Celebrity deaths are a peculiar phenomenon, at least they are for me. In spurts and moments of rarity, I will catch myself mustering up the guts to pretend as if this strangers creations had a magnified impact on me, and then there’s Stan Lee. After the news nudged it’s way to me, I spent the remainder of my day lounged over the counter-top of the concierge bar at work. Recounting memories and, arguably, fathoming a way to process, or, better yet, digest the news. It’s a peculiar thing to mourn for a man you’ve never truly known, or even met for that matter. Yet there I was, shedding tears and lashing out in anger at the idiocy that is customer service. Then I got home, stumbling into my room and feeling overwhelmed by my comic book collection like never before. Suddenly those crisp pages of heroism and bubbled dialogue felt piercing, staring at me as if they were soaked in the spirit of their creator.
And now, here I am, attempting to quantify, or even qualify, my grief for a creator whose reach has engulfed my imagination since the days of tippy-toeing over the register at Hastings, just to see if the comic books on display were somehow enriched with superiority in comparison to the readable collection that was available to the general public. I remember those days; my little body would contort into a hole for a reading hibernation. Snacks and blankets littered around me, the sun dripping through the blinds of our middle-of-nowhere home. I can recall the times my world became unglued; the stories about our heroes being snapped from existence, worlds ending, planet-eating gods, and a heroes’ morality becoming evident to my pea-sized brain.
Stan was never noticeable to me though, I saw his cameos in “Mall Rats,” “Spider-Man,” and other films; but his portrait never became an indicator of “look, it’s Stan Lee, what an icon,” or anything of that sort. He was a comic book creator, the comic book creator, and my mind couldn’t really capture the heft, and the enormity of such an artisan. It’s as if I saw his fingerprints on everything hero-related, but never honestly thought of him as the mind in which those heroes poured out of, not that he was the originator of every Marvel hero and heroine. He was more responsible for the forefathers: Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, the Hulk, Daredevil, and a few others.
And it was never, I think, about Stan’s deft or inventiveness as a writer. Not many self-respected writing snobs would place him in that conversation of “best authors,” not that he wouldn’t have a right to be in said discourse. I’ll be the first to admit that many saw Stan’s craft as a stepping stone, one they could make better, make grow, mature, and refine through their skill set. Names like Frank Miller, Jim Starlin, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore resoundingly ring that bell.
But Lee’s influence, his governing of both comic-book fandom and continued evolution is undeniable. It’s not his dexterity or proficiency as a writer that made him so impressionable though; it’s his adept infusion of double entendres and innuendos with that of a comic book's comprehensibility that inevitably paints him in a different light. How he can make a group of ragtag, born-superpowered characters be that of a symbolic manifestation of the race war of the 1960s. How that same vivid imagery can be invoked today with just cause, used like that of a genre-manipulator of reality. It’s one of those weird occurrences where the artists’ artwork isn’t reflective of his genius, at least not directly.
Don’t worry, this isn’t all to say Stan was a lousy writer who got lighting-in-a-bottle lucky, but there is a particular blueprint, a ground floor element, that elevates his articulation of courage, and it’s just that. The way he was able to blend fiction and non-fiction, allow for valor to be an identifiable motif to take with you, in and outside of the pages of a comic. How the tormenting and marginalizing of mutants suddenly became a tool for educating the youth about tolerance, about diversity, and how those two can organically intersect.
It’s not that Stan couldn’t web-together a story, a damn good one too, but it’s that seemingly innate ability he had to brew a story that would hold water for both kids and adults. Magnifying socio-political messages through these encompassing portraits of nobility and a relatable quirky canvas’ of a character that would later become the identifiable building blocks for authentic heroism. Stan had a different rationale for it all, once saying: "Another definition of a hero is someone who is concerned about other people’s well-being, and will go out of his or her way to help them — even if there is no chance of a reward. That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero."
It’s not so much the bare bone, rigamarole of his writing that signifies his brilliance, but that camouflaged inference, that suggestion of introspection that he so exceptionally conveyed through a story that allows for a term like “genius” to be attributed to the name Stan Lee.
That said, Stan was not limited to words on a page. ( I mean physically) He would go out and humorously perform for others, allowing the world to see through the mastermind-essence and take witness to the kid shining in the spotlight with glee. I feel like that’s the thought-process he had for all the cameos, to fulfill lifelong dreams, to tangibly live within his character's worlds. To feel the velvet of a spider-man costume, to smell the potent odor of a perspired Hulk, to see Iron Man take flight in a world he built the train tracks for.
