It has been a long and sad time for comic book fans for a few weeks, after we learned that Stan Lee died. He was 95, and to say that he has had a certain amount of influence on the cultural landscape we live in today would be an understatement. Whether you are a Marvel or DC fan, watching The Avengers or watching the Justice League, there isn’t a facet of those worlds that hasn’t been influenced by Stan “The Man” over the course of their history. With constant competition from Stan’s brand Marvel, DC was prompted to step up their game as well.
In reminiscing about how much the man has shaped the world we live in today, I decided to have a look back at the comics he wrote and characters he helped create alongside talented artists and writers. And then having a look at what kind of cultural phenomenon those characters have sparked in the world today.
We’ve ranked them in order of impact to the industry/landscape of social discussion. Not to mention the take away their franchises have had on box office sales and the history of film.
Alongside Jack Kirby after his stint trying out New Gods with DC, Lee and the iconic artist brought about the tale of Black Bolt and the Royal Family. First appearing in Fantastic Four #45, the Inhuman Royal Family eventually gathered enough readership to earn their own series in October of 1975. The story followed the adventures of the Royal Family and their home in the fictional city of Attilan. It wasn’t until a limited series release of Inhumans written by Paul Jenkins and artist Jae Lee in November 1998 that the Inhuman family was recognized as an award-winning title. The series garnered an Eisner Award that year for Best New Series and made the Inhumans a viable selling comic book amongst the other titles like X-Men and Avengers.
Fast forward to 2017 where we got to see the first adaptation of the Inhuman Royal family on the big screen. And it is the worst adaptation of a comic book IP to the big screen that Marvel has made in their Phase 3 of their Marvel Cinematic Universe, with maybe Iron Fist coming in at a close second. Comic book fans gave the series a chance, but critics and general audiences were merciless when it came to the show, giving it horrible reviews and low ratings. It lasted for eight episodes before being cancelled by ABC in May 2018.
The Inhumans continue to be a tour-de-force in the comics though, being antagonists in the X-Men v. Inhumans crossover that sparked a number of new X-Men titles. The Terrigen mists used by the Inhumans is as much a threat to the mutants in the comics as it is a curious plot at play in the show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. In fact, the mists are responsible for Quake (Daisy Johnson) and Lincoln Campbell, and play a huge part in the second, third, and fifth seasons of the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D show.
This character really didn’t start out with a solo title, but more an introduction to a concept played with by writers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Thor was kind of a take from Norse gods and Lee put his own spin on it. The wing-helmed god headlined in Journey into Mystery #83 way back in August of 1962. The character would eventually get his own run by writer Lee and artist Kirby in its 101st issue. It wasn’t until 1970 when the series was retitled as Thor for the 179th issue, with the character being fleshed out enough to gain a place amongst the Avengers in its premier issue in 1963.
The impact this character has had on the social climate especially in cinema is as refreshing as the take Lee and Kirby had on him at his inception in comics. It took a creative and curious mind as Taika Waititi to reinvigorate the character with humor and action to make the characters third film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) stand out amongst the rest. His first go in the cinemas was met with a so-so reaction from audiences and critics, directed by Kenneth Branagh in 2011. Now, we look forward to seeing Chris Hemsworth reprising the role of Thor Odinson just as much as we anticipate Robert Downey Jr. putting on the Iron Man suit just one more time.
8. Doctor Strange
The sorcerer supreme was a concerted effort by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, while Lee gave Ditko most of the credit for the character. Lee just scripted the issues, coming up with the names for the mystical items at Doctor Strange’s disposal. Lee continued to write for the title, eventually taking on the title as the main writer for its many issues after Ditko left.
The good doctor didn’t have a solo title bearing his name, but he was mainly featured in the stories of Strange Tales. He actually made his first appearance in the 110th issue of that comic back in 1963. Because of Ditko’s psychedelic art style and the growing interest by young audiences in eastern mysticism, the popularity of the Doctor Strange title grew. It garnered two more titles as supplemental to the main, namely Doctor Strange: Master of the Mystic Arts.
Fast forward to today where we have one of the most prolific actors in Benedict Cumberbatch playing the sorcerer supreme. This has so far been the only theatrical appearance of Doctor Strange, and Cumberbatch has reprised the role for three films, and is expected to play the role for another three films (Avengers 4, Doctor Strange 2, and the third installment of Doctor Strange, whatever these movies might be named). He’s ranked 83rd of Wizard’s 200 greatest comic book heroes of all time back in 2008.
The blind lawyer from Hell’s Kitchen was created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett. There’s little to say about the hero that already hasn’t been said over the many decades and iterations he has been through in the comics. He has seen the big screen adaptation as portrayed by Ben Affleck, and more recently on the smaller Netflix screens by Charlie Cox.
Let’s go back to the earlier days of the hero on the small screen, making a small appearance as the blind lawyer Matt Murdock in the Trial of the Incredible Hulk back in 1989 with Rex Smith playing the role of Daredevil. The made-for-television movie was to serve for a spin-off show later on, which never really happened. But it was there that we first saw the black ninja-like outfit, which would be used later by Frank Miller and John Romita Jr.’s Daredevil: Man Without Fear comic arc.
