Stan Lee was 95 years old, pushing 96, when he passed away on November 12. His wife of nearly 70 years, Joan, died last year. After her death, reports emerged about Lee’s own health issues and troubled personal life, including elder abuse and shady estate finagling. The writing was on the wall: the living legend’s time was coming.
Everyone whose life he touched — and they must number in the hundreds of millions — is affected. By now, the story is well-known. Lee, the editor of Timely Comics — later Atlas, and eventually Marvel — was frustrated with his industry and contemplating a career change. On his way out the door, and with two of the most imaginative artistic storytellers in the field, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, in his employ, Lee transformed a company known primarily for cheap genre comics into the leading innovator in superhero literature.
You could go further and say Stan Lee was one of the principal architects of America’s contemporary pop culture landscape. Lee’s co-creations dominate world cinema today. He introduced moral complexity into comic books, which had always been dismissed as a children’s medium. He took audience engagement to a new level, bringing into existence some of the first unabashed geek communities.
The superhero is America’s answer to Greek mythology. Lee cast out the statuesque, simplistic heroes of the 1940s and 50s and introduced Shakespearean heroes. Marvel’s characters waxed philosophic, suffered in anguish, and lost hope. Peter Parker fretted about dates and Ben Grimm brooded in miserable self-pity. Still they performed miracles, whether scraping together enough money for Aunt May’s operation or fighting off the world-devouring Galactus. Lee gave audiences not just the human side of his superheroes, but the superhero side of us humans.
As the editor of Marvel’s books through the 70s, Lee cultivated not just a fan club, but an entire culture, complete with its own lexicon (“Excelsior, true believers!”). He published correspondence between fans on his letters pages, championed the comic book as a medium of serious storytelling, and lectured on college campuses. With Ditko he made the mystical Doctor Strange an underground icon of the burgeoning psychedelic scene, and with Kirby he crafted timeless space operas of Homeric scope.
In the 1960s, everyone had something to say, and Lee ensured Marvel had a voice too. Under Lee, Marvel introduced the first black and African-American superheroes in mainstream comics. Supporting character Flash Thompson was sent to the Vietnam War and brought home demons. In 1969, Lee published a story on drugs that is hokey and naïve by today’s standards, but bucked a prohibition on the subject and in so doing broke the first major chain in the industry’s long period of self-censorship.
Comic books were supposed to reinforce, not challenge, prevailing wisdom and authority. Lee felt obligated to not sit on the sidelines of the tumultuous 1960s. Even when his characters weren’t confronting issues, Lee himself was, in the monthly Stan’s Soapbox feature in every Marvel comic. In one famous column, Lee writes, “It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul… None of us lives in a vacuum — none of us is untouched by the everyday events around us — events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives.”
This philosophy was visible in Lee’s run on Captain America in the late 60s. During this era, Lee evolved Captain America from a stoic, two-dimensional soldier to a conflicted man out of time, struggling to cope with the increased moral complexity of his age. Justice began to mean more than law enforcement, and Cap became aware that his government could be in the wrong. The books had a special reverberation in the political climate of Woodstock and Vietnam, and perhaps even more so today, as the fascism Lee and Cap both began their careers combating takes hold inside America.
What I’ll miss most about Stan is not the creative output, which will endure forever. It’s “The Man” himself. He maintained a connection to generations of fans. As a kid in the 90s, I saw his name on the first page of every Marvel comic and read his Q&A on the letters page. I owned tapes of Marvel cartoons that Lee introduced and video games that he narrated. I’ll miss his mischievous grin, his boundless excitement and his optimism: When asked why he didn’t just retire at his advanced age, Lee responded, “Most people retire so they can go do what they want. I’m already doing what I want. I like to write. I like to work with creative people. If I retired, I’d be giving up my fun.”
Years ago, I had a chance to meet Stan at a comic convention in Austin. It was $80 to get his autograph and say hello. I decided not to do it. I stood nearby, and stopped a moment to take in the sight of him and smile. But I thought to myself: “Not this time. The comic con is annual. Stan is a workhorse. He’ll be back.” Of course, Lee was already around 90. But it somehow seemed like he’d be around forever, because in my life, he had been.
Stan Lee became a cultural icon in and of himself, on a plane comparable to Andy Warhol or The Beatles. He will be forever remembered by his famous cameo appearances and magnetic charisma. It’s a treat for the world that he lived long enough to see his co-creations seize the American imagination all over again, some 50 years after the original stories. He lived through World War II, the civil rights movement, the space age, and the failures of modern capitalism, helping America tell its story all the way.