How Did the Whole Stan Lee Cameo Thing Start? (And the Hilariously Awkward Way He Convinced His Future Wife to Go Out With Him)
Born Stanley Martin Lieber almost a century ago in 1922, the man who would become far better known by his pen name, Stan Lee, was born into a family of very modest means with Stan, his brother, and Romanian immigrant parents sharing a single room apartment in New York during the 1930s.
As Lee would recall, “I grew up in New York City during the Depression. My earliest recollections were of my parents, Jack and Celia Lieber, talking about what they would do if they didn’t have the rent money. Luckily, we were never evicted. But my father was unemployed most of the time. He had been a dress cutter, and during the Depression, there wasn’t much need for dress cutters. So I started working when I was still in high school. I was an office boy, I was an usher, I wrote obituaries for celebrities while they were still alive. Lots of jobs.”
Showing an interest in writing from his teens, Lee’s mother was his #1 fan at that time, “She thought I was the greatest thing on two feet. I’d come home with a little composition I had written at school and she’d look at it and say, “It’s wonderful! You’re another Shakespeare!” I always assumed I could do anything. It really is amazing how much that has to do with your attitude.”
In 1939 at the age of 17, Lee landed a job with a company owned by his cousin, Jean Goodman’s, husband, Martin Goodman. The company was called Timely Publications. While the pay wasn’t much, a mere $8 per week (about $147 today), it was potentially a path to a professional writing gig, though not quite the one he originally envisioned for himself.
When I got there, I found out that the opening was in the comic book department. Apparently, I was the only guy who had applied for the job. I figured it might be fun. So I became a gofer — there were only two guys, Joe Simon, the editor, and Jack Kirby, the artist. They were the creators of Captain America, and that’s what they were working on at the time. I would fill the inkwells, go down and buy lunch, and erase pages and proofread.
Two years into the job, he was finally granted a chance to write filler text in the 1941 Captain America #3 comic. Called, Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge, the story, along with being warmly received by fans, introduced the idea of Captain America being able to throw and ricochet his trademark shield, now a defining aspect of the character. It was also the first comic in which Lieber, as he was then known, wrote under the pseudonym Stan Lee. According to Lee, he chose not to write under his then real name since he still hoped to one day write “proper literature” and had dreams of writing the “great American novel”. Thus, he didn’t want his name to be sullied by his work in comics.
Plans changed, however, when he randomly got a promotion to head editor of the comic department at just 19 years old.
[Simon and Kirby] were fired for some reason. Martin had no one to run the department. He said to me, “Can you do it?” I was . When you’re , what do you know? I said, “Sure, I can do it.” Martin must have forgotten about me, because he just left me there. I loved it. I was so young, it was sometimes embarrassing. Someone would come into the office and see me there and say, “Hey, kid, can I see the editor?”
At this point, in order to give the illusion of a large staff, Lee took to using a variety of other pseudonyms as well.
In 1942, a temporary editor was hired while Lee served in the US Army with the Signal Corps. He never saw combat, instead working at repairing communications equipment and later writing field manuals and military slogans as a part of the Training Film Division. Also in that division were the likes of Frank Capra, Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss), and the creator of The Addam’s Family, Charles Addams.
Despite being in the army, Lee still kept up with his work at Timely as best he could from afar, with weekly letters mailed to him explaining exactly what he needed to produce content for that week. Once he was done, he’d mail it back.
Lee’s service ended in 1945 and he went back to Timely full time.
It was two years later that Lee, with an awkwardness befitting a man who would come to create the characters nerds the world over would grow to love, Lee met and wooed his future wife.
There are conflicting accounts on whether one of Lee’s friends dared him to ask out some red headed model or his cousin set him up on a blind date with said model. Either way, Lee went to her office to see about that date. However, when he arrived and knocked at the door of the modeling agency, the woman who answered was someone completely different- a hat model from England by the name of Joan Boocock. Joan had come to America after marrying one Sanford Dorf, who had been serving in the UK during the war.
Stunned when he saw her, rather than play it cool, instead Lee apparently almost immediately professed his undying love for her, and then followed this awkward exchange up by telling her he’d had her face in his mind and been drawing it since he was a kid… (According to Lee, this wasn’t any sort of cheesy line, but the absolute truth.)
Rather than finding any of this weird or creepy, despite being married at the time, Joan agreed to go out on a date with Lee. As to why, despite by her own admission being in a happy marriage, she found it completely boring. (I guess as you’d expect from marrying someone named Sanford Dorf.)
But Stan Lee, she states, “He wore a marvelous floppy hat and scarf and spouted Omar Khayyam [an 11th/12th century Persian poet] when he took me for a hamburger at Prexy’s. He reminded me of that beautiful man, [British actor] Leslie Howard.”
As for Lee, he said he knew right on his first date he wanted to marry Joan. Two weeks later, not caring in the slightest that she was already married, he proposed and she said yes.
