5 Things I learned from Stan Lee

Not that I knew the man personally — but then he was a larger than life figure.

I woke up this morning to the sad news that Stan Lee had passed away. Not exactly surprising news, with so much of the coverage of his latter years being around his failing health and, very sadly, the efforts of those around him to get access to his considerable wealth.

Now, I didn’t know Stan Lee personally, but his persona, and the way he sold Stan “The Man” Lee to the world meant that he had a very distinct influence on me anyway. I’ve been a comics geek for decades, and very much a Marvel fan as a big part of that.

I’ve been thinking all day about those influences and what effect they’ve had on me. So, in no particular order…

  • That human emotion is as important as plot: The so-called “Marvel method” that changed comics in the 1960s was to take the existing fictional world of superheroes and apply some real world problems to it. Spider-Man is about teenage angst, the X-Men is about racism, and so on and so forth. At the heart of all that was the realisation that you could make an unbelievable character (I mean, have you seen those outfits?) entirely relatable by making them emotional human beings. I’m much more of an analytical writer than a fiction writer (though I do have a few books to my name), but whenever I’m writing in that style, Stan Lee’s writing comes to mind. It’s especially true when you think how narratively thin some of those early Marvel books actually are in plot terms.
  • The meaning of “Excelsior!” I mean, really. Who else could get kids enthusiastic about obscure Latin phrases but Stan Lee?
  • That inclusion is better than exclusion: Part of the genius of the Stan “The Man” Lee persona was that he made reading Marvel comics feel inclusionary. You were reading the book, and reading his notes from the Marvel bullpen, and it made you feel like you were part of what you were buying into. It wasn’t an exclusive matter where only certain people were allowed. Everyone was welcome. It’s actually smart business strategy, but it’s equally a very warm, human way of dealing with anyone. There’s a bullpen column doing the rounds today about racism, penned by Mr Lee that says it rather explicitly.

Racism is abhorrent, and kudos to Mr Lee for calling it out back in the late 1960s in the USA, when it was very much a politically charged matter.

To be wary of hucksters: It’s one part of Stan “The Man” Lee that many admired, but I picked at a young(ish) age that some of his pronouncements were, indeed empty hype, and as the years went by, that became more apparent to a lot of people. I can recall him writing about the Marvel movies of the late 80s/early 90s — sheer dreck like Captain America or the Dolph Lundgren-led Punisher — as the next big wave of Hollywood blockbusters.

  • Looking back they’re almost kitschy-quaint, but he hyped them like they were quality. Same story with the Lee-penned Rampage 2099, a book that wasn’t particularly good. But Stan sold it just like it was the next Spider-Man. He was good at that sort of thing, obviously, but it made me aware that it’s often worth looking past the hype to the reality.
  • That you can reinvent yourself: There’s an entire generation for whom Stan Lee is “that old guy in the Marvel movies”. He totally earned that spot (and yes, I know, Kirby, Ditko, etc, but they’re at least getting their due now in terms of credit and, as I understand it, their estates are benefitting financially as well) and clearly enjoyed it a whole lot. I am left wondering how many of those cameos are yet to come, and at what point Disney will reveal that Marvel-Cinematic-Universe-Stan-Lee wasn’t in fact a Watcher. After all, he was so very clearly a Beyonder.

Lead image: Gage Skidmore

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