Stan Lee showed us nerds (and Catholics) can be heroes
Stan Lee, the former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics and co-creator of many of its most famous characters, including Spider-Man, the Hulk, Daredevil and the X-Men, died yesterday. He was 95.
The thing that people like to say about Stan and Marvel Comics, particularly in comparison with their competitors at DC Comics, is that for as wild and wonderful as their characters’ superpowers might be, their back stories are always grounded in reality. DC’s Superman is a super-powered alien from another planet, Wonder Woman an actual god. Meanwhile Marvel’s Peter Parker is a smart kid who got picked on; the Fantastic Four are first and foremost a family.
But the thing that Stan did that was truly revolutionary was not simply that he cut his characters from the everyday stuff of our lives, but that he specifically took qualities that society has often cast as shameful or embarrassing—being an orphan, being smart, being an adolescent, being handicapped or just not being white—and ascribed those qualities to his heroes. Rather than an object of ridicule, in his stories the nerd became someone we should admire, the Catholic blind man and African black woman each saviors to their people.
The thing that people like to say about Stan and Marvel Comics is that for as wild and wonderful as their characters’ superpowers might be, their back stories are always grounded in reality.
You would see Stan at the San Diego Comic Con every year. (Everyone always called him Stan.) He would have tall burly bodyguards towering on either side as he walked down the aisles. And he needed them; everywhere he went, Stan Lee was mobbed like a Beatle. Some people just wanted an autograph they could sell on eBay for a ton of cash. But most became more like children around him, grinning and watching him close like they were meeting Santa Claus.
As much as he was a writer and an editor, Stan was always also a salesman. He had a million sticky catchphrases, like “’nuff said” or “make mine Marvel.” The one he is most known for is “Excelsior!” In 2007 he explained that he was looking for something he could use that could not easily be ripped off by his competition, as other phrases had been. He defined the term as meaning “upward and onward to greater glory!”
His heroes always lived in New York City, both because that is where he lived and because it made it easy to put them in each other’s comics. ( Crossovers have always been great for comic book sales and movie spinoffs.) But for Stan New York also stood in for America; here was a place where struggle, bigotry and crime were undeniable realities, but also family, courage and elbow grease, aspiration and discovery. (For as much as they loved a good suit of spandex, so many of Stan’s characters were scientists who lived to find new worlds or explore new aspects of our own.)
Stan was not a terribly religious person; raised Jewish, he expressed uncertainty when asked whether he thought there was a God. At the end of his life he said he didn’t think there was an afterlife. But, he went on, “I can’t imagine nothingness lasting forever.” If reality had one quality for Stan, it was there was always more to it than you thought.
In the ordinary stuff of our lives, Stan Lee found endless possibilities; in the face of our hardships, he expressed a persistent, profound sense of hope. No matter what the odds or how powerful the megalomaniac, self-sacrifice and community always win the day. Some today disregard his stories as simplistic. And yet much like his motto, fundamentally Stan was always trying to get us just to look up and out from the fray and see the world around us, filled with wonders.