And that brings us to the current Netflix series, featuring Charlie Cox as the blind lawyer and sporting that same look from the 1989 appearance. The look was so popular at cons and for the first season of the show, the show runners decided to revamp it for its third season. The show looks to be the most popular out of all the Netflix Marvel shows, and so far looks to be getting a fourth season. Two other shows from Marvel on Netflix’s programming weren’t so lucky (Iron Fist and Luke Cage).
Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought a team of characters together who had a few issues covering the back stories. And their first enemy was the trickster god Loki. Back in the day in Avengers #1, this team-up consisted of Iron Man, Ant-Man, The Wasp, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk. The heroes were pretty much a team likened unto the DC Comics Justice League, making their debut just a few years earlier in 1960. It was in 1963 that Kirby and Lee made the series as a bi-weekly release. They eventually added Captain America to the roster and had the Hulk leave the team as the rest of the members feared his instability.
The comic has had a number of reboots and Avenger team spinoffs and several members leaving the team, rejoining the team, dying, coming back to life, and rejoining the team, and leaving the team. After a vicious cycle of all that going on, we finally got a somewhat solid story line in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Much like their first debut as a team, the individual characters had their solo films that fleshed out their backstories, for the most part. So when they all eventually teamed up, their debut as a team would be lauded as one of the biggest events in film history. Avengers landed as one of the top movies in the box office and garnered more than $1.5 billion in worldwide sales up until Avengers: Infinity War beat it out with more than $2 billion worldwide.
And to think it all started with Lee and Kirby putting a Norse god, a scientist turned monster, and an engineer in a clunky suit on a team together.
5. The Hulk
Speaking of a scientist turned monster, the big green guy has been a staple of American comics and cinema for a while now. What really makes the story of Bruce Banner work is that it is a classic retelling of the Jekyll/Hyde relationship, with both sides tugging against each other. Created by Lee and Kirby back in 1962, Stan states that Hulk’s creation was inspired by the stories of Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, notably the stories of science creating monsters and alternate personalities.
Along with having a number of appearances in animated television series, the character was popularized on the small screen with a television series that ran in the 1970’s. It was one of the more successful live-action series that brought the character to mainstream audiences.
Movies featuring the green menace since have failed to capture the essence of the live performance of Bill Bixby’s character in its fullness, with only the Incredible Hulk in 2008 being one of the closest in feel and tone to the character. Ang Lee’s Hulk film was a critical failure but was met with commercial success, garnering a significant amount from the box office numbers compared to other super-hero films released at that time. A follow up reboot of the film in 2011 starring Edward Norton as the iconic Bruce Banner/Hulk after the Ang Lee version was met with mixed responses from audiences. The film had more connectivity to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and was met with better response from critics, as it was more faithful to the comic books and 1970’s iteration of the character.
Another collaboration between Kirby and Lee, the X-Men was a take by Lee to explore a group whose abilities were inherent in their natures. This was a group of teens who were outcasts because of the dangers their powers presented to society, and a mentor who sought to train them to live in a world that rejected them. The original team consisted of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Angel, Beast, and Professor Xavier.
There are parallels to the typical teenage experience within the pages of X-Men, and more particularly with the Civil Rights movement during the 60’s. Eventually the series was ended in 1970, only to be picked back up again in 1975 with Dave Cockrum and Len Wein with Giant Sized X-Men #1. The title featured more diversity in the roster, Cyclops still as its leader, but having other mutants from other parts of the globe joining the team. Nightcrawler, a blue demon-like mutant with the ability to teleport, Storm, a mutant from Kenya with the ability to control the weather, Colossus a mutant from the U.S.S.R. who could transform his body into a metallic form and had incredible strength, Banshee a mutant from Ireland who could produce sonic screams capable of impairing enemies as well as flight, Thunderbird was a Native American mutant capable of extreme feats of strength and agility, Wolverine a Canadian mutant with an adamantium skeleton, claws, and healing factor, and Sunfire the Japanese mutant with the ability to project massive heat plasma blasts.
It was this latter team envisioned by Cockrum and Wein that met with a greater audience response and helped spawn the animated series and films debuting in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Recent films featuring the team have been met with mixed reviews, especially considering the success of other super-hero films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony and the Spider-Man franchise, and Fox’s handling of their X-Men franchise adjacent to their handling of the Fantastic Four films. With the acquisition of the IP by Disney, the X-Men are more than likely heading to the MCU for inclusion in the world of the Avengers. How this will fare for the mutants is anyone’s guess.
3. Black Panther
Another one of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s creations, it would be interesting to note that this character made his first appearance in Fantastic Four #52 in 1966. It’s also important to note that T’Challa, the king and protector of the fictional African nation Wakanda, is the first superhero of African descent in American mainstream comics. His debut came years before Marvel put out the Falcon in 1969, Luke Cage in 1972, Blade a year later, and DC Comic’s debuting their African American character in John Stewart in 1971.
