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The incredible real-life love story that gave birth to Spider-Man

Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee, center left, blows out the candles on a birthday cake at the opening ceremonies of the first Mighty Marvel Comic Book Convention on March 22, 1975, in New York. At left is Lee's wife, Joan, and also present are Marvel superheroes Captain America and Spider-Man. (AP)
5 min

The Spider-Man franchise may seem as infinite as the universe, but the superhero would never have come about without an incredible, improbable love story.

It all began with Stan Lee, Spider-Man’s creator, doing one of the things he did best: sketching.

It was 1947, and after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Lee was back in New York City working for Timely Comics, a precursor to Marvel Comics, which he would come to define with his iconic superheroes such as the X-Men and Black Panther. When not busy thinking up story lines and jaw-busting action, he would pull out a sketch pad and draw the woman he planned to marry one day.

Like the other characters he drew, she didn’t exist. Or at least he didn’t think so.

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The story that ensued was related by Father Willy Raymond, president of Holy Cross Family Ministries, who heard Lee tell the tale over lunch in Hollywood about seven years ago. (Over the years, the comic book king has told versions of this story to dozens of reporters, with small variations.) The Catholic priest was then national director of Family Theater Productions, a faith-based movie studio established in 1947 by Father Patrick Peyton, who is now being considered for sainthood.

Father Willy was there as the guest of his friend Adam Jablonski, whose wife had placed the winning bid for a lunch with Lee at a charity auction. Jablonski, a big Lee fan, was attending with his son Kevin. As they ate salads at a fancy Los Angeles bistro on Sunset Boulevard, Lee mentioned his wife, Joan, prompting a question about the length of his marriage.

“Oh,” Lee replied, “I’ve been married for 65 years to the most beautiful woman in the world.”

The comic book storyteller went on to tell the unlikely story of how the two met. He described his postwar habit of drawing the woman of his dreams, with vibrant red hair, sparkling eyes and full lips. He would work on the drawing every day, making minute improvements to her face.

Then, one day in 1947, his best friend spied the drawing. “I know her,” he said to Lee, who responded that the sketch was not of a real person. “No,” insisted his friend. “I know where she lives. She’s a hat model.”

So Lee got her address and went to meet his dream girl the next day. “There before me was the most beautiful creature on God’s earth,” he told the three men at lunch. “Then, when she opened her mouth and spoke with a lilting British accent, which I loved, the first words out of my mouth were, ‘I’m going to marry you.’” (In other versions of the story, it was a cousin and not a friend who connected them, and Lee himself was the one who decided she looked just like his drawings. It wouldn’t be out of place for a master storyteller to shift a few details here and there for impact.)

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Of course, since this was real life and not a fantasized sketch, there were a few complications. For one, Joan was married to someone else at the time. She admitted later in an interview that her first marriage was a “huge mistake,” and she was ready for a divorce when Lee proposed.

The other snag was that Lee was not the only suitor. Other men had made their intentions clear about marrying a soon-to-be single Joan. When she flew to Reno for the divorce, Lee said he needed to maximize his chances by being there with her. An hour after Joan was freed from her first marriage, she said “I do” to Lee in a ceremony officiated by the same judge who granted the divorce.

While perhaps not a typical romance, theirs was an enduring one: The couple was married for 69 years — up until Joan’s death at 93 in 2017. (Lee died a year later at 95.)

And for superhero fans around the world, it was a crucial one. Joanie was the inspiration for Mary Jane Watson, Peter Parker’s first love in the Spider-Man saga. Even more important, she persuaded Lee to stick it out in the comic book business.

In 1961, Lee was ready to quit in frustration. He wasn’t feeling the love from his publisher, Martin Goodman, who insisted on “a lot of action, a lot of fight scenes, not too much dialogue,” he recalled in a 2017 video interview with Joe Quesada, Marvel’s chief creative officer. Lee preferred witty wisecracks and compelling characters in his comic books.

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“Why don’t you do one book the way you’d want to do it?” he recalled Joanie telling him. “The worst that will happen is that he will fire you, but you want to quit anyway. At least you’ll have gotten it out of your system.”

So Lee did just that. He worked with freelance artist Jack Kirby to create the Fantastic Four comic book, which sold like boxes of chocolates before Valentine’s Day. With that, the Marvel Universe was booming. Lee and Kirby cranked out new titles almost at will. Iron Man. The Incredible Hulk. Thor. Daredevil. The list went on and on.

“[Joan] gave me the world’s greatest advice,” Lee remembered, then admiringly added, “She’s responsible for my universe.”