Stan Lee saved my childhood sanity and my childhood life. So did Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and George Perez and Marv Wolfman and Bill Mantlo and the rest of the Marvel Comics creative team.
Which is why the passing of Stan Lee yesterday – at the ripe age of 95 – still seems like a stunner.
What Stan Lee did with Marvel Comics – turning what was originally perceived as anything from “funny books with talking animals” to “seditious, corrupting influences on impressionable children” into exciting, thrilling, daunting escapes.
The Marvel super heroes were not just amazing men and women with abilities far beyond us regular humans. They were also people who didn’t fit the mold of the previous generations of jut-jawed champions of justice. And that made Marvel’s characters stand out.
Think about this for a second. Thanks to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, you had a superhero who originally planned on using his gifts and skills for personal gain – until that one moment when his selfish choice cost the life of his beloved uncle. To understand that with great power comes great responsibility, to know that just having super-powers isn’t enough if you don’t use them wisely and for good – that was a different interpretation than the usual “good guy always beats bad guy” comics I previously enjoyed.
Or that you could have an anti-hero – someone whose powers are not of his control, someone who turns into a raging, barely controllable “Id” of base brutality. A man hunted for being powerful, a man attacked for only wanting personal peace and solace. How many times did I wish I was the Hulk, just having the ability to rage out and fight back against the bullies and tormentors at school – or even against the parental bullies and tormentors at home?
And how about the dream that your powers could come from your birth – that one day you start developing super-speed or flight or the ability to pulse Adamantium claws out of your knuckles… but even then, with those powers, there are those that will treat you as an inferior, as different, as hated, as ridiculed, as hunted. To be a mutant in the Marvel universe had both its blessings and its curses. Just like being different in school had its own curses and torments.
And, if you do develop super powers, how do you stay together as a family? Despite your super-strength and stone-chiseled invulnerability, do you blame the man who took away your humanity for a science experiment, yet you stay with him and his wife and her brother and fight as one unit? How do you make that choice and not feel like you sold your own soul and your own beliefs away?
I’m not saying that Stan Lee created all of this out of his own fertile brain. But Stan Lee was at the forefront. He was the writer of the newsletters in every magazine. He was the face of Marvel, the narrator, calling us the true believers, ending his phrases with “Excelsior,” encouraging us to take the traumas and difficulties of our world and make them real and focused and surmountable.
And that even if you stumble, if you fall, if you fail, if you slip into temptation or frustration or helplessness or hopelessness… the Marvel superheroes went through it as well. Even the most virtuous of men can collapse. What do you do next? How do you fight back from failure? It’s never easy and it can’t be wrapped up in a few pages, no more than it can be wrapped up in a few moments of your life. Recovering from addictions takes time and help. But it can be done.
And even in our most tragic historic moments… when the enemies were not confined to the print pages, but who actually destroyed 3,000 human souls on a dark day in 2001… the Marvel superheroes knew that there was no panacea, no super-power that could bring anyone back. The super power then was to rebuild what was destroyed, to heal and mourn and vow to never let this happen again.
This is the legacy of Stan Lee. A storyteller. Plain and simple.
Rest in peace, Stan Lee, and thanks for all the stories you and your Marvel crew told us over the decades.