Earth-shattering events are nothing new in the world (worlds, actually) of comic books and superheroes. But on November 12, 2018 came the single most devastating one of them all—the death of Stan Lee.
The humble beginnings of a household name
In the 1940s, a young man named Stanley Martin Lieber, born to a modest Jewish immigrant family, started a career in the publishing industry. Having devoured the works of William Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Mark Twain since he was just 10 years old, he aspired to achieve his own heights of literary achievement.
While his love for storytelling and the written word fueled his prolific pace, being relegated to writing for the comic book format—largely considered as kids’ stuff at the time—was far from his ideal situation.
In fact, he almost quit comics altogether if not for the unrelenting support and encouragement of his wife, Joan.
“I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it, they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain, you’re doing a good thing.”
Creating worlds, redefining heroes
The course of Stan’s career—and as it would turn out, American popular culture—took a turn toward greater things in the early 1960s.
Stan reimagined superheroes in his own vision, and in 1961, the first issue of The Fantastic Four hit shelves. The title introduced characters who possessed the powers and abilities of gods but at the same time bore the weight of very common, very human problems—concerns regarding their privacy as public figures, insecurities about appearance and public perception, and even internal quarrels among family members.
“We tried to make our characters as human and empathetic as possible. Instead of merely emphasizing their super feats, we attempted to make their personal life and personal problems as realistic and as interesting as possible. We wanted to make them seem like real people whom the reader would like to spend time with and want to know better.”
This fresh perspective was a game-changer for the genre and became an instant hit among readers. The Fantastic Four’s success spurred the rapid-fire creation of more titles featuring an entire pantheon of new heroes.
Stan, working with fellow pillars of the American comic book industry such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, and many more, built an entirely new universe inspired by our very own. This amazing new reality featured heroes who were as grounded and flawed as they were spectacular, incredible, and uncanny.
Peter Parker had to learn about responsibility by failing to prevent the tragic death of his uncle, despite having sensational superhuman abilities as Spider-Man. Bruce Banner, despite the other-worldly strength of his alter-ego, the Hulk, strained against the turmoil caused by his Jekyll-versus-Hyde-esque duality. The X-Men were mutant teens who embraced righteousness, even in a world that treated them with fear and hatred.
An inspiration to generations of True Believers (and more)
The Huffington Post: What makes you feel like a kid again?
Stan Lee: You use the word “again.” I think I’ve never stopped feeling like a kid.
Captivating characters and enthralling narratives caught the attention of readers, but what truly made Marvel Comics stand out among fans was the sense of genuine connection that Stan made sure to establish with them. Stan’s endless exuberance and creativity were also the driving forces behind delightful alliterative gimmicks like the “Stan’s Soapbox” editorial column and the “Merry Marvel Marching Society” fan club.
Through these avenues, Stan gave the Marvel bullpen a voice, a personal connection through which readers get a unique peek into the inner workings of an office full of comic book writers and artists. These strategies clicked, boosting reader loyalty and planting the seeds of inspiration for future generations of comics’ readers and creators alike.
At the same time, Stan became a larger-than-life figurehead, a P.T. Barnum-esque showman that the comic book medium didn’t even know it needed.
By the time of his passing, Stan Lee was already a man who needed no introduction. Thanks to the thrice-a-year theatrical spectacles delivered by the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies—not to mention countless other movie and TV franchises that picked up on his penchant for appearing in quirky cameos—Stan owned one of the most recognizable names, faces, and voices in contemporary popular culture.
And he sure loved every minute of it.
The greatest superhero of all
While not entirely a Stan Lee original, this line from Amazing Fantasy #15—the first appearance of Spider-Man—will forever be attributed to this man.
A careful selection of words whose meaning has enduring impact and importance, this iconic line perfectly represents what Stan Lee was all about. Behind the creative imagination, the signature flamboyance, and unparalleled charisma was a storyteller with a social conscience.
Stan’s legacy was more than just telling engaging stories about unique and colorful characters, it was also about using these compelling stories to speak out and stand up for one’s principles.
“Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today.”
—From a 1968 edition of the Stan’s Soapbox editorial column
Giving birth to characters like the X-Men and Black Panther, as well as crafting storylines that either implicitly or explicitly take a stand on an important social issue, he helped reshape a medium that was once ridiculed as nothing more than escapist entertainment for adolescents into a respectable platform for addressing the hot-button topics of any given time.
Stan Lee, 1922-2018
Let’s raise a glass to the architect of modern comics. The creator of a global modern mythology. The king of the cameo. A true creative genius. An unforgettable pop culture icon. A legend we’ve been blessed to share our lifetime with.
Most importantly, your friendly neighborhood storyteller.