I met Stan Lee in July 2014 at London Comic-Con. It was billed as his final UK visit, and I knew that, if I didn’t pay for an alarmingly-priced ticket I would never meet the man who played such an instrumental role in my childhood. I had to meet him. Who can pass up that opportunity? When the day finally came, after many hours of other queues and other panels, I was told by a tired convention worker not to touch Stan Lee (fair enough – he was 91). When I turned the corner, seeing him for real, not behind a screen or on the pages of a comic book, and stood beside him, he simply said “hello.” “Hi,” I responded. Incredibly understated, given that I was meeting a hero.
It’s hard not to be sad about this. The impact of Stan Lee on western popular culture is incalculable. Where would the world be, were it not for the Marvel icons? Mainstream commentators never factor the art world into their societal judgements, but it is imperative, especially the superheroes which inhabit it. Were it not for Stan Lee, superheroes could well have died out before the 20th Century had really passed the halfway mark, because it was he who realised that the way to tell a great superhero story wasn’t to tell a superhero story at all. Instead, we should tell stories, much like any other, which just so happen to star individuals who can climb up walls and swing from webs. Spider-Man isn’t really cool because of those things; he’s cool because he’s just a kid. He could be any of us.
But then, why are we sad? We mourn the great man who gifted us these wonders, but the gifts remain with us. In helping create Marvel Comics, Stan Lee wrote a modern mythology, which will no doubt be with us for centuries. At the core of those myths is Stan. The art can never be extricated from the artist, for no creator moulds their art from afar. Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and the thousands of other characters borne from the minds and hearts of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby are their children – extensions of themselves writ large across pop and ecstatic colour.
That is something to be happy and grateful for. I am truly grateful to have met him, and indebted to him for his imagination. Marvel superheroes were my myths as a child; the love has ebbed and flowed as I age, but it will never really go away. The very act of existence of a superhero is enough for bitter critics to rise from the woodworks, citing the dangers and ridiculousness of superheroes. Some of what they say holds up. But, as with many things in life, it’s a matter of overcomplication. Sometimes, we are allowed to appreciate that which is innately fun, meant to fulfil and inspire us.
How many lives have been changed because of Stan Lee? How many creatives, be they writers, artists, actors, directors or any other, would have had wildly different careers, or no career at all? How many friendships would have never seen the light of day were it not for bonding over a Marvel movie? How would society look if we didn’t have these modern myths to experience?
I got my start in online journalism through entertainment blogs. I only wanted to write for those fansites because of my childhood love of superheroes. If Stan Lee had never existed, or had he never ended up working at Timely Comics, well, my life could look very different.
As I said, his impact is incalculable. But what we can measure is the effects. We can recognise that, were it not for Stan Lee, the world would be a little less bright. Wherever you are, sir, thank you – and may you rest easy.