Excelsior, Smilin’ Stan!
Face front, True Believers! We’ve come together today to pay our respects to a man who’s become as well known as the superheroes he helped invent. Stan Lee’s relationship with his best known creations was a… complicated one. But, to paraphrase someone who might’ve learned a thing or two from ’The Man’ himself, I’ve come not to bury Stan Lee, but to praise him.
A lot of contemporary comic historians like to point out how Lee basically took all the credit for Marvel’s success. They claim that, instead, everything that made The Fantastic Four or Spider-Man special came from the artists who worked for Lee, like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, and that Lee had nothing to do with the success of these comics, other than supplying some corny dialog. But that’s as much of an oversimplification as claiming Lee did it all. Without Lee, Spider-Man wouldn’t have been a smart-ass. Without Lee, the FF wouldn’t have had their squabbles, the Silver Surfer wouldn’t have been a poet, Doctor Doom might have learned how to use the first person- and would’ve been a lesser villain for it.
Nothing brings into focus Lee’s contributions to Marvel more than the work Jack Kirby did for Marvel’s chief rival, DC. Kirby’s Fourth World Saga, a tale of New Gods battling each other for the fate of the Earth, was totally over-the-top cosmic insanity. The artwork and design Kirby did for those stories are still unparalleled in any medium, but the actual stories as written? They don’t read half as well as any random issue of the Fantastic Four’s first eight years. If there’s one thing Lee could do better than anybody (besides self-promotion) it’s his ability to capture a character succinctly through just a few lines of dialog. Mr. Fantastic doesn’t speak like the Thing, who doesn’t talk like Spider-Man, who sounds nothing like Dr. Strange. The designs and artwork of these icons may have captured our attention, but if the stories and characters weren’t compelling, we wouldn’t have kept coming back.
Lee is probably more famous now than he has ever been, thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and his (increasingly lengthy) cameos in each film. In Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man (2002), you’d miss him if you blinked. By the time of Thor: Ragnarok, he’s got multiple lines of dialog and takes center stage of the scene he’s in. I always look forward to seeing these bits- I want to see how the filmmakers work him into the story. I suppose we will see Lee in the upcoming Captain Marvel and Avengers 4, and then… that will be it. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Lee calls out to the departing Watchers “Come back, I have more stories to tell!” Indeed, you did, Smilin’ Stan. Rest assured that the ones you did tell have earned you a place in all of our hearts.
– Jeffrey Knight
Our stories matter. The stories we tell ourselves, the stories we read and imagine who we would be. The stories that take the normal right and wrongs of everyday life and magnify them and enhance them with pictures of heroic hobbits vs. orc hordes, orphaned boys fighting evil wizards, and, of course, super-powered heroes taking on world-dominating, maniacal super villains. Those stories don’t happen without Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, and Steve Ditko and the like, but one could argue that it is Stan Lee that most impacted the myths and superheroes of today.
Stan Lee started working at Timely Comics (most famously known as a little company by the name of Marvel) when he was 17. Although he already loved writing stories, it was his wife of over 60 years, Joan, who suggested he write heroes with relatable flaws, and so he did. He wrote about a super-powered family that fought like everyone else’s did, he wrote about a man with anger issues, he wrote about laser-shooting, psychic misfits, and most famously, he wrote about dorky teenagers with spider powers trying to make up for past mistakes and somehow hold their lives together and protect their loved ones.
Those stories matter, and they mattered to me. There is no fictional hero that comes close to the impact that Peter Parker has made on my life. From the moment I read about him, he was an inspiration, an encouragement, and a friend. I wore a Spidey mask when my wife and I were introduced on our wedding day. Stan Lee’s creation gave colorful spandexed reality to my insecurities, but more than that, to the kind of person I aspired to be. Lee got that superheroes not only carried many of our shortcomings, but by being “like us” they made it seem more possible for us to aspire to be the hero.
