- Stan Lee created iconic Marvel characters that have had a lasting impact on the comic book universe and pop culture.
- Lee, along with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, created the Marvel Age of comics, introducing characters like The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Black Panther, and Daredevil.
- Lee's characters were relatable and had three-dimensional personalities, focusing on their personal lives as much as their crime-fighting exploits.
Stan Lee was a towering figure in the comic book world who left an indelible mark with his array of iconic Marvel character creations. This article delves into the 13 most memorable creations that sprang from Lee’s boundless imagination, each leaving a lasting impact on both the comic book universe and pop culture.
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Stan “The Man” Lee
Legendary comic book writer Stan Lee is one of the principal architects of our imaginations. He understood that, for many of us, comics and superheroes are an escape to another world. Sitting in your room reading a great comic book or watching an exciting comic book movie lets you experience, if only in your imagination, what it feels like to fly or web-sling across the skyline. These stories allow our fantasies to come to life and help us find meaning in the confusing and complex world we live in.
Lee’s characters, which he created at Marvel, have populated our collective psyche and given us endless tales of fun and adventure to enter into and escape from the mundane. As a comic book writer, editor and publisher, Stan Lee has left a rich legacy and made his mark on the comic book industry and pop culture.
Along with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee spawned the ‘Marvel Age’ of comics. This period, between 1961 and 1978, saw Marvel ascend to the top of the industry with Stan Lee, Ditko and Kirby at the forefront, creating iconic characters like The Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Black Panther, and Daredevil, to name a few.
Stan Lee changed the industry by creating characters that were relatable to comic book readers and stories which focused on the superhero’s personal life almost as much as his crime-fighting exploits. In this sense, Lee and his partners created three-dimensional superheroes. They had personalities, not simply costume-wearing automatons interested only in stopping crime or facing off against supervillains.
In honour of Stan Lee, let’s look at a few of his best Marvel comic book creations.
1. Iron Man
In The Ages of Iron Man, Joseph J Darowski notes that Stan Lee wanted to make an unlikable character. Lee said, “I thought it would be fun to take the kind of character that nobody would like, none of [Marvel’s] readers would like, and shove him down their throats and make them like him.”
Lee created Iron Man with his brother, Larry Lieber, and artists Steve Ditko, Don Heck and Jack Kirby. Iron Man first appeared in Tales of Suspense #39 (March 1963). Tony Stark was Lee’s way of talking about America’s role in the Vietnam War and commenting on the weapons manufacturing industry using fictional comic books. Iron Man also touches on concepts like Capitalism vs Communism, with Stark portrayed as a flawed, likeable arch-capitalist everyone is supposed to hate but can’t help feeling enamoured with.
The character fell into obscurity, but with the rise of Marvel’s film studio and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tony was plucked from the doldrums and pushed to the fore of the fledgling film studio’s roster of superheroes. Robert Downey Jr’s maverick portrayal of Tony shot the character’s popularity into the stratosphere, making him an A-list comic superhero.
Thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man has become one of Stan Lee’s most popular creations.
Created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby, Thor Odinson first appeared in Journey into Mystery #83 (August 1962). Lee based the character on the patent found within Norse mythology. Thor is one of the most fascinating Marvel comic book characters due to his connection to Norse gods and their adventures in the mythical realm of Midgard, home of the Nine Realms.
Lee created Thor to be a flawed character and make the Norse god more relatable to readers, giving him an identity on Earth and investing the character in the everyday foibles of earthlings, most especially as part of the superhero team, the Avengers. Lee’s thoughts on why he created Thor are pretty revealing: “I dreamed up Thor years ago because I wanted to create the biggest, most powerful superhero of all, and I figured who could be bigger than a god? I chose the Norse gods because I felt people were less familiar with them than with the Greek and Roman gods,” said Lee to The Washington Post when the MCU released their debut Thor movie in 2011.
Thor’s appearance in the MCU rebranded the character. It made him far more popular than ever, thanks primarily to Chris Hemsworth’s excellent portrayal of the god of thunder.
Of all of Stan Lee’s Marvel creations, Thor is probably one of the most powerful.
3. The Incredible Hulk
As one of the most iconic characters in popular culture, the Hulk is a powerful and surprisingly complex creation. Bruce Banner is an intelligent and reserved scientist but turns into a hulking monster that destroys everything in his path due to his exposure to gamma rays, which turns him into a green monster. The Hulk is a character that delves deep into the human psyche and the inner demons which lurk inside of us. Speaking about the Hulk, Lee said:
“I combined Jekyll and Hyde with Frankenstein, and I got myself the monster I wanted, who was really good, but nobody knew it. He was also somebody who could change from a normal man into a monster, and lo, a legend was born. I had always loved the old movie Frankenstein. And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to create a monster and make him the good guy?”
