“They take great pains to point out that comics are supposed to be escapist reading, and nothing more. But somehow, I can’t see it that way. It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul. In fact, even the most escapist literature of all — old time fairy tales and heroic legends — contained moral and philosophical points of view………..None of us lives in a vacuum—none of us is untouched by the everyday events about us — events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives. Sure our tales can be called escapist — but just because something’s for fun, doesn’t mean we have to blanket our brains while we read it!”- Stan Lee ( December 28,1922-November 12,2018)
The world has lost another icon, as a constellation of tears have fallen from the heavens. The great Stanley Lieber, better known as Stan Lee, to most of the world, has ascended and the world has felt this giant’s void, as the world’s collective hearts have stopped beating momentarily to mourn that familiar voice which is no more. As emotional postings on social media from every part of the world, every industry, and a whole slew of celebrities, share how this one man has impacted their childhoods and who they are as human beings. My first thought was how is this real? Yes, he was 95, yes, he was in bad health, but just like older people in my family, that were getting up there in age, they still had their wits about them, and so did Stan Lee, but yet here we are, as this legend has ascended.
As I thought of the best way to honor his legacy, I felt somewhat conflicted. As the conflicting stories of his falling out with the King, Jack Kirby and his fraught relationship with the recently passed Steve Ditko, made me wonder what lead to, as he called it in an interview, “unfriendly misalliances.”
At his very core, he was a writer, one who would go on to create over 362 characters on his own and with collaborators including but not limited to Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Hulk, Doctor Strange, The Fantastic Four, Black Panther, Daredevil, The X-Men, Ant-Man, Thor, Luke Cage, etc. Other than that, he was the Marvel’s most outspoken founder, as he promoted the company in every breath he took and everywhere he went.
In some respects, he was Steve Jobs before there was Steve Jobs, as its was his leadership that lead the company to its world renown and shaped it into something more than a “funny papers” company, much like Jobs did for Apple over the course of his life, making it a goliath in the technology world. Lee was also Bundini to Kirby’s and Ditko’s Muhammad Ali, who was Ali’s famous cornerman, as it would come to be later known, that Kirby and Ditko were the main creative forces behind many of the Golden Age books that came out of Timely Comics, which later became Marvel Comics. The reality is, his life would be filled with regrets about this, as he revealed in an interview on the miniseries, The Secret History Of Comics.
My first exposure to Stan lee, was through the Saturday morning cartoon, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, where it was the first time, I heard the words, “True Believers.” I hear it now like the first time my 7 year old self heard it then with the all the enthusiasm and gusto that only Lee could deliver. It was through his love of characters and mythology, that I became enamored with comics, in the first place.
Growing up, one of the first times I ever picked up a comic was featuring Luke Cage, another of Lee’s creations. Through him I felt I was seen. Through him I saw someone else who felt racism and someone who was misunderstood. It was through Spider-Man, though I looked nothing like Peter Parker, that we shared similar struggles to belong and how it was to face tragedy. It was through Thor that I saw that my struggle with my parents was not unique to me. It was through Black Panther that I saw the ingenuity and fortitude of the immigrant as I saw the same hurdles my parents faced coming to America.
As I became more in love with comics, my love moved to different comics form different companies, one of them being DC, whose characters felt more grounded and more believable. I had become cynical in some respects and dismissed what came from the “House of Ideas,” as purely fantastical. Chris Claremont’s X-Men, at the time, was the one comic everyone talked about and I could care less. It became an issue of tribal loyalty to me, when it should not have been. I would look back it now, it felt like Marvel was the cool kids and DC was the rich kids who did not care what anybody thought. Of course, I would ultimately come back to Marvel because of their own dark hero, Moon Knight, one would embrace the darkness within, a character I felt was a cross between Doctor Fate and Batman.
