comic books

Stan Lee left behind a legacy like no other

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Writing a tribute to Stan Lee was something I’d been thinking I should do for quite some time. After all, (Stan) the man was 95 years old and there were various reports about his deteriorating health. Just as a newspaper would get an obituary ready, I thought I should get something ready — whether the piece was written for another site or my own.

Sure, laziness and procrastination were probably the primary reasons for not getting that done. But the idea of writing something in anticipation of Stan Lee’s death was also very upsetting. He still appeared to be lively and vibrant in his many Marvel movie and TV cameos. It seemed as if Smilin’ Stan might just live forever.

Thanks to those movie cameos, even my sister knew who Stan Lee was. She grew up with me endlessly reading and collecting comic books, of course. But when I pointed out the guy who co-created Spider-Man on the screen, she recognized him every time he popped up in the handful of Marvel movies we saw together. She’ll never be able to escape superheroes entirely.

(By the way, will Lee’s last live-action cameo have been in Venom?) Unless he’s in Avengers 4, his final on-screen appearance may well be in the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which hits theaters in mid-December.)

There will and have already been so many tributes, eulogies and obituaries dedicated to Stan Lee that I’m not sure I could possibly add anything. All I can contribute is what Lee and his many iconic creations mean to me to this day. So often when people write a tribute to someone, the piece ends up being about the writer more than the subject. As much as I’d like to avoid that, I don’t think it’s possible here.

Certainly, childhood and adolescence (and hell, adulthood) would have been very different without the characters that Stan Lee helped create. I probably still would’ve gotten into comic books with Superman, Batman and the Justice League providing the gateway. But maybe I wouldn’t have! I’m relatively certain that the first comic my mother bought for me was a Superman or Justice League of America book, but Spider-Man titles were definitely in the mix.

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Whenever talking about the depths of my comic book fandom, I’ve often explained that the bulk of my collection is taken up by three characters: Batman, Spider-Man and Daredevil. Two of those superheroes were co-created by Stan Lee. And there are many more Marvel comics in those longboxes than DC, nearly all of them featuring characters that Lee helped create.

What was the difference between Marvel and DC comics through most of their respective existences? DC’s heroes are arguably more iconic, especially the trinity of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. But Lee’s superheroes were so much more human than DC’s.

Peter Parker had to worry about homework, girls at school, and helping his Aunt May with money. The Fantastic Four sometimes couldn’t pay rent for their space atop the Baxter Building. Bruce Banner constantly lived in fear that the monster inside him would destroy everything he held dear. Thor had to live in the body of a cripple on Earth to teach him humility.

Stan Lee reached out and bonded with the fans, referring to them as “True Believers” and signing off with “Excelsior!” like we were all members of a club.

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Editorial notes, whether they were written by him or not, had his excitable voice to them. He wrote a monthly column titled “Stan’s Soapbox” that explained to readers what was going on at the company with their favorite characters and creators. He made the “Marvel bullpen” seemed like the coolest place to work on Earth, where all of that superhero magic was being created. Writers and artists got nicknames like “Jazzy” John Romita, “Joltin'” Joe Sinnott, “Rascally” Roy Thomas and “Marvel-ous” Marie Severin.

Stan Lee was the face of Marvel Comics. (His name was on every Marvel publication I owned.) For many years, he was literally paid as such, drawing an annual $1 million salary for the rights to the properties he created even when he wasn’t doing any work for the company. That’s a sweet gig.

As I became older and tried to learn more about the people who created the comic books I loved — even when I was no longer reading those comics — I discovered some of the foibles behind the legend.¬†I learned that Lee’s co-creators, such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, didn’t receive the credit they earned, especially from a financial standpoint. Some fans and creators even held what seemed to be an inexplicable grudge toward Lee because of it.

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I had some conflicted feelings for a while about Lee because of that too. Kirby and Ditko were responsible for the way Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man and so many other classic Marvel characters looked. And because of the “Marvel style,” in which Lee would give the artist a plot, the artist would draw the story, then Lee added dialogue to the visuals, the artists were responsible for a significant portion of those adventures.

Lee also made some questionable decisions when it came to licensing Marvel characters for TV and movies. Sure, Hollywood is better capable of putting superheroes on the big and small screens now than they were in the 1970s. But the TV versions of The Amazing Spider-Man and Captain America were painful to watch then. The Incredible Hulk was a winner, though. And Cannon Films could’ve made a disastrous Spider-Man movie. We did get some fun cartoons, though.

Sadly, Lee’s final days seemed difficult enough to cause concern for many who knew him. Associates and family reportedly were trying to take advantage of him, and there were also allegations of him being subjected to elder abuse. Did the people around him have his best interests in mind during the past few years?

Ultimately, however, Lee’s legacy still comes down to those legendary characters and the stories he wrote for them. And it wasn’t just superheroes either. Marvel stories included World War II adventures with Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. With the Falcon and Black Panther, Lee introduced black superheroes, making the Marvel universe much more diverse and inclusive.

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As an adult, I sometimes wonder if Lee was even more of an influence than I may have realized. Did those stories shape my sense of responsibility, of perseverance, of right and wrong? Is it possible that I was never interested in drugs because Lee showed the bad effects they had on Harry Osborn in the 1960s? Probably not, but the thought has occurred to me.

No matter how much I write here, it just won’t feel like enough. I would very likely be a different person if not for Stan Lee. Even these days, I wouldn’t have a podcast without the culture he helped create. I wouldn’t have the toys around my home of which my nieces say I have too many. However, I’d probably have more room around the house without all those comic books, toys and videos. Stan Lee made me a borderline hoarder!

Most importantly, I wouldn’t have so much of the joy and escape I experienced as a child and adult without the superheroes and stories that Lee created. And I’m just one of millions of people spanning generations that can say the same. It’s a phenomenal legacy. He will have one hell of an afterlife. Rest in peace, Stan Lee.

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