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Excelsior! Stan Lee Turns 90

Movie Talk

Excelsior! Stan Lee Turns 90

Photo: Skip Bolen/WireImage

Believe it or not, the legendary comics creator was not born of fire on some distant warlike planet but rather right here on Earth. Stanley Martin Lieber came into our realm via New York City (where else, really?) on December 28, 1922, and little did this child of Romanian-born Jewish immigrants know that he would grow up to be one of the most famous pop culture icons the world has ever known ... or did he?

Young Stanley took to books and movies, particularly ones with Errol Flynn (whom one could say was often cast in superheroic roles). As a teenager in the Bronx, Stan worked such odd jobs as writing obituaries, delivering sandwiches, ushering at the Rivoli Theater and selling subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune, all the while dreaming of one day writing the Great American Novel. That goal -- or at least its particular format -- somewhat mutated into something else ... something arguably much more unique, influential and everlasting.

In 1939, with the help of his uncle Robbie Solomon (a precursor to the Daily Bugle's Robbie Robertson? Discuss!), Lee became an assistant at the new Timely Comics division of the pulp magazine and comic book publishing company owned by Martin Goodman, a position that at first involved little more than picking up lunches for the writers and artists, making sure the inkwells were filled and the occasional bit of proofreading. He made his own comic book debut with the text filler "Captain America Foils the Traitor's Revenge" in "Captain America Comics" No. 3 (May 1941), a work for which he used the pseudonym "Stan Lee" (with the original plan being that he'd used his real name for more "literary" work).

Timely editor Joe Simon and his creative partner Jack Kirby left the publication in 1941 following a dispute with Goodman, which prompted the publisher to promote the 19-year-old Lee as interim editor. Lee entered the U.S. Army a year later, earning the extremely rare military classification of "playwright" as he wrote manuals, training films and slogans and indulged in the occasional cartooning. He returned to his post at Timely Comics in 1945 and continued to write stories in a variety of genres, including romance, science fiction, medieval adventure, Westerns, horror and suspense. By the end of the 1950s, Timely was generally known as Atlas Comics ... and a dissatisfied Lee was considering leaving the business.

Lee found his true calling at the end of the '50s, when Martin Goodman called upon him to create a new superhero team in response to DC's success with the Justice League of America. Lee figured he had nothing to lose since he was planning on changing careers anyway, so he let his creative muse run wild, coming up with a bickering family of superheroes prone to such everyday challenges as boredom, paying their bills and impressing their girlfriends. "The Fantastic Four" #1 was published in November 1961, written by Lee and illustrated by Jack Kirby.

And the rest, as they say, is history (and sometimes a very convoluted and contradictory history that required the occasional reboot, as any Marvel fan will tell you). Lee went on to create some of the most popular comic book characters of all time, including the Amazing Spider-Man, the Mighty Thor, the Incredible Hulk, the Invincible Iron Man and the Uncanny X-Men. He gave birth to what was referred to as the Marvel Revolution, rebranding the former Atlas Comics as the scrappy -- and immensely popular -- comics equivalent of an "indie film" company as compared to DC's big-budget Hollywood studio. He became the figurehead for Marvel Comics, often lending his voice to animated series based on various Marvel properties and even appearing in the occasional issue in which he interacts with his fictional characters.

Lee is still going strong today as he witnesses his creations getting the five-star Hollywood treatment, which culminated this year into the ultimate superhero mashup, "The Avengers." Fans have come to look forward to what kind of cameo Lee will be making in the latest Marvel movie, whether it's an overenthusiastic truck driver in "Thor" (this writer's personal favorite), trusty mailman Willy Lumpkin in "Fantastic Four" or even a Hugh Hefner lookalike in "Iron Man."

And there will be many more cameos, public appearances and humorous and inspiring speeches, if all goes according to his superhero plan. At the end of September 2012, Lee had a pacemaker inserted into his body, a surgical procedure that resulted in the cancellation of some planned convention appearances but which was ultimately done, according to Lee himself in a statement, to insure that he would live for 90 more years.

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