Stan Lee, the father of Marvel Comics’ most beloved superheroes, has died, PEOPLE confirms. He was 95.
The co-creator of comic book legends like Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor and the X-Men, Lee is credited with popularizing the flawed hero, or characters with complex, human personalities. This came in stark contrast to the superhero archetypes of the Golden Age of comics, who were typically flawless muscle-bound god-like figures.
His imagination, business acumen and innovative storytelling propelled Marvel Comics from a small subset of a larger publication company, into a multimedia conglomerate purchased by The Walt Disney Company for $4 billion in 2009.
His death comes just under a year and a half after his wife Joan Lee died in July 2017 at 93. They had been married for 69 years at the time of her death.
WATCH: Joan Lee, Wife of Comics Icon Stan Lee, Dies at 93
Born Stanley Lieber to immigrant Jewish parents in New York City during the Great Depression, Lee grew up idolizing the heroic, swashbuckling roles of Errol Flynn. He enjoyed writing from an early age, and when he was 17 he got a job as an assistant at Timely Comics, where he came up with stories for two artists named Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, who would later help co-create some of his most famous characters.
When Simon and Kirby left the company, 18-year-old Lee was installed as the comic division’s editor-in-chief, a post he retained until 1972 when he was promoted to publisher. In 1942, Lee entered the army and was assigned to the Training Film Division, where he worked on training films and slogans, which sometimes required cartooning.
Lee married a beautiful, redheaded model named Joan Clayton Boocock in 1947, and three years later, the couple had a daughter, Joan Celia “J.C.” Lee. His wife is rumored to be the inspiration for Mary Jane, the redhead model girlfriend of Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s alter-ego). Boocock is also credited with encouraging Lee to give his superheroes more human qualities. In 1953, they had another child, Jan Lee, who died three days after delivery.
Early Comics Success
Teaming back up with Kirby in the late 1950s, Lee created the Fantastic Four as a response to DC Comics’ success with the Justice League of America. The Fantastic Four were an instant hit, and showcased Lee’s preference for vulnerable, relatable superheroes. The comic’s immediate popularity gave way to a slew of new series, like Spider-Man, the X-Men, and Daredevil, which skyrocketed sales. Lee’s idea of the shared comic universe, where all his characters coexisted and sometimes bumped into each other, led to the creation of super groups like The Avengers.
Lee was always a firm believer that comic books could provide an outlet for social commentary. His monthly column, Stan’s Soapbox — which he always ended with his catchphrase, “Excelsior!” — often addressed issues of racism, discrimination and intolerance. He also helped ease censorship from the Comics Code of America by publishing a mini-series dealing with drug abuse in a 1971 issue of the The Amazing Spider-Man. The CCA forbade depiction of drugs, but with the backing of the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Lee published the series without their approval. The CCA ended up loosening its regulations when the comic sold well and garnered approval for its social consciousness.
Lee became the public figurehead and face of Marvel Comics later in life, often making appearances at comic book conventions and lecturing at colleges. Lee continued to play an important role as Marvel transitioned into television during the 1980s, serving as narrator on animated series like Incredible Hulk and X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men, and executive producer on the 1990s animated series Spider-Man.
Lee is also memorialized in most of the live-action Marvel films, where he made cameos in 26 movies, beginning with The Trial of the Incredible Hulk in 1989, where he appeared in a courtroom dream sequence, and ending with 2018’s Venom.
At the time of Lee’s death, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the dominant force in superhero films and television shows.