Stan Lee leaves behind a long legacy as a legend of the comics industry and had a phenomenal impact on our world. Our cultural imagination is richer for his having lived and helped create the Marvel Universe. And that includes the many, many characters he helped bring to life. There are far too many characters that came from the mind of Lee and his collaborators. As we remember the iconic writer who died aged 95, here is my ranking of the best recognized and most important of his creations. If you disagree, submit your own Rank and Share!
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For years, Spider-Man was one of Marvel’s flagship titles, ushered through countless now-iconic storylines by Lee, co-creator Steve Ditko, and the legendary John Romita, Sr. As a youth-based superhero that squared off almost exclusively against old men, Spider-Man was a crucial part of Marvel’s explosive growth in popularity. Spider-Man made his debut in the final issue of Amazing Fantasy in 1962. The Amazing Spider-Man series began the next year and helped turn Marvel into the comics giant it is today.
1963 was a good year for Stan Lee and Marvel. That's also when Iron Man made his debut in Tales of Suspense as a way of dealing with the global battle between capitalism and communism.
Though Frank Miller is the creator most closely associated with Daredevil (and rightfully so), Matt Murdock was actually created decades prior to Miller’s celebrated run by none other than Stan Lee and Namor the Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett. Though the hardboiled noir elements of the book wouldn’t really come in until Miller got his hands on him, Lee, Everett, Wally Wood, John Romita Sr, and others built an iconic character – the blind lawyer who defends his clients by day and protects Hell’s Kitchen by night – that still holds weight today, as evidenced by the fan-favorite Netflix series.
Stan Lee took the god of Norse mythology and reinvented him as a Viking-esque, super-strength superhero for the age of comic books. His first appearance was in Journey Into Mystery (1962).
The mind-bending mystical magician first starred in Strange Tales in 1963. The series was renamed after him in 1968 and he's been a Marvel regular ever since, including as a member of The New Avengers.
Galactus & Silver Surfer are a perfect example of the type of gonzo absurdity that Lee & Kirby played with a straight face, making it palatable to children, adults, and everyone in between.
Nick Fury is, quite possibly, the most flexible and malleable of any of Stan Lee’s creations. In his first appearance, back in 1963, Nick Fury was the head of an elite military group, as part of the war-based Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. By 1965, however, with the explosive popularity of James Bond films, Fury had transitioned into more of a spy character. As the years have worn on, Fury didn’t just remain an active part of the Marvel Universe – he actually became an ever more crucial component, both in comics and film, as the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Benjamin J. Grimm, better known as The Thing. As a founding member of the Fantastic Four, the first superhero series Stan Lee created in Marvel era, he's been part of the Marvel canon from the very beginning. The Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Thing, is most closely associated with Jack Kirby, which makes sense, as the Lower East Side-dwelling, rough-and-tumble Jewish character had an inordinate amount in common with the King of Comics. But for the most part, it was Stan Lee that gave the Thing his voice in those early years, and as such, he was a vital part of making the character one of Marvel’s most beloved and most complex.
Lee’s greatest contribution to the X-Men might just be their greatest villain, the Master of Magnetism, Magneto. Generations of comic book creators have all put their spin on the villain, but the core idea has largely remained the same: Magneto is a man that while not inherently evil, is so furious at the bigotry he faces that he is compelled to strike back. He was the Malcolm X to Professor X’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Combine that amazing motivation with the fascinating, versatile ability to control magnetic fields and you have the recipe for one of the best comics characters of all time.
A common misconception about the Black Panther character is that he was created as a way of tying into current events, specifically the rise of the Black Panther Party. The truth though, is that the Black Panther predated the founding of the Black Panther Party by several months! It’s just one of many examples of how tapped into the zeitgeist Lee was at his creative peak, as he and frequent co-creator Jack Kirby introduced King T’Challa, who is not only the first black superhero, but also an early example of a non-American superhero. Black Panther, the first major African superhero, made his debut in an edition of Fantastic Four in 1966 and joined the Avengers in 1968.
Ant-Man's first appearance was in Tales to Astonish in 1962. Multiple Marvel characters have used that name including Hank Pym, Scott Lang and Eric O'Grady.
The Fantastic Four is probably Stan Lee’s single greatest contribution to comics. It kicked-off the Marvel Age of comics, reinvigorating superheroes for subsequent generations, it gave fandom a full family of iconic heroes, and it fleshed out the Marvel Universe with countless supporting characters. But on top of all that? The Fantastic Four also gave us one of the greatest comic book villains of all time: The arrogant, brilliant, ruthless leader of Latveria…Doctor Doom.
The name Black Widow for a superhero was first used in Mystic Comics in 1940, but Stan Lee reinvented the character as a Russian spy and enemy of Iron Man in 1964. She went on to join SHIELD and the Avengers.
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