary faults such as jealousy and doubt. He then co-created Spider-Man, a teenage hero who wrestled not only with villains but also with typical teenage problems.
“You ask the audience to suspend disbelief and accept that some idiot can climbs on walls,” Lee said in a 1992 interview. “But once that’s accepted, you ask … would he still have to worry about dandruff? About acne, about getting girlfriends, about keeping a job?”
Stan Lee led the revolution that made superheroes more human. And that helped the world of comics grow up.
With the characters now more complex and realistic, and more relatable to readers, the audience grew older and larger, as it is today. The conflicts of these new heroes were no longer just with other people in wild costumes. Often, the good guys fought conflicts within themselves. A famous Marvel story arc in 1979 unflinchingly showed Iron Man’s struggle with alcoholism.
Being spawned in the turbulent 1960s, Lee’s co-creations also confronted real-life social issues on its colorful comic pages. The X-Men’s creation, with the bigotry they endured in their storylines, was said to have been inspired by the civil rights movement.
The characters almost immediately jumped off the pages of print and into animated cartoons — and then, after fits and starts, into television and film. When “Spider-Man” hit screens in 2002, that truly unleashed Marvel on the big screen, and many other films followed. Today, by one estimate, Marvel movies have grossed more than $24 billion worldwide.
Also, consider: Of the 10 current highest-grossing movies of all time, four of them are based on Marvel superheroes. Largely because of that, the heroes’ images and influence have crept into virtually every level of modern pop culture. They seem to be everywhere.
And it all started with Stan Lee.
That’s not his real name, you know.
He was born Stanley Lieber, in New York City. He aspired to become a famous writer and author of the next “Great American Novel.” When he worked as an office boy for a comic-book publisher, others noticed his knack for writing and editing, and he began scripting stories. But he was embarrassed to use his real name with his comic-book work because he still held higher literary aspirations.
So, like a hero adopting a secret identity, he became Stan Lee.
And in a way, he became perhaps the mightiest comic-book hero of them all.