Last night the news broke that Stan Lee, the creator of the Avengers, Spider-Man, Iron Man and countless other comicbook icons, had died aged 95.
Stan, real name Stanley Lieber, will be best remembered as a creative visionary who made an immeasurable contribution to the world of comics, movies and the arts.
Through the characters he created alongside his Marvel colleagues Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Stan’s legacy as pop culture juggernaut – whose name will go down in history alongside Walt Disney and William Shakespeare – is assured.
It may sound hyperbole, or even literary blasphemy, to compare Stan to England’s most famous playwright but I know Stan would appreciate the comparison.
After all Stan wasn’t especially known for his modesty, especially in his later years where he served as a figurehead and public face for Marvel Comics.
Stan, whose optimism and excitement made him the perfect showman, was perfectly suited to this role and he became famous for attending conventions and meeting with fans even in his final days.
Of course, like so many of the characters he created Stan had another side – a secret identity if you will – beneath his public mask.
Away from his wisecracking, motormouthed persona, he was a passionate, creative man who loved nothing more in this world than his beloved wife Joan.
Stan was also far more sensitive than you might think, sometimes feeling insecure about what he did for a living.
He admitted to the Chicago Tribune:
I used to think what I did was not very important. People are building bridges and engaging in medical research, and here I was doing stories about fictional people who do extraordinary, crazy things and wear costumes.
Of course, Stan eventually came to realise the importance of what he did, saying: ‘I suppose I have come to realize that entertainment is not easily dismissed’.
And Stan wasn’t wrong. It’s no exaggeration to say that he has had a colossal impact on the world through his stories of people doing extraordinary, crazy things.
We could talk about the billion-dollar comic empire that Stan helped to create and revolutionise. The empire which helped launch the careers of other incredible creative talents like Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld and Mark Millar along
with many others who’ve gone on to create their own wonderful universes.
Or maybe we should mention his vision (which in the last 10 years of his life he saw come to fruition) for an interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe which has revolutionised the way Hollywood makes movies.
For me though, Stan will be best remembered for the lesson his most famous creation, Spider-Man, taught the world, ‘that with great power must also come great responsibility’.
Or to borrow a more modern version from Captain America: Civil War: ‘When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen? They happen because of you’.
Basically, through his most popular creation, Stan preached social responsibility. That it is the duty of those with power to protect those without it.
This wasn’t just rhetoric or grandstanding though. Stan meant it and used what power and influence he had, his writing and platform, to try and address some of the evils in the world.
While some poisonous folks on the internet (sexist, racist tw*ts I believe they’re called) may claim that modern Marvel’s been ruined by social justice warriors forcing socially progressive views down the throats of its readers, they’re woefully ill-informed.
Stan Lee and Marvel have always stood up for the oppressed with Stan once writing: ‘Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today.’
The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately…
Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another. But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion.
Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance.
And while Stan may not have believed that intolerance could be ‘halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun’ he probably didn’t realise how important his work would become in fighting intolerance.
In 1966 Stan helped to create the Black Panther, the first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comics, who dispelled the long-held notion in comics of Africa being a backward and brutal place.
Later the character would become a champion of representation in media, most recently in the 2018 megahit Black Panther which has been praised for both its diverse cast, serious political themes and for asking the question of ‘what Africa means to Afro-minorities today’.
More than that though, Black Panther gave the world an aspirational black figure to look up to, or to quote the little black boy in the apocryphal story everyone heard while watching the film: ‘finally a superhero who looks like me’.
Representation wasn’t the only important issue Stan used comics to explore. He was also keen to educate children and teens about the dangers of drug abuse during the early Seventies.
In his famous story The Green Goblin Reborn, Stan defied the Comic’s Code, which banned the depiction of the use of illegal drugs, and published a three-issue arc warning of the dangers of drug abuse.
Ever the entertainer Stan knew the issue couldn’t be preachy, and carefully wove the message into the story which sees Spider-Man’s best friend nearly die from a drug overdose, rather than making it a lecture.
The story was a smash hit and led to weakening the Comics Code Authority which had the effect of allowing other comicbook publishers and writers to explore more relevant socially progressive stories.
None of that happens without Stan Lee.
Perhaps though Stan Lee should be best remembered as the inspiration he was to kids all over the planet. Kids who still imagine what it would be like to explore distant worlds with your best friends, how it would feel to soar above the city or to fight injustice wherever they say it.
Or perhaps it’s adults? Adults who like some of Stan’s most famous creations have seen the sh*ttier side of life but refuse to give up because that’s not what their heroes in the comicbooks would do.
Or in the words Stan gifted to Spider-Man:
Anyone can win a fight when the odds are easy. It’s when the going’s tough – when there seems to be no chance – that’s when it counts.
You may think it’s fanciful to suggest an adult would be inspired by a book Stan Lee wrote over 50 years ago but I know I’m right here because I’m inspired by it.
If I’m completely honest that’s what makes writing about Stan’s passing particularly difficult for me. Stan Lee was one of my heroes who had a profound impact on my life.
I first became aware of Stan Lee growing up when I watched the nineties Spider-Man cartoon, a show that introduced me to the wider Marvel Comics Universe and sparked my lifelong love affair with the wallcrawler.
It may sound cliche but through Spider-Man Stan Lee changed my life.
If it weren’t for the Web-Head I’d never have made my first friend at primary school (shout out to my boy Stef), I wouldn’t have had my first kiss (less of a shout out), nor would I have the career I’m in now (shout out to my boy Kieron).
You see it was an issue of Empire magazine with Spider-Man on the cover, specifically Sam Raimi’s dreadful third one, which for better or worse sparked my interest in films and eventually lead me to this job.
Even more importantly though, and I know it sounds ridiculous, it was reading Stan’s work which helped me deal with the death of my mother seven years ago.
It’s silly I know but retreating into a world where people could turn such a profound loss into something positive was an inspiring message at that time in my life.
Here’s hoping the world can turn the loss of Stan into something positive. Rest in peace, Stan Lee. Excelsior.
If you have experienced a bereavement and would like to speak with someone in confidence contact Cruse Bereavement Care via their national helpline on 0808 808 1677.