I’ve had to take a break this year. If you follow me on social media, you’ve probably noticed that I don’t post as often as I have in the past. Even on this blog, I’ve only posted once this year to cover Infinity War. Well, folks, we live now in a world without Stan Lee. I couldn’t, in good conscience, let that pass without comment.
It’s taken a moment for me to organize my thoughts. Stan The Man left us almost a month ago at the time of this writing, and it wasn’t until Thanksgiving that I realized how I might frame my thank you, my tribute, and my thoughts on his life.
You see, at Thanksgiving I do actually try to acknowledge the things I’m thankful for, whether it’s my health, my family, or what have you. This year, I added Stan Lee. I’m wholly thankful for his works, his personal dynamism and legacy, and the influence he’s had on my life.
My Marvel Origin Story
My first exposure to superheroes was through cartoons. And while we’re mostly talking Marvel today, the consistent source of heroic adventures before I could read came in the form of the various incarnations of The Super Friends. The DC universe’s strength has always been in its monolithic heroes, the larger-than-life icons made flesh such as Wonder Woman or Superman. They are gods made manifest, they are ideals incarnate.
Yet, threaded throughout my cartoon-going experience were The Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. The channels in my area didn’t show them with any regularity, which made them something of ‘found gems’ when did they come on. Here was the first time I heard Stan Lee’s voice as he narrated the episodes. That’s where classic Stan expressions such as “True Believer” and “Face Front” entered my vocabulary. It wasn’t every episode, but sometimes he signed off with his trademark, “This is Stan Lee saying ‘Excelsior!'”
In contrast to DC, Stan gave us people with superhuman powers who felt more, well, human. They had problems we could relate to. They were flawed characters who could be full of self-doubt or anger. Something about my first blush with these characters told me, even as a kid, that I was only seeing the tip of the iceberg. It made me want to find out more.
My father also happened to be a Marvel guy, whose favorites included Spidey, Iron Man, and Thor. He actively encouraged me to read comics. Some of the first books I ever read on my own involved characters created by Stan Lee. Along the way I added The Uncanny X-Men, Daredevil and Silver Surfer to the lineup of titles I would try to read. Being from rural Texas, however, there were only two main places I could get comics, and both of them were grocery stores. One put them on a magazine rack with all the titles facing forward, and the other was on a classic carousel rack. Neither store carried titles for very long, so I often just read what was available.
Thankfully for me, I had a cousin who collected comics. He wasn’t able to visit super often, but when he did he brought a bunch of his books with him. We would sit around for hours talking about heroes and villains, and often he was able to fill in the story gaps of those issues I had missed. He also introduced me to Marvel titles I had no access to, a short list being: The Defenders, Strikeforce Morituri, Secret Wars, The Infinity Gauntlet, Avengers, Damage Control, Alpha Flight, What The–?!, and one of my favorites of all time—What If.
This was the first time I felt like I understood what a comic universe was all about, with hundreds or thousands of characters existing in a shared continuity. And in all of this, Stan Lee stood as the architect. Sure, he wasn’t alone in this; there were scores of other writers and iconic artists like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby who brought the characters to life, but even when Stan wasn’t the one who put pen to paper, you could still feel his presence resounding throughout every corner of the Marvel Universe. It was unlike anything I had experienced before, and I became invested in these characters and the setting. I still am, to this day.
Stan Lee is perhaps the most influential comic book writer in history. He helped to define not just a genre, but a medium. There aren’t a whole lot of writers who can claim to have steered an entire platform the way he did. Stan was a living icon. Those dark aviator glasses, the mustache, the grey at the temples, his catchphrases, and boundless positivity all made him instantly recognizable all over the world, and in virtually any format.
And all the cameos. I’m sure that the next few Marvel movies will have the trademark Stan Lee cameo in them, and they will be all the more poignant now that he is no longer with us. We can be glad that we had such a dynamic persona at the forefront. I remember a time all too well when comics were really for kids, and usually only for boys. Thankfully now comics are open to everyone, and the more the merrier. We can attribute that to Stan the Man—either directly or indirectly—in a hundred ways.
Beyond that, you can even feel his presence on the other side of the comic book fence, over in DC land. Less in the movies, but in the more personal TV shows on the CW, by far my favorite interpretation of that universe in recent years. In that telling, we have characters who must balance their superhero career with their personal lives, who suffer greatly for doing the right thing. Sound familiar? And yet, they always rise to the occasion, because they, too, live by the same creed that Stan Lee first gave us in Spider-Man. Say it with me now:
So, not only was he the architect of the Marvel universe, but ‘those other guys,’ as he might put it, also feel his influence. Again, I don’t know of any other writer that has so influenced his medium. (If you can think of one, feel free to leave it in the comments.)
Founder of the Flame
I started writing this post before the Avengers: Endgame trailer came out. Now that’s it’s here, it got me to thinking. I had hoped that Stan would be with us when the sequel to Infinity War hit theatres. I do hope he got the inside scoop of what was going to happen, or saw some dailies, or something. He left us right when the heroes he brought to life were at their lowest point. They fought Thanos, and they lost.
Even though I think Endgame is going to be bittersweet, and we may lose one or more of our favorites by the end, it saddens me that Stan won’t get to see the Avengers stand triumphant at the culmination of 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since we know that Spider-Man and Black Panther are returning, we at least know that the surviving Avengers put things to rights in some regard.
I know that ‘superhero fatigue’ is something critics and pundits have been talking about for years now. Sure, superhero movies may eventually go out of fashion, become unprofitable, or slowly go the way of the Western, but for now I am as hyped for this movie as much as I have been for any other offering of the MCU, including the original Avengers film. That spark of excitement, that joy of seeing these characters brought to life, burns strong in my heart. It’s a bonfire, in fact.
Stan is the one who lit that torch. There are many who have been the keepers of that flame over the years, and many whose works have sustained it and fed it, but Stan Lee was the prime mover. I cannot overstate what an influence that fire has been on me, both in my own writing, as well as on me personally.
And the truth is, I am a better person because of his work, and the enduring legacy he leaves behind. I’m far from the only one. So, as one of his True Believers, let me simply say this: Thank you, Stan, and good-bye. It won’t be easy the next time I see the Marvel montage roll. But no matter how many of your characters I see on the screen, or in the pages of comics, you remain my hero.
And now this post ends the only way it really can…