4. The Amazing Spider-Man
The first time readers were introduced to Peter Parker and Spider-Man was in Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962). The web-slinger is Stan Lee’s most famous creation. Spider-Man has single-handedly spawned an entire industry of comics, books, animated series, movies and video games. Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko were inspired to create Spider-Man after the unprecedented success of their previous hit creation, the Fantastic Four. The upsurge in teenagers reading Marvel comics after the Fantastic Four gave Lee an idea for a more relatable character for average kids and teens. Explaining the success of the character, Lee explains:
“I tried to keep it realistic in order not to make him a typical hero. I made him an average guy who was kind of unpopular. He was sort of a nerd, the kids didn’t like him, he was a bookworm, he didn’t have enough money, he had to support his old aunt. He was an orphan, he was shy and so forth. And, it turned out he was somebody that the readers could relate to. He became very successful. He became our most popular character.”
If we’re honest, Spider-Man is probably Stan Lee’s most popular Marvel creation.
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5. Black Panther
The late Chadwick Boseman embodied T’Challa and Black Panther for modern audiences. The actor’s dramatic and captivating portrayal of the Wakandan King and protector was enabled by Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, who embued the T’Challa with depth and a fantastic backstory as the leader of a mythical hidden country of Wakanda with unique technology and a legendary saviour, the Black Panther. The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s primarily influenced the character. He first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966) and was the first protagonist of African descent in mainstream American comics.
It’s likely that the full significance of Stan Lee’s creation of this Marvel character will always remain somewhat elusive to the world.
6. Professor X
Lee was tired of constantly creating new backstories for the origin of his characters’ powers and abilities. Instead of thinking of how each X-Men character received their powers, he made them mutants born with these abilities. Stan and co-plotter for X-Men, Jack Kirby, debuted the X-Men and Professor X in The X-Men #1(September 1963), and the real-world civil rights movement and the struggle for equal rights mirrored their mutant origins.
Thinking about the creation of X-Men and Professor X, Lee told Rolling Stone in 2014:
“Well, the reason for the school… we wanted them to be teenagers, older teenagers, but still teenagers. We figured, they gotta go to school. Then I thought, who would be their leader? And it occurred to me, I oughta get an adult. And I don’t know how it happened, but I figured, what if I get a guy whose power is, he’s got mental power? He can throw his thoughts, and he can somehow put his own will inside another person and make them do things. A man with the greatest mental power in the world.”
“And I don’t know what made me call him Xavier. I honestly don’t know. But I ended up with the name. So, I figured, why wouldn’t he be the head of the school? I’d make him a little older, and I’d call it a school for gifted youngsters, and that would be a place for these mutants to come, and they’d meet each other. And then they could become a team in a while. And Professor Xavier, who I decided to call Professor X, he could be their leader.
Then I figured, but he’d be too powerful, a guy who could do anything, who could crawl into your mind and make you do things, is too powerful. So I figured, I’ll give him a weakness, and I made him a guy who couldn’t move his legs. He was in a wheelchair. And that seemed to me to be a good balance. And that was really how it started.”
Professor Charles Xavier’s fight for mutant rights and his extraordinary telekinetic abilities make him one of comics’ fantastic creations and an integral member of the X-Men.
Debuting in Tales to Astonish #27 (January 1962) and created by Lee, with Larry Lieber’s and Jack Kirby’s assistance, Ant-Man is often the unsung hero; little is written or said about him. He is an essential figure in Marvel comics for his part in the Avengers superhero team and, as such, is an integral creation in the comic world. With the 2015 release of the Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd-led Ant-Man MCU film, Yahoo Entertainment spoke to Lee about Ant-Man’s creation. Lee confessed:
“What could I do that is different? We had a character with the powers of a spider. We had a hulking monster. We had a god. We had all those things. Then I thought, ‘What if there’s a guy this big [holding his thumb and index finger together]. And I said, ‘Why not?’ So I made up this really smart scientist, Hank Pym, and he develops the Pym Particle, which lets him shrink down. Right away he gets stuck in an anthill and has to figure out how to escape.”
Ant-Man’s shrinking and growth abilities and the technologies he is involved in, like the Pym Particle, make him a creative and exciting character who rightly deserves to be brought to life in the live-action Marvel films.
The supervillain Magneto was created by Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963. Magneto is a powerful mutant who can generate and control magnetic fields. He considers mutants superior to humans, and unlike his adversary/friend Professor X, he doesn’t believe that the two species can coexist peacefully. He believes that mutants should replace humans as the dominant species on Earth and is consistently challenged by Professor X and the X-Men in his plans to rule humanity.
When describing the X-Men and the villainous Magneto, Lee said:
“I wanted them to be diverse…The whole underlying principle of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story to show there’s good in every person…but my favorite villain was Magneto. And I loved the idea of the X-Men being good mutants, and then we’d get a bunch of bad mutants, and we’d make it seem as if the bad mutants had a point there. The human race hated them and feared them and shunned them and was trying to get rid of them, so why should they take it laying down? Why didn’t they fight back?”
