I knew this post was coming for a while. In fact, different versions of this post remain unwritten or in the recycle bin on my laptop. When Steve Ditko died a few months ago, I tried to write a post to commemorate his incredible impact on my life and the comic book industry. How his drawings and embrace of the weird left my imagination on fire and paper cuts on my fingers from flicking through comic book pages. But I didn’t know how to find the right words to do him justice. So I left it.
And now Stan Lee has died at the age of 95, and I’m sat in front of my screen again. And trying to think of the words to surmise his impact on comic books, entertainment, pop culture, me, thousands of other avid fans. No one has done so much for comics, and no one ever will. And this time, I don’t think I can delete this post. It has to be written, even if the words don’t quite fit.
Stan was the co-creator of the Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and so many more that if I kept going this page would stretch into oblivion. He was part of Marvel before it even took that name, before it was Atlas and when it was just Timely. He was installed as interim editor at 19 in 1941. And from there, particularly in the 1960s, he began to create terrific characters. Characters that would transcend time and space.
One of my favourite stories surrounding Stan centred around the Comics Code of America. In the 1950s, a belief started to form that comic books influence juvenile delinquency (sound familiar?), and thus the Comics Code was amended to ban excessive violence, nudity and all other sorts of naughty activity. Horror comics were effectively neutered with the prohibition of blood and gore, and books were not permitted to have “terror” and “horror” in their titles.
These rulings strangled the comics industry. Marvel, then Atlas, came under extreme pressure due to their own emphasis on westerns and horror books. This new clamp on creativity was leading Stan to consider packing up the typewriter and leaving the industry.
It was his late wife, Jo, who convinced him to stay. She told him to write whatever he liked. I didn’t matter, they’d only fire him from the place he didn’t want to be at anymore. With this advice, Stan created a book, Fantastic Four #1. And from there came a renaissance of super heroes created by Stan and his fabulous artistic partners, from Jack Kirby to Larry Lieber and Steve Ditko.
I once saw a great video featurin Stan and the filmmaker Kevin Smith. They’re improvising a scene during an interview at San Diego Comic Con, and Stan just keeps giggling and cracking up. He seemed to have an incredibly youthful mind and voice, even in his later years. When he spoke in that famous voice, the words flowed out of his mouth with exuberance.
His characters were all flawed. Spider-Man was just human. Iron Man was a genius, but arrogant. Thor was hidden inside the body of the cane-bound Donald Blake. Bruce Banner couldn’t let his anger envelop him otherwise he would become the destructive Hulk. These flaws made the characters endearing and made us think that these brave heroes might not be able to make it through to the next issue. It also told us that despite our flaws, we had the power to become heroes ourselves. Why do you think that meant so much to the kid whose hands shook and who couldn’t ride a bike?
When I was a child, I would end up spending a lot of time on my own, and I loved to read. One day, I discovered Marvel comics. I saw epic stories featuring colourful heroes defying evil, and that sent me on a journey of discovery that I still follow at the age of 21. When I look around my bedroom, I see comics. Hundreds of them. A few of them were written by Stan himself, but my point is that every single one of them originated from one man’s mind, and the influence that those books have had on my imagination and my life is immeasurable. Without Stan, I wouldn’t have become a writer. I wouldn’t have gone to university and met some of the closest friends I’ve ever had. And I wouldn’t be sat here, struggling to see this computer screen because my eyes are welling up, trying to write something poignant enough to do this man justice. I know I’m not doing enough.
Stan gave a lonely little boy a whole universe to play with – and the thing is, I know it’s not just me feeling like this. His work has created a sense of giddiness and excitement in people for generations, since 1941, and I love the idea that thanks to the profits from the Marvel films (in excess of US$10 billion), it can do the same for generations to come.
Stan gave thousands – possibly millions – of boys and girls that very same universe, and it is up to us creators to keep expanding it without forgetting the original big bang that put us on this path.
I started this piece saying that I didn’t know if I could find the right words to honour Stan Lee. And to be honest, I still don’t think I have. Because the truth is, I don’t think it’s possible. I’m not good enough to do that. What words are there that can truly encapsulate the man? Seismic? Momentous? Mind-blowing?
Actually, I think there is a word. One glorious, magical word.
Rest in Peace, Stan.