My favorite cinematic Spider-Man scene is in the much derided (but my personal favorite), Amazing Spider-Man 2. Spider-Man has been missing for reasons explained in the film, and the Rhino is terrorizing the city. Police have set up a roadblock, but a 8 year-old kid dressed as Spider-Man sneaks under and faces down this gigantic mechanical rhino. And as he strikes the classic Spider-Man pose, the camera zooms out and there is the real “Webhead.” Superheroes are supposed to not just entertain but inspire us. Stan Lee gave us our modern myths, the stories we tell to show right and wrong, the price of doing the right thing, and the need for all of us to use whatever power we have for good. I’ll always be grateful for him for that.
Thanks for the stories, Stan the Man. We will keep striving to live up to them.
– Oscar Jackson III
One thing about Stan Lee, no one could wield a soapbox like he could. In his timely time at Marvel Comics, and even in certain subsequent years representing the company on the west coast and elsewhere, “Smiling Stan” took to his monthly yellow column, firmly nestled amid the mandatory full page of “Bullpen Bulletins” to hype, hoot, and hyperbolize as only he could. For the dedicated legion of “Marvel zombie” fanboys such as yours truly, it was appointment reading. Out of the gate, Stan coined a particular vernacular, an unmistakable “Stan speak”- that of the affable huckster, a primary purveyor of the uncanny. He was the ringmaster of a ragtag office where all our favorite funny-book creators would huddle together, their Stan-given nicknames firmly ensconced, each of them spinning gold for us while hatching shenanigans among one other. Stan’s Marvel was, quite simply, the best workplace in the whole world.
Of course, very little of it was true. In reality, Stan ran a tight ship, even as many of the key Marvel creators didn’t live in New York City, and therefore worked from afar. Yet, as Stan spun his myths of the Marvel worlds, the one starring his creations Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four, and the other starring Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko, and Roy Thomas and a host of others, he understood that his carefully cultivated layers of fantasy were not just appreciated, but needed.
As previously alluded, one doesn’t have to dig too deeply to come up with legitimate dirt about Stan, almost all of it involving his treatment of employees and his initial denial of their rightful financial rewards regarding their creations for Marvel. His persistent grandstanding meant that he absorbed most of the credit for the many, many Marvel characters he co-created with talented artists. Yet, the collective fan community, and even some of the creators he’d wronged over the years, have seen fit to forgive him long ago. He’s Stan Lee, for cryin’ out loud. Creator, myth maker, figurehead, and boss. Huckster, showman, media personality, and spinner of hundreds of yarns. It can be said that he lived a long, heroic life, humanizing super-humans in comics and superbly empowering regular human beings in his Stan’s Soapbox columns. Will he be missed? You bet your sweet Aunt Petunia, true-believer! Though stable of characters he’s had a hand in creating will outlive all of us.
– Jim Tudor
As someone who didn’t read many comics, I still knew who Stan Lee was. His name was all over anything from Marvel. When the Marvel Cinematic Universe began, Stan Lee become an even bigger icon with his hilarious cameo appearances, a tradition that actually dates back well before the modern MCU. The cameos have become an attraction unto themselves in spite of whatever larger than life action is going on around them. He, rather than the characters themselves, has somehow been the narrative thread that connected the various worlds and plot lines of everyone from Tony Stark, Peter Parker, Dr. Strange, Thor, or the Guardians of the Galaxy.
If rumors are true, we can still expect a few more such cameos in future installments, though his appearances will be a bittersweet reminder of the loss of Stan Lee. His legacy will certainly be intact as his name will continue to be listed as the creator/co-creator of all of his beloved characters whether they appear in print or on screen. While his death certainly comes as an immediate shock, at 95 years old, Stan knew his time was limited. He continued to enjoy his life and show us that we could always have childlike wonder, no matter our age. The proof is in each cameo that he made. There will be a Marvel-less hole in the MCU once they cease.
RIP, Stan Lee.
– Erik Yates