Marvel Comics’ iconic writer, editor, and former publisher Stan Lee died Monday at the age of 95. Lee, who created beloved titles like Spider-Man, Black Panther, The Incredible Hulk, and hundreds more, helped to change the superhero archetype and became one of the genre’s defining figures in the process. Known for stories with nuanced characters, addressing real-world concerns with powers and plots with an allegorical slant, Lee became the standard bearer for generations of creators who would follow him.
Born Stanley Lieber in 1922 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Lee was the child of Romanian immigrants. Raised during the height of the Great Depression, he immersed himself in the stories of heroes. Drawn to the swashbuckling action films of Errol Flynn and Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies, Lee began writing his own while a student at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Eventually working after school as an office boy and writing pieces for a local news service, Lee became an assistant at Timely Comics, a golden age imprint that would eventually become the infamous Marvel. Far from an instant success, Lee spent years running errands for writers and adding filler copy before his big break came along. In 1941, at just 19, he penned his first comic script, a Captain America backup feature that introduced his nom de plume, Stan Lee, to the world. What would follow was a rapid rise through the ranks, from becoming Timely’s interim editor while still a teenager to contributing to its most popular titles.
The prewar popularity of comics buoyed Lee’s career, but after returning from service in the US Army Signal Corps in World War II, he almost quit the industry. Fed up with the juvenile nature of the stories that were being published, he was encouraged by his wife, Joan, to create the kind of book he’d like to read instead of focusing on what might sell. With his bosses looking for a title to rival DC’s Justice League and a new sense of creative freedom, Lee and his partner, Jack Kirby, created The Fantastic Four, with the goal of doing something unheard of: making their heroes feel like real people. “The characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to,” Lee would later tell biographers Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon. “They’d be flesh and blood, they’d have their faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty, and—most important of all—inside their colorful, costumed booties, they’d still have feet of clay.”
The Fantastic Four would revolutionize depictions of superheroes, thanks to its familial themes and quirky cast. Its popularity spawned imitators and opened the door for Lee to introduce new projects that adhered to a similar template. With a focus on underdogs, misfits, and accidental heroes, Lee’s work was filled with flawed characters and themes of responsibility that grew more overt as the cultural tides shifted. 1962’s introduction of Peter Parker, the brainy orphan turned inadvertent savior of his Queens community as Spider-Man, was followed by the radical inequality allegory of the X-Men a year later, and Black Panther’s civil rights battle cry in 1966. Lee’s core message, “do unto others,” a quote he would refer to in countless interviews, served as the backbone for all his narratives—even his arms dealer billionaires (Tony Stark) and literal gods (Thor) had a social conscience.
Though his presence loomed large in the world of comics, as his creations went mainstream, Lee became familiar to even those who’d never picked up a weekly serial. A constant in the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in which his cameos became tradition, Lee was as recognizable as the characters he’d brought to life. With the movies based on his oeuvre making an estimated US$21.3 billion worldwide, he goes down as one of the most profitable writers of all time, even though early negotiations regarding copyright and licensing left him largely uncompensated during mega-deals, like Disney’s purchase of Marvel back in 2009.
Though he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016 that he could have been smarter when it came to business, for Lee, the real pleasure of his life’s work had little to do with money. It was all about his audience. “I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers,” he said. “And then I began to realize: Entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it, they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing.”
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This article first appeared on Vogue.com