Where does one even begin when it comes to Stan Lee?
For starters, the movie business wouldn’t look like it does today without him. The writer couldn’t have envisioned when he first put ink to paper in 1939 that he’d be creating some of the most iconic, recognizable characters in the universe—Marvel or otherwise—or that he’d become a superhero himself among comic book fans.
Lee died Monday, according to multiple reports. He was 95 and had been in frail health for some time, but still had writing, producing and cameo projects in the works, all stemming from his role as creator of Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, Thor, the Silver Surfer and the X-Men, to name a few.
The sprawling film franchises featuring these characters have grossed billions of dollars, turning superhero movies into the lifeblood of the big-budget blockbuster industry and prompting Disney to buy Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009.
“I was stupid in a business way,” Lee reflected to The Hollywood Reporter in 2016. “I should have been greedier.”
It all started with “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge,” a filler story in Captain America Comics #3 and his first work under the pseudonym Stan Lee (he was born Stanley Martin Lieber). Captain America was co-created by Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby, the latter of whom would become Lee’s primary creative partner for years until a still-controversial rift over giving credit where it was due sent Kirby packing for rival DC Comics in 1970.
When he was on the verge of quitting the whole business, Marvel tasked him with creating superheroes to rival The Flash, the Justice League of America and whatever else DC Comics was churning out—and Lee and Kirby’s first answer was The Fantastic Four, in 1961.
Lee and artist Steve Ditko‘s The Amazing Spider-Man would become Marvel’s best-selling title in 1966 and most successful character overall, while Lee and Kirby continued to tell progressive tales within The Fantastic Four series; they introduced Black Panther in issue No. 52, the first black superhero in mainstream American comics.
After Kirby’s departure, Lee became publisher of Marvel Comics and became the de facto face of the Marvel Universe—a status that wouldn’t change even when the business was no longer in his hands.
He had sold his movie points (his back end percentage of the Marvel films) for a reported $10 million, plus $1 million payout each year moving forward, in 1998.
Lee sang The Avengers director Joss Whedon‘s praises at Dragon*Con in 2011, ahead of the film’s release, saying Whedon knew “just how to do it.”
“There was only one thing,” Lee added, per ComicBookMovie.com. “When I was doing my cameo for The Avengers, after the third take, he asked could I take off my glasses because somehow the flash of the floodlights were hitting the lens and there was a glare. So I did my cameo without wearing my glasses—so the chances are you won’t even recognize me. That was the only decision he made that I felt shouldn’t have made.” Lee laughed. “He should’ve fixed the lights.”
“94 years ago, a god was born who’d bring us heroes that’d fuel both our imaginations and our aspirations. Happy Birthday to @TheRealStanLee!,” Mallrats director Kevin Smith tweeted on Lee’s 94th birthday on Dec. 28, 2016.
About the storied issue of whether or not Lee unfairly monopolized credit that was due Jack Kirby, who died in 1994, Lee told Playboy in 2014 that he wanted Kirby—who maintained freelance status throughout their pop culture-altering run—to be Marvel’s permanent art director, but the artist turned him down, twice.
Kirby had said in an infamous interview with The Comics Journal that he and Lee “never collaborated on anything! I’ve never seen Stan Lee write anything. I used to write the stories just like I always did.”
But Lee insisted, to Playboy, “I’ll tell you, the last thing Jack Kirby said to me was very strange. I met him at a comic-book convention right before the end [of his life]. He wasn’t that well. He walked over and said, ‘Stan, you have nothing to reproach yourself about.’ He knew people were saying things about me, and he wanted to let me know I hadn’t done anything wrong in his eyes. I think he realized it. Then he walked away.”
Lee even worked for DC Comics in the 2000s, starting the Just Imagine… series featuring reimagined versions of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and The Flash.
“My eyesight has gotten terrible and I can’t read comic books any more,” Lee said. “The print is too small. Not only a comic book, but I can’t read the newspaper or a novel or anything. I miss reading 100 percent. It’s my biggest miss in the world.”
Earlier this year, Los Angeles police investigated allegations of elder abuse against Keya Morgan, who had been acting as Lee’s business manager and advisor. In a video posted to social media, Lee defended Morgan, saying, “Anybody else who claims to be my rep is just making that story up.”
“I have to pinch myself all the time to make sure I’m not imagining it.”
Lee is survived by daughter Joan Celia “J.C.” Lee. His wife of 70 years, Joan B. Lee, who could be seen making a cameo in X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016 along with her husband, died in July 2017. Another daughter, Jan, died in infancy.