Magneto has risen in popularity over the years due to Sir Ian McKellen and his brooding portrayal of Magneto in Bryan Singer’s X-Men films. Michael Fassbender is another great actor who has embued Magneto with nuance and intrigue in later films like X-Men: First Class. Both of these performances tapped into Lee and Kirby’s genius when they created Magneto.
9. The Fantastic Four
The Fantastic Four were created by Lee and Jack Kirby in 1961. They’re a superhero team that gained their superpowers after being exposed to cosmic rays during a mission to outer space. The team consists of Mister Fantastic (Reed Richards), a genius and the group leader.
He has the ability to stretch his body into incredible lengths and shapes; the Invisible Woman (Susan “Sue” Storm-Richards), Reed’s girlfriend and later wife, who has the ability of invisibility and project powerful invisible force fields and blasts; the Human Torch (Johnny Storm), Sue’s younger brother, who can generate flames and fly; and The Thing (Ben Grimm), Reed’s college roommate and a skilled pilot, who was transformed into a being made of stone giving him superhuman strength, durability and endurance.
They are portrayed as a powerful team of superheroes but also a dysfunctional but loving family with many relatable flaws, which makes this creation quite appealing to readers.
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10. Scarlet Witch
Scarlet Witch, aka Wanda Maximoff, is one of Stan Lee’s more complex characters. She was co-created by Jack Kirby and was first introduced in 1964 as a villain in the X-Men series along with her twin brother, Quicksilver.
She is a powerful sorceress who was initially portrayed as having the ability to alter probability and later was depicted as having the ability to alter reality. She and her brother eventually both left their lives of villainy and joined the Avengers to help save the world.
These characters are unique because it was the first time villains were depicted as more than just the bad guys. Lee was the first to add more depth and complexity to these types of characters, showing that villains could switch sides and ultimately make up for their villainous traits through the life of self-sacrifice required of a superhero.
11. Doctor Strange
Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange was co-created by Lee and Steve Ditko in 1963. When first describing the character, Lee had this to say, “We have a new character in the works for Strange Tales (just a five-page filler named Dr. Strange). Steve Ditko is gonna draw him. It has sort of a black magic theme. The first story is nothing great, but perhaps we can make something of him.”
Doctor Strange was the first character to introduce magic to the world of Marvel. Both Lee and Ditko loved the story of Chandu the Magician (an American supernatural radio drama that aired from 1931 to 1936), and their love for this character inspired the creation of Doctor Strange.
Doctor Stephen Strange was a brilliant but arrogant surgeon who, through an unfortunate accident, damaged his hands and essentially lost his ability to do the one thing he loved most: perform surgery. His strong desire to heal his injuries drove him to seek out unconventional means and eventually led him to the ‘Ancient One’ who he believed would be able to cure him. Upon finding him, Strange learns that he has a unique gift for sorcery, and he continues to study with his mentor, the ‘Ancient One’, until his death.
Strange is then named ‘The Sorcerer Supreme’ and uses his knowledge and gifts to protect the world from supernatural forces of evil. Doctor Strange is an appealing character as he displays extraordinary powers and abilities. Still, through his studies and experiences, he also changes his heart as he learns to replace his arrogance with humility and empathy.
12. Black Widow
Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanova, was created by Lee, Don Rico, and Don Heck and first appeared in comics in 1964. She was initially introduced as a Russian spy and adversary to Iron Man. However, she later defected to the United States and eventually became an agent for S.H.I.E.L.D. She’s another of Lee’s characters who left their life of villainy and sought redemption as a superhero. Black Widow would ultimately join the Avengers and become one of their most influential members with her martial arts expertise, mastery of tactics, and talent for psychological manipulation.
Daredevil/Matt Murdock was created by Lee, Bill Everett and Jack Kirby in 1964. The Daredevil character has a working-class background, and his story is set in Hell’s Kitchen, New York City. As a child, Matt saves a man by pushing him out of the path of an oncoming truck. Unfortunately, in the process, Matt is blinded by a radioactive substance that falls from the truck. Still, in losing his sight, his remaining senses are heightened, giving him the superhuman ability of “radar sense”.
After his father is killed, leaving him an orphan, Matt learns to defend himself, is trained in martial arts, and is taught how to use his new gifts by a blind sensei, Stick. Years later, Matt works as a lawyer during the day and fights against the criminal underworld of Hell’s Kitchen at night.
Inspiring the creation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, this Marvel creation is one of Stan Lee’s best.
Honourable Mentions: The Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider, Galactus, Doctor Doom, Doctor Octopus, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, Loki
Stan Lee’s Legacy
Stan Lee has weaved a wonderland of great characters and stories which will be enjoyed and thought about for decades. The passing of the legendary comic book publisher and creator has left a hole in the hearts of many comic book fans. Still, his legacy endures when someone enjoys a Marvel film or reads a comic book featuring these and hundreds of other characters created by Lee and his partners like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.
What do you think about our list? Who do you think should be included?
For a broader look at powerful Marvel characters, check out our comprehensive list of the 15 Most Powerful Characters in the Marvel Universe.