The creation of the character was inspired more by Lee’s recollection of a pulp adventure hero’s black panther helper. He’s made some cameo appearances throughout the Fantastic Four comics, Tales of Suspense, and The Avengers until landing a solo feature of his own in Jungle Action in 1973. Although the title was popular with college-age readers, it wasn’t doing well in overall sales. After that Black Panther got his own solo series, with Jack Kirby taking on the writing and art for the title. Then some more ups and downs, and fast forward to 2018.
We have to understand the cultural phenomenon of 2018 and the landscape in which the character of T’Challa thrived. It’s a time when comic book movies are celebrated and the first African superhero in comics hits the big screen. It becomes such a scenario for unbelievable box office results that it had Marvel and Disney doing its utmost to push for Ryan Coogler and Chadwick Boseman, the director and star of the first Black Panther film, to reprise their roles in a sequel. And there was a strategic effort in making Wakanda one of the last battlefields for Avengers: Infinity War. Honestly, I don’t think Lee knew the impact of this character in particular when he wrote him in the pages of Fantastic Four so long ago. And we’ve seen what a hit the first film has been- but can the sequel make just as much waves, if not bigger, on its release? We’ll have to wait and see what’s next for the king of Wakanda.
2. Fantastic Four
I’ve heard the story and read the story a million times about how Stan Lee was fed up with his job at Timely publications, and wanted to tell his own stories. He did writing for some issues of Namor, Captain America, and The Human Torch (the older version was an alien Android with powers much like the Fantastic Four version of the character). However, titles with his own writing weren’t quite on the shelf yet, as mostly the artists he worked for were still there, and making their own under the owner Martin Goodman.
So then in 1961 Lee and Kirby debuted a super-hero family, imbued with powers from a space trip. The first issue was met with unexpected success, and made for a continuation in the comic book series.
The first super-hero family became a cornerstone for the Marvel method and the origins of Stan Lee’s creative influence at Atlas which would be Marvel only a short time later. The team introduced other characters who would also carry their own solo titles, such as the Inhumans, Black Panther, Silver Surfer, and the alien races of the Kree and Skrulls.
Despite being the first of many titles by Lee and Kirby’s collaboration, their appearances in film and television have been less than stellar. The first film directed by Roger Corman was a film made solely for the studio Constantin Films to keep their distribution rights. A second film directed by Tim Story did well enough at the box office, but was met with critical ire. The box office money was enough for it to garner a sequel, but it was met with even more negative backlash from critics despite making more money than its predecessor.
A reboot of the film in 2015 directed by Josh Trank was denigrated by critics and comic book fans, while being a failure at the box office. Again, with what’s happening for the Fox entertainment division, it looks like there might be new life breathed into the original super-powered family.
Certainly not the first of Stan Lee’s creations, but certainly one that has held prevalence throughout all of his career since the character’s inception.
Steve Ditko and Stan Lee created the character back in Amazing Fantasy #15 in the summer of 1962. Lee and Ditko had the youth encounter many of life’s troubles like dealing with adolescence and finances, while juggling with the responsibilities of being a super-hero and obligations to use the power he was given to help his neighborhood.
The character has gone from high school, to college, to adult life and marriage, and back to being single again in the course of the comic book pages. Stan literally saw this character as a boy grow up through the issues into a man.
A live-action Spider-Man was introduced in a television show, Spidey Super Stories from the Electric Company back in 1974. Another live-action show The Amazing Spider-Man, starred Nicholas Hammond as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and aired from 1978 to 1979 .
More notable to my childhood is the Spider-Man Animated Series which ran five seasons from 1994-1998.
Then we had the more popularized version of the character played by Tobey Maguire in the 2002 film simply named Spider-Man. It was during this time the comic book community was being exposed to what comic book movies could and should be in terms of content and tone and overall quality. The next film, Spider-Man 2 set the standard for comic book movies with Doctor Octopus played by Alfred Molina, set as a villain with whom the audience could sympathize. The third film had mixed reviews but still did well for the box office, featuring villains like Sandman, a new Green Goblin in James Franco, and Venom played by Topher Grace.
The Amazing Spider-Man films featured Andrew Garfield playing the super-powered teen Peter Parker. The film had less than stellar response to a character being recast/reintroduced so shortly after the other version. Eventually this led to the inclusion of Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, featuring the youngest actor to play Peter Parker in Tom Holland. Featured in Captain America: Civil War, he has also had a solo film with a cameo from Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans as Iron Man and Captain America respectively. He has also been part of the the recent Avengers: Infinity War. He has had his own film with Sony in association with Marvel in Spider-Man: Homecoming. He’ll appear in a sequel to Homecoming next summer. He will also reprise his Spider-Man role in the upcoming Avengers 4 film. Needless to say, we’ll see Holland for a long while in the Spider-Man outfit.
What are your favorite Stan Lee creations? How will you remember the Marvel Comics icon and legend?