Again, it's one of those strange incidents in which a creator is allowed to live in his world; a world finally brought to life by, a genius in his own right, Kevin Feige. Appearing and living in the confines of these cinematic universes and these multi-hero ensembles, Stan never shied away from being apart of his story. It’s an “art imitating life” sort of scenario, so much so that Stan once discussed how Peter’s first reaction to Mary Jane mirrored his own reception to the appearance of his wife; expressing: "When Spider-man first saw Mary Jane, he was Peter Parker at the time he saw Mary Jane. His reaction, I think, was a little bit like my reaction when I first saw my wife."
In the same vein, Stan resided within the heroism of the world, both in entertainment and in the hustle and bustle of the real world. Self-describing this sort of fidelity to childhood passions as “I don’t think you ever outgrow your love for things that are bigger than life and more colorful than the average life. And somehow I feel that these comic book stories are like fairy tales for older people, because they have the same qualities.” He would later stand alongside a man-sized Thor, a real-life snarky but lovable Tony Stark, a boyishly charming Peter Parker; all of whom must have ignited the child inside of him with insurmountable glee.
That cinematic universe, that ever-so rich, ever-so resonating land of heroism and simplistically brilliant storytelling in which character fabricates the tethering between story and camera, that world would never drag out a drunken-old-man hungry for praise. He once said: "I don't really think of them as my characters. I..I really sit in the theater, and I watch them, the way every member of the audience watches them. And at the end of the movie, I usually say 'Danm that was good. I am so glad.'" Those characters, those narratives, those movies encompass a lot about Stan Lee. His comic-book imprints will never be forgotten, obviously, but this incarnation of the spirit of Marvel, the spirit of Stan Lee is one of those rarities of the modern-film era that indicates the significance of source material.
With the acquisition of Fox, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now has a grasp of two of Stan’s most treasured creations, and it is an inexplicable tragedy that the icon, the creator, the man gripping tightly on to the kid inside of him, will never stand witness to such an enormous event. Almost a year ago, when the news was announced, Stan Lee was asked about the incorporation of characters and exclaimed with joyful anticipation, describing it as: “A truly great piece of news! Now characters such as the X-Men and the Fantastic Four can come home to the place where they belong. It's vitally important to have the Marvel characters under one roof. And now, as great as they were before, I can't wait to see the wonders that will unfold!”
I wish I could see the kid in him. The boy left behind by the sickness, and the loss of a wife, that boy who I assume would have cherished the majesty of nobility that will be spewed and montaged upon the silver screen for all to see. Never shouting or exclaiming his brilliance or the necessity of his genius for this franchise to exist, Stan wouldn’t do such a thing. In an interview at one point and time, inquired as to how he pondered the X-men out of existence. After he provided his thought-process behind the imagining of the natural born heroes, Stan responded even further by stating: “I was lucky enough to have a genius like Jack Kirby draw the scripts, so everybody loved it. I have been lucky all my life: I come up with a few cockamamie ideas, I get a guy like Kirby to make them look great, I get a producer Lauren Shuler Donner to make the movie look great….Everybody makes the things I started look great, and I take the credit for it, and I’m just enough of a phony to take the credit for it.”
I’m sure those creators and innovators that worked alongside him, feel and share that honest enthusiasm of being someone who's been praised for products that he may have had nothing to do with, and I can’t say for sure, but I believe his family must have shared that affinity. I don’t dare to cross that threshold; I fell in love with the artist, not the man. His creations, not the creator. Stan was a great guy as far as I can see, but I will not pretend to have known him or had felt his presence. I mourn his loss because of his impact on my fidelity to comics, my appreciation for writing, my eternal love for the cinematic universe he helped will to life. I mourn the man as well, but the difference in intensity between the two is profound for a reason.
I am not sure what Stan did when he was lost for thought, when he was bored, when he was hungry, when he was tired, etc. I can only comprehend and meditate upon the stories, and the significance of the characters left behind: the radioactive monsters, the mutated emblems of oppression, the boy slinging as hard as he can to become a hero, and the fantastical brilliance of teamwork. These are the things I will carry with me, and memorialize with the name Stan Lee linked next to them. The man, the father, the friend; that is someone else’s story to tell, a tale I’d listen to with eager giddiness.
If you need one more moment, maybe two more, to eulogize and commemorate the spectacular, fantastical, and amazing legacy that was Stan Lee. I’ve left here, a long and welcomed wake of the man, the myth, and the legend. Smith knew him better than most. Marc knew him as much as most. Yet we all can tell a story, both from the pages and from the time spent with the man himself. Stan was one in a million. Don’t be ashamed to shed some tears, I feel like its something he would’ve embraced. Making a few jokes or two right after of course, but vulnerability was never a sore spot for Stan; its one of the many things that made him Stan Lee. Nevertheless, go ahead: mourn, celebrate, cry, laugh, and for one last time, remember the enigma of joy that was Stan Lee. Excelsior!