All of geekdom, and the realm of popular culture itself lost a legend today with the passing of Stan ‘The man’ Lee at the age of 95.
To say that the man was a legend would be a grave understatement; he helped redefine an entire genre, and co-created some of the most famous, recognizable, and profitable characters of all time, to say nothing of the fact that he is perhaps the most successful and influential writer within popular culture. Along with the likes of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita Sr, Don Heck, and many others, Lee helped create the Marvel Universe as we know it. He had one of the greatest runs on any comic book in comic book history (his famous Fantastic Four run with Kirby), he brought back Captain America into the Avengers, he brought the civil rights to comics in The X-Men, but Lee was so much more than that. He was the torchbearer for all of us geeks.
Stan Lee was Stanley Martin Lieber on December 28, 1922 in New York City — a city he would use as ground zero for his universe. Lee changed his name when his wife suggested that he write comics while he was trying to write his novels; at the time, comics were not highly regarded, and he sought to protect his name for a more “respectable” profession.
Lee’s characters represented the best in all of us. They showed us what we could achieve and how to act, and how to overcome our own neuroses and doubts. He showed that heroes were flawed people just like us all, but that while maybe we didn’t have the super soldier serum running through our veins, or had the proportionate strength of a spider, we could all rise to the occasion and be a hero in our own right. He learned this after he signed up for the Armed Forces in early 1942, along with several of his industry compatriots, and wrote various articles for the servicemen.
He was at the forefront of bringing Marvel Comics to the small screen in the Sixties and Seventies. He, like his counterparts before him, was a man ahead of his time. He stood up to racism and inequality and ensured his characters do the same. During the Bronze Age of comics, the industry tackled social ills, and Stan was right there on the forefront, using his famous characters to help face some daunting, real-life issues.
As a kid, I wasn’t the most popular, but dammit, I had my comics that I could dive into and in the 90s there was no comic that outcast geeks could immerse themselves into that was more apropos than the X-Men. The X-Men were outcasts that were outsiders in a world that feared and hated them but still they fought the good fight. These books showed me that even though I might be a bit different, that shouldn’t stop me from being a good person who fought for the underdog. When I hit college I realized that Peter Parker, a nerdy (political) scientist that somehow kept getting in my own way. We all had a little Stan Lee inside us.
When I was a sophomore in college, Stan Lee came to speak at my college (the University of Texas at Austin) and after an amazing Q&A everyone got to get one item signed, but the line was cut off right in front of me. My 20 year-old heart was pounding. I couldn’t be denied the chance to meet one of my heroes. It was at that moment, Stan Lee said that he would stay and make sure that everyone there got one thing signed. He was old, but he wasn’t going to deny his fans the chance to meet him. I had Daredevil #16 in my hands, the very first appearance of Spider-Man in Daredevil. It was beat up and worn, but I didn’t care. I got it off eBay and the cover was still amazing, spectacular even.
When I finally got to him, I handed him my comic not knowing what to say other than “thank you for everything” but it came out like a kid who was meeting Santa Claus for the first time. Of course he said “you’re welcome” and then he took my comic, looked at it and said “Hey! This is a good issue. I wrote this. This is the first time Spider-Man was in the Daredevil comic!” He signed it, shook my hand, and I went on my way. This was Stan Lee. To him I was just another person in line, but he took the time to make me feel like it was just him and me for those 20-30 seconds which will forever be burned in my memory.
Stan Lee was married to his wife Joan for 69 years until she passed away in 2017. She was the Sue Storm to his Reed Richards. The Gwen Stacy/Mary Jane to his Peter Parker. She was the one who pushed him into changing his name to Stan Lee so that he could “have a serious career later on in life”. With his passing we can all feel comfort that he’s back with her.
With a voice that doesn’t sound like a 5 year old meeting Santa, let me just say… “Thank you Stan. Thank you from the bottom of all of our hearts. Thank you for making all us outcasts feel like we had a home. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Excelsior and Godspeed!!