Stan Lee created half the superheroes you can name. He’s as much a father of modern American myth as George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry. Alas, Stan, it seems, has made his final cameo appearance in our shared pop cultural universe. He passed away today at the age of 95. This comes in the wake of Lee having just lost his wife Joan in 2017. They were married for 69 years.
After traditional superhero comics had hit a lull, Stan and a few key collaborators, chief among them Jack “King” Kirby, reinvigorated the industry in the 60’s by creating a new wave of characters more relatable and dynamic than the god-like figures of Superman and Wonder Woman. Lee and company (ultimately, a literal company–Marvel Comics) started with humanity and complex, flawed characters, and then put them in super-powered contexts that challenged them not just as heroes, but as people. If it was all a bit postmodern, it was also exactly what a new generation of fans were craving. The Silver Age of superheroes, and with it the “House of Ideas”, a.k.a. Marvel Comics, was born.
In his prime years, Stan Lee created or co-created an insane list of household-name characters including (but not limited to, not by a long shot):
- The Hulk
- Iron Man
- Black Panther
- The X-Men
- Thor (okay, Norse culture gets a creator credit here, but Lee made him super)
- The Fantastic Four
- Doctor Strange
You get the idea. It’s a long list. Those billions of dollars you’re all throwing at Marvel movies would be sitting in a boring 401k or some such without the creativity, and, frankly, P.T. Barnum-seque promotional mojo of one Mister Stan Lee.
For me, Stan Lee was first the narrator of my favorite Saturday-morning cartoon series as a kid, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. I thought he had the coolest voice in the world, and he brought an enthusiasm, an urgency to these characters’ tales that made you believe this guy really cared for them. It wasn’t until much later I learned that was precisely right. Because he was their Dad.
To a person, everyone who met him says he was always “on”. The “Stan Lee” persona was the only Stan Lee. The guy who couldn’t speak a noun onstage without adding a modifier like “Incredible!”, “Amazing!”, “Uncanny!” etc. wasn’t going to let you part ways from a bus stop selfie without a complementary “Excelsior!”. Such was the zest-for-life machine we mortals referred to as Stan Lee.
To the end, Lee was active in popping up somewhere in just about every Marvel film–at this point dozens of movies–clearly loving every minute of it. One hopes his cameo for the upcoming climactic chapter in the MCU as we know it, Avengers 4 (tell us the title!), has already been filmed; it wouldn’t be right if he doesn’t get that swan song. But for my money (much of which is already in the hands of Marvel Studios, Inc.), the greatest is the one that gave us a meta-message of love from Lee to all fans at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, in which the universe’s “Watchers” are taking leave of their friend Stan, to his wide-eyed protest:
“Aw gee, I’ve got so many more stories to tell … … .”
I’m sure you did, Stan.