I surprised myself last night by shedding a tear when I heard that Stan Lee had died aged 95. Although, thinking about it, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. To a great many people of my generation, he wasn’t just a guy that wrote comics, he was a father-figure who helped shape the people we would grow up to become.
This isn’t really aimed at my friends who used to read comics (or still do) - they know all of this already, and a whole lot more. This is aimed at the people who only knew Stan as the face of Marvel Comics or the man behind Spider-Man. And it’s especially aimed at the people that think that comics are ‘just for kids’.
I started reading Marvel comics when I was 11, just when I got to the age where I started thinking about the bigger things in life, and have no doubt that they helped shape my moral compass. Stan’s stories weren’t just about people in funny costumes fighting each other - they were about standing up for the underdog, fighting intolerance and doing the right thing even when it’s difficult.
One of his famous lines, ’With great power comes great responsibility’, makes me pretty sure that Donald Trump never read comics. But Stan wasn’t content with making sure his stories had a strong moral backbone, he actually wrote frequent editorials, Stan’s Soapbox, where he would hammer the point home e.g:
‘Let's lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them - to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater - one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black men, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’s down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen - people he’s never known with equal intensity with equal venom.
Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another. But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race - to despise an entire nation - to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God – a God who calls us ALL - His children.’
I certainly didn’t get that sort of moral guidance from my own father :)
Plus, I passively absorbed an incredible amount of knowledge from those stories: physics, biology, geography, mythology… Who knew learning could be so much fun? Comics fuelled my imagination and acted as a gateway drug to reading ‘real’ books, both fantasy and factual.
If all you know of Stan’s comics are the Marvel movies you’ve seen at the cinema, then I’m not sure how well this stuff comes across. Reading Spider-Man as a teenager was like being involved in a decade-long soap opera, watching the characters interact and develop - there’s no way that can be condensed into a 2 hour movie. You simply don’t care enough what happens to someone you only met an hour ago…
Sure, Stan was sometimes happy to take too much responsibility for his part in creating these characters - both Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko did far more than they’re credited for in the mainstream press - but there’s no denying it was his vision that powered the characters and gave them the human touch.
I met him twice, both at book signings, and he seemed like such a nice, genuinely enthusiastic guy. Although I was just another in a long line of kids waiting to get his autograph, he took his time to make everyone feel special, like he was really pleased to meet us. And I didn’t just meet Stan - it was through comics that I met some of my best friends who I’ve grown up with ever since.
So perhaps I shouldn’t feel so sad - after all, he lived to 95 years old, was happily married for 69 years (his wife died last year, also 95) and was one of the most read authors in the world. His characters have created a mythology for the modern age that will outlast us all… not a bad legacy.
So Rest In Peace, Stan - you’ve earned it.