It’s really hard to put into words just how much Stan Lee’s work and legacy has influenced my life.
Having tired of writing the same stories for 20 years he was ready to quit comics, until his wife convinced him to give it one last try and write the characters he wanted to write. What followed revolutionised the industry and propelled Marvel Comics to market leaders, and left their Distinguished Competition rushing to catch up. He decided to write characters who still not only acted like normal people, but had their problems too.
You can bench press a car? Great! Can you talk to that girl you like? And how is that paying your rent? His heroes were relatable: normal people in extraordinary circumstances. People who made mistakes. Who failed. Who argued and sometimes lost.
They came from all walks of life. They were often disabled, poor, marginalised and of many ethnicities and religious backgrounds.
They taught you to overcome adversity, to be resilient. To stick to your principles. To be honest, to give your best and to try and do the right thing. They put themselves before others in huge ways and showed you that you could do it in small ways every day. They befriended their enemies and forgave one another. They valued diversity and demonstrated time and again its better to be smart than strong. They found light at the end of the tunnel when it seemed all hope was lost. They found the courage to keep going and showed that one person can make all the difference in the world.
I’ve no idea what Stan’s politics were, I couldn’t tell you how he voted and I wouldn’t care to know. In our increasingly fractured political climate we’re all too quick to rush to judgement. What I do know is that Stan Lee used his position to advocate for progressive policies throughout his career.
The letters page in his comics directly addressed his readers. In Stan’s Soapbox he wrote in his own voice, called us all his pal and spoke to children across the world about the evils of bigotry and racism. When the Comics Code Authority tried to prevent Marvel from educating children on the dangers of drugs he published the issues without their approval, pushing new boundaries and showing comics could be a place for important issues affecting his readers. Even in 2015, late in his career, he spoke out in support when Michael B Jordan was cast as the traditionally white Human Torch.
Stan’s heroes looked out for everyone, whether they knew them or not. They didn’t value the rich over the poor or let someone’s background define what they could become. They knew that the true measure of a person is in their actions and choices. These lessons are embraced by millions around the world, but all too often fail to find purchase in our seats of power.
Captain America doesn’t blindly follow the will of his country, he leads by example and follows his heart, not always his orders. The armed forces were respected and admired in his writing, but not deified. Intelligence is always shown to be impressive – the leaders of the Avengers, X-Men and Fantastic Four are doctors, scientists, professors and inventors – while their greatest villains are often scientists, chemists and doctors twisted by their own hubris.
The X-Men were led by an elderly man in a wheelchair and their strongest member was a teenage girl. Their struggle directly and deliberately mirrored that of the civil rights movement in 60s America, and continues as an allegory for the LGBT movement today. The genius of being born different and not understanding your own body throughout adolescence is universal.
Comics are rightly derided for being white, male and cis gender, but Stan’s teams all had women in strong roles. He didn’t just throw in a stereotypical black character to his world, he added the King of the most advanced nation on Earth – then named him after a real life group, battling for equality. He didn’t get it right every time, but he kept trying. Just like his characters.
Those characters inspired people the world over to help others. There are doctors, engineers, scientists, servicemen and women as well as police (and dare I say educators) who wanted to make a difference like the heroes they read about.
It’s not hyperbole to say there are people alive today who wouldn’t be if Stan the Man hadn’t picked up a pencil.
No other creator in any medium has had as big an impact on me as Stan Lee. Growing up awkward, short and not especially strong Marvel Comics meant the world to me. I knew, like Peter Parker, I could be brave when I needed to, that I would have the character to make the right choice in the worst of times. If you try to do that in small ways every day you will surprise yourself when the worst times arrive.
There’s a line someone once said about Stan – “the words you wove into the hearts of heroes are indelible”. I love that. Any True Believer who has been touched by the countless issues, episodes, series and movies with Stan’s fingerprints on them knows how true it is. Indelible. The lessons of friendship, courage, inclusion and heroism he shared will never leave us.
In his 95 years he served his country, wrote stories for children, inspired millions and leaves behind a legacy that will outlive us all. ‘Nuff said.
Excelsior, Stan. Thank you for everything.
by Chris King