Summer is the time for major blockbuster movies, as we all know. Such blockbusters have been super-hero comic book movies since about 2002, when Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man breathed new life into the genre. This weekend, the latest portrayal of the web-slinger debuted in the U.S. and reviews have been largely favorable for Stan Lee’s atypical hero who first graced a paper cover in 1962. This is a particularly poignant film premier because decades-old agreements had previously kept Marvel Studios separated from film rights to the wall-crawler. However, after negotiations, the character moved back under the Marvel cinematic umbrella. Stan’s surely been missing good old Peter Parker since the rights went up for sale in the mid-80s. With his beloved character’s return, it was sure to be a particularly special weekend premier for Stan the man.
Unfortunately, his wife Joan passed away Thursday.
For me personally, the Lees have been a very interesting, relatable and genuine couple. Yes, I’m the kind of person that actually took the time to watch a documentary on Stan Lee’s life and career. So, while I didn’t know them personally, the things they were comfortable sharing on camera were very revealing.
I could go through the whole saga of Lee’s life as a comic book king, but I’ll hit the relevant peaks in the climb.
Stan met his wife after he had been serving in World War II — if you have the time, I seriously suggest you look into that aspect of his life as well. He said he immediately knew she was the one for him, to which his friends told him he was crazy because she was married to another vet. He maintained that it was to be. In a more recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, he referred to Joan as the woman he had been drawing all his life.
I realize this may be an embellished story by a man who literally wrote “Tales to Astonish,” but what followed in their years together leads me to believe the story has at least a few grains of truth.
Joan officially divorced her husband and married Stan in 1947. They had two daughters together, the second of whom died a few days after birth in 1953. This was one of the moments that I still remember clearly from the documentary. The couple stood in their kitchen, itself a visual throw-back to the aesthetics of the silver-age of comics, casually leaned against the counter and candidly conveyed the struggle and the emotional pain of losing a child all those years ago. Their common candor stuck with me as they admitted what they lost, while recognizing they were still together as a family. Not an easy task.
But like any couple, the Lees had their moments of anger. Well into the rebirth of the modern comic book, Joan and her husband argued over his work commitments and her feelings of neglect. Both husband and wife vividly recalled Joan lifting Stan’s typewriter over her head and dashing it against the floor of his office. Stan had written the words for many a hallmark issue on that machine over the decades and he remembered his wife’s immediate shock at what she had done.
It was hard to tell through Stan’s trademark tinted lenses, but it seemed like he was smiling about the argument now. It seemed they could both laugh about it now, rather than hold on to any anger.
Through all the things they dealt with, they were still a couple who joked, still a couple who danced together in their home and still a couple who helped each other along. Stan even partially credited Joan with the creation of the one of his major titles. He felt he had hit a wall in his career and thought he might throw in the proverbial towel. She told him to at least write the story he had always wanted to write before he gave up. If he was going to go out, he should go out with no regrets. That story was published in 1962. It was called the Fantastic Four, which some would argue pumped new life into the industry. The following year, several of today’s popular characters made their debuts, all within months of one another. Characters like the Incredible Hulk, the mighty Thor and even the amazing Spider-Man trace their roots to the boom that followed the Fantastic Four.
I don’t think Stan the man would disagree with me when I say Marvel Comics wouldn’t be what it is today without Joan. She may not get the credit her husband does, but I think she deserves some recognition. I, as a wanna-be-card-carrying-member-of-the-Merry-Marvel-Marching-Society, intend to take a moment and remember Joan as I sit down to watch the return of her husband’s flagship character to the Marvel cinematic universe. I’m sure Stan will be doing the same.