Richard Worth 13th November 2018
“A lean, silent figure fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world with great power, there must also come great responsibility. And so, a legend is born and a new name is added to the roster of those who make the world of fantasy the most exciting realm of all.”
— Stan Lee, Amazing Fantasy #15 (1962) First appearance of Spider-Man
These are the first words that came to me upon reading the news that Stan Lee had died. They have been with me, a booming echo in my subconscious from the age of eight. I would read them nightly in a copy of Marvel Comics Annual 1996 that had been bought for me on a day trip to Southport. It was my Book of Genesis, a Poetic Edda internalised, a new mythology in the guise of a bundle of reprints featuring the origins and earliest adventures of The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, The X-Men, The Avengers and my favourite, embossed on the cover with the Marvel logo, Spider-Man.
The thought of Stan Lee, a bombastic, cosmic entity with a personality bigger than Galactus, quiet and small, fading into that gathering darkness is heartbreaking. Before the hot takes and the cynicism and the tearing down of a cultural icon begins, I want to take a moment to pay respects to Stan Lee in earnest. After all, it’s not every day a man who created a universe dies.
Born Stanley Martin Lieber in New York, in 1922 to Jewish immigrants, he ended up as one of the architects of modern culture by accident. He was essentially an intern at Timely Comics when Captian American creators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left the company, making Lee the stand-in editor. Though he had some success over the years, he was ready to quit comics. He was bored with formulaic writing and 2D characters. Convinced by his late wife, the Blackpudlian Joan Boocock Lee, to write something he loved before he quit, he got out his typewriter — which she would later destroy during an argument about photography — and wrote Fantastic Four #1 (1961) kicking off The Silver Age and changing the funny books forever. With that one push, Lee was added to the roster of the world of fantasy. The rest, as they say, is comic book history.
If some immigrant kid from the New York tenements could create myths, what’s stopping a working-class kid from a Merseyside estate?
Lee is known for his pantheon and prolificacy, but what set him apart is how he crystalised his characters. His heroes had problems and flaws, his villains were sympathetic and often victims of circumstance. He defined their characters through internal conflict. What made his characters revolutionary, is at its core what makes them interesting and enduring today. The Fantastic Four suffered family fracas while Bruce Banner fought the Hulk for control and the X-Men were hated for being heroes. Spider-Man was just a poor kid with poor kid problems.
Being a poor kid with poor kid problems as well a nerd with a single parent, Peter Parker spoke to me; Peter Parker was me, as far as I was concerned. From my own absent and intermittent father figure, I inherited nought but a sizeable snozz. From Uncle Ben, I inherited a moral code. “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.” Only it wasn’t actually from Uncle Ben — it came from Stan Lee.
Even at that age, Stan Lee was probably the first person I understood to be a creator. Other authors and artists were abstract concepts. People didn’t make things — things, they just existed; you couldn’t just make stories up… unless you were Stan Lee. As my mum checked on me at night, in my Spider-Man PJs, under a Spider-Man duvet, reading Lee reprints from the ’60s, she probably considered an eight-year-old boy from St Helens’ interest in an already then 73-year-old Jewish man half a planet away odd, but only a passing fad like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles a few years prior, or Fire Sam Man (as I called him) a few years before that. She was wrong.
Stan was a visible creator. He would write editorials in his books where he spoke directly to the readers. He started in a time when most comic creators would lie about their professions in social situations to avoid professional embarrassment. Comics were considered pulpy trash that perverted the minds of America’s youth, and activists genuinely held book burnings to destroy them. Stan, with a few other notable creators, was a fan. He started the Merry Marvel Marching Society and the prototype podcast (seriously, give it a listen) and would regularly pontificate and make sure readers knew that comics were by and for outsiders in his editorial Stan’s Soapbox.
He offered no-prizes for readers who spotted inconsistencies in the stories and offered solutions (mine was never printed). He characterised his bullpen with nicknames, letting you know that the guys who made these whacky books where just like you, which in turn let you know you could be like them. With no flippancy do I make this claim: I truly believe that my life is the way it is because of Stan Lee. Great power and great responsibility aside, just the idea that creation isn’t an act reserved for the divine. If some immigrant kid from the New York tenements could create myths, what’s stopping a working-class kid from a Merseyside estate? So, I did. I wrote my own comics and stories and somehow, like Peter Parker, I’ve ended up working as a journalist. You take on so many influences in your life, but few can open up a new reality to you.
Stan always wanted to write “The Great American” novel, a snapshot narrative of America, and it would have been great. But it seems redundant. Why write something trying to capture the essence of American culture when you have written things that define it?
There are going to be a lot of articles like this, with fanboys waxing lyrical about Stan and how he inspired them. The urge to end with Stan’s patented “Exelsior” of “nuff said” is magnetic and it will be written a thousand times in his honour. It’s a fine and time-tested sign off with a noble heritage but, for now, I’d rather keep it simple and say: thank you, Stan Lee.
Richard Worth 13th November 2018