The problem was that she now needed a divorce, which was prohibitively difficult in New York at the time. Where there is a will, there’s a way, however, and she simply moved to Reno temporarily. You see, in Reno, you only needed to live there six weeks before you could file for divorce in the area, and the judges there were much more accepting of such.
However, during her time in Reno, being a beautiful young model and all, suitors flocked to her like the salmon of Capistrano. With Lee back in New York and their relationship not exactly built on a firm foundation, Lee said at one point he got a letter from Joan with the implication being she was thinking of breaking off their whirlwind courtship.
Not going to give her up without a fight, Lee took a trip to Reno and convinced her he was the love of her life and she his. The two then got married in Reno on the same day she got a divorce, and by the same judge who granted it, mere minutes after the divorce papers were signed.
While you might think such a relationship was doomed to end in failure. In fact, the couple spent the next 69 years together, before Joan’s death in 2017 at the age of 95.
Said Lee of Joan in their twilight years together, “My wife and I are really so close. And yet, I’m not sure if she’s ever read a story I wrote. She’s not into comics at all.”
Going back to Stan Lee’s career, as for Timely’s strategy in those days, it was essentially just copy whatever the competition was doing.
Martin was one of the great imitators of all time. If he found that a company had Western magazines that were selling, he would say, “Stan, come up with some Westerns.” Horror stories, war stories, crime stories, whatever. Whatever other people were selling, we would do the same thing. I would have liked to come up with my own stuff, but I was getting paid.
This all changed, ironically, from copying someone again–
Martin mentioned that he had noticed one of the titles published by National Comics seemed to be selling better than most. It was a book called Justice League of America and it was composed of a team of superheroes… “If the Justice League is selling, he spoke, “Why don’t we put out a comic book that features a team of superhereos?”
At this point in his career, Lee had grown weary of writing comics, seeing the medium as stagnant and devoid of interesting characters. He was, in fact, planning on quitting.
That’s when Joan told him he should take the opportunity in trying to copy the Justice League concept to create the character’s he’d find interesting. Lee says she stated, “Why not write one book the way you’d like to, instead of the way Martin wants you to? Get it out of your system. The worst thing that will happen is he’ll fire you — but you want to quit anyway.”
Simultaneously, Lee states, “[My wife] Joan was commenting about the fact that after 20 years of producing comics I was still writing television material, advertising copy, and newspaper features in my spare time. She wondered why I didn’t put as much effort and creativity into the comics as I seemed to be putting into my other freelance endeavors… [Her] little dissertation made me suddenly realize that it was time to start concentrating on what I was doing- to carve a real career for myself in the nowhere world of comic books.”
Lee then decided,
For just this once, I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading…. And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they’d be flesh and blood, they’d have their faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty, and — most important of all — inside their colorful, costumed booties they’d still have feet of clay.
While this might all seem pretty normal today, at the time in the superhero genre it was groundbreaking. Said Lee, “That’s what any story should have, but comics didn’t have until that point. They were all cardboard figures….”
The product of this was The Fantastic Four. The results surpassed his wildest expectations.
We had never gotten fan mail up until that point… Sometimes we might get a letter from a reader that would say, “I bought one of your books and there’s a staple missing. I want my dime back.” And that was it. We’d put that up on the bulletin board and say, “Look! A fan letter!” Suddenly, with Fantastic Four, we really started getting mail…”We like this… We don’t like that… We want to see more of this.” That was exciting! So I didn’t quit… After that, Martin asked me to come up with some other superheroes… And we stopped being a company that imitated.
With business booming, Lee states, “[We] realized we were onto something. I figured we needed a new name, because we were not the same company we had been. I remembered the first book Martin published when I started there was called Marvel Comics. It had the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, and it was very successful. Why don’t we call the company Marvel? There are so many ways you can use that word in advertising. I came up with catch phrases like ‘Make mine Marvel’ and ‘Marvel marches on!'”
At this point while Martin was open to giving Lee fairly free rein, he still had his limits, which was a problem for Spider-Man, who Lee dreamed up as follows:
The most important thing in those days was the cover. All these books were on the newsstand, and you had to hope your cover would compel somebody to buy the book. And everything depended on the name. A character like Hurricane was a guy who ran very fast. Later on, when I was looking for new superheroes, it occurred to me that somebody crawling on walls would be interesting. I thought, Mosquito Man? It didn’t sound very glamorous. Fly Man? I went down the list and came to Spider-Man. That was it.
The concept of Spider-Man, however, was a little too far out.
[Martin] didn’t want me to do it. He said I was way off base. He said, “First of all, you can’t call a hero Spider-Man, because people hate spiders.’ I had also told him I wanted the hero, Peter Parker, to be a teenager, and he said, “A teenager can’t be the hero… teenagers can just be sidekicks” Then when I said I wanted Spider-Man to have a lot of financial problems and family worries and all kinds of hang-ups, he said, “Stan, don’t you know what a hero is? That’s no way to do a heroic book!” So he wouldn’t let me publish it.
