Remembering Stan Lee
On November 12, 2018, while celebrating her veterans, America was also mourning the loss of a different kind of hero. Although he was, indeed, a veteran, Stan “The Man” Lee will be remembered most for his contributions to the world of comic books, and, by extension, pop culture, as a writer, editor, producer, publisher, pioneer, and promoter over a span of nearly 80 years.
Born in New York City as Stanley Martin Lieber, he got his start in comic books at the age of 16, working as an assistant at Timely Comics filling inkwells, proofreading, erasing pencil marks, and fetching lunch for the artists. He took the pseudonym, Stan Lee, when he wrote his first Captain America story in 1941, which introduced the hero’s trademark shield throw. Although he originally intended to save his given name for writing a great American novel, he eventually came to accept that very few people even remembered who Stanley Lieber was. Lee assumed creative control of the company shortly after, when the editor and art director quit.
After three years in the U.S. Army writing manuals and training films, Lee returned to Timely. The company continued to grow and was renamed Atlas Comics and then evolved into the company with which his name is synonymous, Marvel Comics. He was instrumental in engineering the shift from the belief that comic books were only for children. Whether it was an effort to buck the norms established by the Comics Code Authority or a mandate to compete with the growing popularity of DC Comics’ hero team, the Justice League of America, Lee’s pivotal breakthrough came with the creation of The Fantastic Four in 1960. Despite his penchant for alliterative names like Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Matt Murdoch, and Reed Richard, Lee’s characters were relatable people who rose above their real-world problems to become heroes. He also utilized the medium to shed light on many social issues of the time, such as discrimination and drug use.
Lee eventually stopped writing monthly comic books when he became Marvel’s publisher in 1972 and he eventually moved to California in 1981 in order to better develop Marvel’s TV and movie properties. In the late 90s, he began investing his time and money into other ventures, still always promoting super heroes and comic books, like Stan Lee Media and POW! Entertainment. In 2006, Lee co-created, executive produced, hosted, and judged Who Wants to Be a Superhero, a reality TV competition. Later projects included The Guardian Project which created superhero mascots for every team in the National Hockey League and an effort to find new comic book talent with the Eagle Initiative. He also began the Stan Lee Foundation in 2010 as a non-profit organization with the goal of providing access to literacy, education, and the arts throughout the United States.
Most people today, however, know Stan Lee from his involvement with Marvel’s properties that were brought to life on the silver screen by Fox, Sony, and eventually Marvel Studios’ Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Although Lee was always involved as an executive producer, his most well-known contributions were his cameo appearances in nearly every movie, which were usually humorous or ironic. They are so beloved, that many YouTubers have compiled montages comprised solely of Stan’s appearances.
Lee had been in the news many times over the last couple of years, from the passing of Joan, his wife of 69 years, in 2017 due to complications of a stroke, to a bout with pneumonia early in 2018, to reports of elder abuse based on allegations of certain parties isolating him from friends and associates in an effort to control him and his wealth. However, the news of his death at age 95 on this particular Monday morning was a crushing blow to millions across generations, across the country, and around the world.
This writer had the privilege of meeting Stan Lee at the first-ever Detroit Fanfare in 2010. During a Q&A, I was able to ask him who his heroes were. He responded that we, the readers and the fans that kept comic books alive, were all his heroes. Lee had an appreciation for his fans and treated everyone with genuine love and respect. While I read Captain America, Iron Man, and the Avengers throughout my childhood, I never considered myself a Marvel fan. Regardless, I am among the many upon whom Mr. Lee’s death has weighed heavy today.
Many, many others have expressed their thoughts and experiences across social media. Todd Turner, from Mosaic Fan Art, having “grown up” on Marvel Comics, bases a majority of his art on Lee’s characters. Turner posted, “I didn’t realize that I could be so affected by the death of someone I had never met.” He continued, “Without Stan Lee, you wouldn’t know me as me. Comic books have been pivotal in creating who I am, and no one has influenced comic books more than Stan Lee.” Turner concluded with a phrase that every “true believer” knows, “One last time…….Excelsior.”
One person who knew Lee well is David M. Uslan. Not only, is Uslan on the board of advisors for The Stan Lee Foundation, but he is also a long-time family friend whose father has worked alongside Lee in the comic book industry for over 50 years. His words today were full of the same feelings and sentiments with which Lee’s fans have identified for years. Uslan begins, “Wonderful man. Funny. Kind. Caring. Creative. Loved kids. Loved bringing smiles to all.” His final statement echoes the true nature of Lee’s enormous impact on countless lives. “He changed the world with his characters and, because of that, his legacy will live on in each and every one of us.”
While Uslan’s words carry a gravitas befitting Lee’s legacy, a tribute from Barry Dutter, former writer/editor for Marvel Comics, distills his thoughts into a succinct encapsulation of Stan Lee, putting an exclamation point on Lee’s life using his own oft-repeated words. I conclude with his quote. “Best there ever was! Best there ever will be! He will be missed! ‘Nuff said!”
Excelsior. . . .