Many words have been said about Stan Lee, the figurehead of Marvel Comics who passed away this week at the age of 95. While I had the opportunity to briefly meet Lee a few times during convention appearances, I certainly don't have any personal relationship or conversation with him to share.
Instead, I join millions of other fans in appreciating Lee from afar, whether it's reading the stories of his superhero creations, seeing him pop up briefly in the Marvel movies and shows, or generally watching Lee as a public figure, a personality that usually ranged between late night talk show host and used car salesman. Lee was not a perfect person and made more than one legendary creator deeply resentful of his persona, but there's no doubt that his non-stop charm offensive and sheer force of personality made him as revered as a pop culture figure as Walt Disney.
I first encountered Lee as the narrator of some of Marvel's animated shows in the early 80s. Lee brought his trademark style - alliterative bombast hype - to the job, but as a youngster who didn't know the history, it was a brief but exciting introduction to the adventure stories I'm about to watch.
"Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends" and "The Incredible Hulk" eventually became my gateway to the comics. While by that time Lee was serving as a figurehead for Marvel, he still wrote regular "Stan's Soapbox" columns for the comics, and his name was all over the mastheads of each title. He occasionally popped up in Marvel's promotional title, "Marvel Age." During the two teenage years when I seriously dreamed of becoming a comic book artist, Stan was a creative voice behind "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way."
Lee was one of the first people I learned about and understood as a creative force behind much of the art that I loved. The guy had an irresistible presence about him, boastful but self-deprecating, and looked like he was having the time of his life serving as the ringmaster of this four-color circus ride filled with costumes and capes. "If you think this is crazy, wait until you see what's next!"
As I grew older and began to understand context, creation and history, my view of Lee became nuanced. Public feuds with two of his most famous collaborators - Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko - left a sour taste in the mouths of many fans, me included. Lee's later work was, frankly, bad; adding fuel to the fire that he had little to do with Marvel's early success and he was riding the coattails of artistic geniuses who weren't properly compensated for their work. Read The Comics Journal’s obituary on Lee for all the details about his career.
The merits of Lee's, Kirby's and Ditko's contributions to the mythologies of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, the Avengers, the X-Men and others may still be debated, but I agree with the current general consensous that all three men were instrumental in creating the Marvel Universe as we know it today. While Lee may have held more power in the Marvel bullpen of the 60s, he was, ultimately, a middle manager also answering to Marvel publisher Martin Goodman who was looking out for his own interests. (Read “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” for a great examination of the company's origins)
While Kirby and Ditko left Marvel and still enjoyed acclaim with works like "The Fourth World" and "The Question." Lee never came close to achieving the heights of early Marvel with his writing. What he did do was as significant. He became Marvel's biggest cheerleader, creating a personal relationship with fans through his columns, hyping the books on college campuses, and signing every Hollywood deal he can. Stan helped make comic books seem so cool that even adults should read, and by extension, Marvel Comics was the coolest place to be. It's a distinction that Marvel's held onto for half a century now.
As a company, Marvel's seen a lot of ups and downs. Up until 2008, the film and television adaptions were hit and miss (and mostly, extremely miss). But then a producer named Kevin Feige came along, with a intuitive understanding of what it is like to discover the universe of Marvel Comics, the unique, flawed heroes and how they interact with each other. He got the vision that Lee helped develop in the early 60s, and brought it to the big screen.
The result is one of the most dominant franchises in Hollywood history, and there is Lee, personally popping in and out as he did in the original Marvel books with a joke and a smile.
Despite his disputes with his peers, by almost all accounts, Lee was enthusiastic and supportive of those creators who followed in his footsteps. He was a regular presence on the convention circuit, and again, it's hard to find anybody who didn't enjoy their encounter with him.
Twice I had the occasion to meet Lee. By this point, Lee was a honored convention guest, and generally at this level, you pay your fee for a autograph or picture, stand in line for an hour or so, quickly move in front of Lee, and quickly move on. That's the deal, but even in the best of circumstances, I am in no way under the impression we're going to be friends from these situations. In addition, the man was in his mid-80s at the time, so I'd argue it's not a good idea to start shaking the hands of hundreds of strangers at that age.
But both times, Lee made sure to smile, look directly at me, and say hello. Both times I thanked him for his contributions and influence to culture. I simply can't imagine the amount of energy it would take for anybody at that age to stay "on," especially with that public personality, but it was a joy to meet and greet him nonetheless. These are cherished memories, especially the picture of Lee I took with my family.
While some may wonder still what was the big deal about Lee, I think back to his most famous story in Amazing Fantasy #15, an 11-page masterpiece that introduced Spider-Man to the world. It's a modern day parable that concludes with the immortal line "With great power comes great responsibility."
It's a theme I used in several college papers before it became so ubiquitous with the movies. It's a line I think a lot about now as so many of the people who lead us fail in their basic, intrinsic responsibilities to the public. It's the story I read to my infant daughter the night she came home from the hospital nursery. It's an ethos I try to impart onto all of my children, that their roles in this world should be to help for the greater good, not to abuse or hurt in service to themselves.
Thank you, Stan Lee, for your optimism, perspective and life that constantly reminded the world that each of us can choose to be our own heroes and choose to do good. “Excelsior!” to the captain, on his journey to the great cosmic unknown.