Listening to fans, watching and reading their tributes over the last week, I’ve felt like a kid with his face pressed against a comic shop window.
Like the vast majority of moviegoers, I’m a huge fan of Marvel films but prior to Stan Lee’s death, I confess I possessed only a rudimentary knowledge of their comic book origins.
Since then, it has become obvious that this was a man of monumental stature in the Marvel Universe – the guardian of that galaxy; a storyteller and creative force worthy of his god-like status among the comic book community.
“We’ve lost a creative genius. Stan Lee was a pioneering force in the superhero universe. I’m proud to have been a small part of his legacy and …. to have helped bring one of his characters to life. #StanLee #Wolverine” – Hugh Jackman
Stan Lee’s ideas and words have resonated, in one way or another, with generations of comic book fans – and moviegoers – across the globe. Lee – along with legendary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (among others) – was an innovator, as writer and editor, who introduced readers to a new breed of superhero. After years of justice delivered by square-jawed and caped bastions of virtue, Lee’s heroes were flawed, closer to us ordinary mortals than their predecessors but still gifted with the kinds of powers that kept the streets clean and upheld justice in the urban sprawl. Heroes with real lives are heroes with problems. “Even if they have superpowers, they have to be believable. What they do has to be what any normal person would do in those situations,” he once said in an interview.
Stan Lee (real name Stanley Lieber) started small in 1930s New York, replenishing the inkwells at Timely Comics (which would later become Marvel) and over the course of his ninety-five years, his comic book co-creations and subsequent silver screen counterparts have grown to be as much a part of American folklore as super powers are to the heroes themselves. Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Silver Surfer – all have altered the DNA of US popular culture to such an extent that it’s impossible to imagine modern America without them.
His lifetime contribution to Marvel’s success assumed many roles – writer, editor-in-chief, Chairman Emeritus, Executive Vice President – but it’s Stan ‘The Man’’s creative prowess and marketing savvy that transformed comic books from the preserve of starstruck schoolkids into intelligent and witty works of art with mass appeal.
Stan Lee wrote from a young age and prior to his superhero days, penned stories across the genre spectrum, his dreams of joining the pantheon of esteemed American literary greats ever present.
“There will never be another Stan Lee. For decades he provided both young and old with adventure, escape, comfort, confidence, inspiration, strength, friendship and joy. He exuded love and kindness and will leave an indelible mark on so, so, so many lives. Excelsior!!” – Chris Evans
But ultimately his creative energy was channeled into elevating the status of graphic stories, inspiring legions of young fans to hold their pencils aloft and follow in his wake. His passionate defence of the comic book as an art form has remained constant and the public’s appetite for superheroes shows no sign of letting up. Why would it?
Though these were characters created to appeal to a new, older generation of comic book readers when they were unleashed in the 1960s, since then, they have transcended age, gender and colour. Lee saw his characters and stories primarily as entertainment but he knew they could be agents for change – social and political. Take the covert racism in The Night of the Prowler (The Amazing Spider-Man) from 1969 or Tony Stark’s ongoing battle with alcoholism in the 1979 Iron Man title, Demon in a Bottle.
But Lee didn’t stop there.
‘Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today.’
Penned by Lee in ‘68 – it featured in his monthly column, ‘Stan’s Soapbox’ – and fifty years later it’s still frighteningly relevant. A highly-vocal champion of equality and diversity, Lee was the first to introduce black superheroes to comic books – Black Panther being the first in 1966 followed by The Falcon in 1969. By his reckoning, the Marvel Universe had to reflect the rich diversity of his much-cherished NYC.
Lee’s spectacularly-well developed ability to captivate a crowd and his trademark smile made him the ideal figurehead of the Marvel colossus. His boyish enthusiasm for the comic book genre and sheer love of stories made him so much fun to watch – even for a comic book newbie like yours truly. This is a man loving every minute as the head honcho of the fictional worlds that he spent a lifetime developing.
“Sad, sad day. Rest In Power, Uncle Stan. You have made the world a better place through the power of modern mythology and your love of this messy business of being human…” – Mark Ruffalo
And the transition from page to big screen? Surely nothing could be more natural. Lee knew these characters and their stories couldn’t be tied to the page forever. The movie screen gave them the space to boss the metropolis like never before. It’s been a progression that has encouraged creative growth – and the inevitable creative license – without sacrificing the essence of the originals.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – the collective term for Marvel’s big screen productions since 2008 – includes twenty films and has generated over $17bn of revenue, and with a flurry of titles in the pipeline, the future looks positively heroic.
2008’s Iron Man was a welcome opener to the MCU. The Incredible Hulk, Thor, The Avengers, Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy have all made an appearance too, making this the highest-grossing movie franchise in history. Not bad. And while Stan Lee’s role in the franchise has always been limited to executive producer and cameos, (“I’m a frustrated actor,” he said in a 2006 interview – and he wasn’t kidding, with 57 cameo appearances to his name) his creative spirit has helped nurture those heroes and heroines into the cinematic titans of today – and tomorrow.
Hollywood’s luminaries were quick to take to social media after the news of Stan Lee’s death, posting heartfelt messages and memories of their experiences, with references to Lee’s warm and generous character a recurring theme. On Instagram, Robert Downey Jr. said, “I owe it all to you,,,Rest In Peace Stan…” while Jessica Alba posted, “Taking a moment to thank the great Stan Lee for his kindness.” Ryan Reynolds tweeted, “Damn…RIP Stan. Thanks for everything…” and Scarlett Johansson, “He was a legendary visionary and a true artist”. Equally poignant are some of the fans’ artistic tributes that have appeared online; proof perhaps, that Lee, Ditko, Kirby et al have been truly inspirational.
So here I am. Having wandered deeper into the Marvel Universe, I’m eager to buy my first comic, to hold it in my hands, to be awed by the stories leaping off the page in all that glorious colour, a myriad of characters to choose from.
The question is, where do I start?
I wonder what Stan would say.
Charities & Good Causes
However you choose to remember him, Stan’s legacy is considerable, not least because of his charitable concerns like The Stan Lee Foundation, and The Art of Elysium, as well as his support for AIDS/HIV and cancer causes.
The Stan Lee Foundation
The Stan Lee Foundation is a non-profit organization that seeks to provide access to literacy, education and the arts throughout the United States.www.stanleefoundation.org
The Art of Elysium
The Art of Elysium is an artist organization built on the idea that through service, art becomes a catalyst for social change empowering artists and communities to join together and emotionally triumph over their circumstances.www.theartofelysium.org
“I owe it all to you,,, Rest In Peace Stan… #MCU #Excelsior #legend #rip #stanlee #TeamStark” – Robert Downey Jnr
Tribute by Kieran Fahy