Later, we had a book that we were going to cancel. We were going to do the last issue and then drop it. When you’re doing the last issue of a book, nobody cares what you put into it, so-just to get it off my chest- I threw Spider-Man into the book and I featured him on the cover. A couple of months later when we got our sales figures, that had been the best-selling book we’d had in months. So Martin came in to me and said, ‘Do you remember that Spider-Man character of yours that we both liked? Why don’t you do a series with him”
After that, it was much easier… Whatever I came up with, he okayed. After that, came The X-Men and Daredevil and Thor and Dr. Strange… and the rest. The books did so well that I just gave up all thoughts of quitting.
With business booming, Martin decided to sell the company, with Perfect Film and Chemical aquiring Marvel in the late 1960s. Not long after that, Lee got a promotion,
[They] made me the president and even chairman. But I was never a businessman. I remember when the board asked me to come up with a three-year plan for the company. I said, “Guys, I don’t know how to predict where we’ll be in three years. I don’t even know what I’m going to have for breakfast tomorrow.” I resigned as president after about a year. I mean, I can add and subtract, but I hate to read sheets of numbers. I like to write stories.
This brings us finally to the cameos and how that whole thing got started.
His first cameo of sorts was text only, occurring in an All-Winners comic in 1941 where various characters petition Lee to add more characters. Next up, Wayne Boring and Hank Chapman decided to put their boss in the 1951 Astonishing #4.
Where the cameos really became a thing though started in 1963, when Lee and his long-time collaborator, Jack Kirby, appeared in The Fantastic Four #10 in which the pair are featured on the cover, as well as inside. On the cover, it shows the duo with Lee saying, “How’s this for a twist Jack? We’ve got Doctor Doom as one of the Fantastic Four!!” With Kirby adding, “And Mister Fantastic himself as the villain!! Our fans oughtta flip over this yarn!!”
Beside them, it also states, “In this epic issue surprise follows surprise as you actually meet Lee and Kirby in the story!! Plus a gorgeous pin-up of the invisible girl!”
As for inside the issue, it has Doctor Doom demanding that Lee and Kirby get the Fantastic Four to walk into a trap, which they then do.
Said Lee of this sort of thing, “The artists back then would draw me in as a joke or just to have fun. And I would put some dialogue balloons there and it looked as if I intended it. I didn’t try to do cameos in those days.”
But fans loved it, as well as the chance to get to know the people behind the comics, which were featured in a section of their own as well. The point of all of this, along with the little quips and notes in various areas was, according to Lee, “[For] the reader to feel we were all friends, that we were sharing some private fun that the outside world wasn’t aware of.”
From here the occasional cameo caught on, with Lee stating, “Anything that seemed fun and anything that the readers seemed to enjoy we kept doing and those things brought in a lot of fan mail. And we weren’t doing movies or television, our whole existence depended on comic books, so if you see that something is interesting to the fans you stay with it.”
Since then Lee, and to a lesser extent Kirby (who was notably more camera shy), appeared numerous times across many forms of media. These cameos range from simple background characters in comics bearing Lee’s likeness to full on self-referential roles in Marvel’s numerous works. The most egregious example of the latter is arguably the 1990s Spider-Man cartoon in which Spider-Man is transported to the “real” world via magical comic shenanigans and meets Stan Lee, who reveals that he created Spider-Man and spends some time conversing with his creation before being left stranded on a roof.
Moving on to Lee’s first cameo in video form, this appeared in the 1989 The Trial of the Incredible Hulk where Lee appears in the jury at the trial.
Arguably Lee’s most unusual cameo is one in a property owned by Marvel’s single biggest rival, DC- Superman: The Animated Series. In the episode, Apokolips… Now! Part 2, Lee, along with characters who bear a striking resemblance to members of the Fantastic Four, appear in a brief crowd shot of the funeral of the character, Dan Turpin. Said character’s appearance was largely based on the aforementioned Jack Kirby, who’d sadly died the year earlier. Out of respect for his memory and his contribution to the world of comics, the animators for the episode snuck in a character who looked like Lee along with several other Marvel characters Kirby had helped create. The commitment to accuracy was such that the graveyard shown in the episode was modeled on the one Kirby is buried in, in real life and the crew hired an actual rabbi to read a kaddish that was included in the episode’s audio. Lee’s cameo was removed in the subsequent DVD release of the episode, but he can still be seen in the episode’s storyboards.
Speaking of cameos, a slightly lesser known fact is that Lee’s beloved wife, Joan, who was the inspiration for a few female characters in the Marvel universe, also did voice work for the 1990s Fantastic Four and Spider-Man animated series, as well as a cameo of her own in X-Men: Apocalypse where she appears alongside Stan Lee.
This all brings us to Stan Lee’s final cameo, where he appears as a de-aged hippie alongside a woman who is meant to be a de-aged Joan Lee- very fittingly for them both, this final cameo appeared in Marvel’s Endgame.
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