Over time, I would embrace everything comics, and eventually so did the world. Pop culture encompasses everything comics based right now because innovators like Lee made those characters and worlds possible. Take for example, everyone’s obsession with zombies, it is true George Romero, was one of the first people to make it popular but its current entry into the zeitgeist is because of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic and tv show, who stands on Lee’s shoulders. Take hip-hop music, which is heavily embedded with pop culture references, as in one of Public Enemy’s songs, “Raise The Roof.” Chuck D raps:”
Expand my power on the hour, make you all behold
From the slammer swing a hammer like the mighty Thor
God of thunder, you’ll go under, then you’ll all applaud
And fathom that distance, the mad must reap
Meet Namor sea lord, Prince of the deep
Here for you to fear at any cost
As it is also was no coincidence that Ghostface Killah, from the Wu Tang Clan’s alias, is Tony Starks AKA Iron Man, who he dedicated a whole album to.
This is because Lee made comics part of popular culture.
The world’s love affairs with his characters expanded through cartoons, then the live action shows, like The Incredible Hulk. The expansion of the characters beyond the printed page lead to comics slow but persistent immersion into popular media. Blade in 1992, which was only obvious to comics fans was a Marvel property, was the company’s first legitimate foray into the movie world which Lee executive produced,(although he didn’t have a hand in creating the character) and actually would have featured the first Stan Lee cameo in a movie featuring a Marvel character. His scene was cut from the movie where his role was as the police officer who found Donal Logue’s character burnt crisp.
From what he started to what the world knows now as the Marvel Universe has grown exponentially. From the comics that the company still produces to the myriad of live action television shows, cartoons, and movies that makes up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which celebrated its 10 year anniversary this year, a bittersweet milestone as the company effectively has lost its greatest champion a few months after.
As a comic book fan, I never met him and I wished I did. As many of my childhood heroes have started to leave this plane of existence and ascend, it’s important to let these icons know the impact they have on you. I wished I had the chance. I wish that the many chances I could have met him, that I did once just to tell him, “Thank you Mr. Lee, for letting this son of immigrants be seen when the rest of the world refused to. Thank you for letting me know I was not alone. Thank you for letting me know the world is my oyster”.
I will end this piece with a few exemplary words from my fellow contributors, who eloquently shared what he meant to them :
Steven Auclair, contributor:
I am truly heartbroken today. I never knew Stan personally. I met him once four years ago at Boston Comic Con which was a surreal moment. But even though I didn’t know Stan personally, I knew him through the characters he helped create and bring to life and helped those like me cope with the struggles of everyday life when I read a comic or watch a Marvel movie. These days Marvel gets a lock of flack for being more and more politically correct and I’ve been one of those critics, but at the end of the day the who Stan Lee was. He was a man who embraced change and embraced diversity and that reflects in Marvel today and in the future. Rest in Peace Stan Lee. There will never be another like you.
Jon Carroll, contributor:
It’s hard to say what Stan Lee did or did not do. His most frequent collaborators, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, we’re bona fide geniuses and the method of working Stan created put much of the burden of creation on their shoulders. That said at the end of the day nothing Kirby or Ditko did without Lee’s involvement was ever as good as the stuff they did together. Stan gave the Marvel characters their humanity as flawed and self-absorbed as it might be at times. If Ditko was the mind of early Marvel and Kirby was it’s bombastic heart, then Stan was the smiling face that welcomed you in and made you feel at home with his pithy dialog and his engagement with the fans through his columns, his responses to letters and his appearances at too many conventions to count. Kirby may have been “The King” but Stan was “The Man” and will remain so in our hearts as long as people read these funny little things we like to call comics. Excelsior True Believer!
Joe Ryan, contributor:
Todd Mcfarlane Spider-Man, and Chris Claremont X-Men got me into comics, and to this day, my favorite characters in any genre. As a boy, I didn’t realize the magical people behind these characters coming to light were Lee, Kirby, Ditko and more. I first saw Stan Lee on a X-Men VHS of the famed cartoon I bought at Pizza Hut. I was obsessed with that show, and I still remember a message he recorded for the Marvel fans like myself who bought the tape. He was so full of life and passion for these characters I loved, and it told a young Joe Ryan that he was like me. Except he not only loved these characters, he co-created them. RIP to a legend of a creator, and massive thank you to what he and Jack brought to me as not only someone who writes about comics, but first and foremost loves them as a fan as well. Excelsior!