The news yesterday of Stan Lee’s death broke over me like a wave and continued to crash into me time and time again over night. I’m still hit with echoes of it today, although I can feel the pain receding, little by little, like the tide. It is fitting that where I live, the day after Stan’s death, the sky opened up and poured rain, as if the world itself is trying to cope with the loss. I know Stan Lee couldn’t live forever — logically I understand no one can — but I wish he could have with all my heart.
When I was young, I didn’t know who Stan Lee was, but I spent much of my time reading his stories and watching the old Spider-Man and X-Men cartoons in the mornings. I remember rubbing sticky fingers on pages (it pains me now to think of how cruel I was to my comics) and being captivated at the adventures of Spider-Man. He was my favorite, seconded only by the X-Men because they lived on my TV and filled me with a hunger for more stories.
I had no idea who created them, and when I was a kid, I didn’t care. I just cared about what they represented to me. These characters were a place for weird kids to see themselves. They promoted compassion, bravery, and told me to stand up for the little guy. These were values that I soaked up like a sponge. I loved these heroes. I loved watching them protect people and defeat the bad guys — no matter how impossible it seemed. It gave my very nerdy, very weird self…hope. I was bullied a lot as a kid for who I was and how I acted, but hey, so was Spider-Man before he got his powers, and so were the Mutants after they got theirs.
As I got older, I became more interested in the worlds Stan Lee had created. I fell in love with the Black Panther and began to absorb his stories hungrily. My old heroes were just as essential but took a backseat to this new fascination.
The first round of Spider-Man movies came out when I was in middle school, and I loved them. Now I have a much more critical eye, but not as a child. As a child, I needed the comfort of my old heroes. It was a reminder, in dark times, to keep believing in the tenants of heroes. It was in these films that I was first drawn to learn about Stan Lee.
I was lucky to grow up when the internet was growing up, too. It was out of its infancy, and search tools began to flourish (especially after dial-up stopped being a thing — those were dark times). My research into Spider-Man and who he was led me to Stan Lee. Who was the man who created Spider-Man?
What I learned made Stan Lee my personal hero.
Stan Lee, with his partner Jack Kirby, created almost every major character in the original Marvel canon. Together they created Spider-Man, the Hulk, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, Ant-Man, Black Panther, the list goes on and on. With Everette he co-created Daredevil, and with Steve Ditko he helped to create Doctor Strange — and we’ve barely scratched the surface. If I wanted to list them, it would take me all day, and I have so much more to say. But that alone isn’t the half of it.
You see, Stan Lee was greater than any character he ever created. He was the father of heroes, but he was so, so much more. His history, the brief bits I can discuss in this blog, is one of rising from nothing to be one of the most amazing figures in comics, not to mention one of the driving forces that cemented comics into the minds and hearts of fans everywhere.
If there was one thing you should know about Stan Lee, it’s that he never intended to get into the world of comics. He had every intention of writing the next Great American Novel. Comics, in his youth, were considered low brow and beneath seasoned writers. He adopted the pen name, the name we all recognize, Stan Lee, to hide what he considered the shameful act of writing comics. He later learned it was the most significant work he would ever create, but that’s not the beginning of the story.
Stan Lee didn’t immediately find himself in comics. In fact, he joined up with Pulp Magazine not knowing they published comics at all. His uncle Robbie Solomon got him the position and was surprised when he ended up working with a division called Timely Comics. He was set up as an assistant, which meant he spent his time refilling inkwells (yeah, they used pen and ink), proofreading, erasing pencil, and bringing lunch to the artists and writers of Timely. It was a foot in the door. As with any great hero — his beginnings were humble.
Stan worked hard, so hard that they recognized his potential and gave him a chance to write in 1941. This was when he took up the pen name Stan Lee — this was when he was ashamed, and this was when his journey truly began. The first story he penned was a text filler for “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge.” Captain America was created to fight threats to the American people they could not fight themselves. In the first issue — Stan worked on the third — he is seen on the cover punching Hitler in the face (which is still one of my all-time favorite covers, though not one of Stan’s).
That same year Jack Kirby and his partner Simon left due to a dispute with the publisher and Stan Lee was promoted to acting editor during the search for their replacements. He was 19 years old when this happened. But Stan was so good at the work and so dedicated to the business, he was made Editor-in-Chief and held the position until he was promoted to Publisher many years later.
In 1942 he took the heroism of his characters to heart and joined the United States Army. While he did not fight, he took his work seriously. He repaired communications equipment until he was transferred to work on training videos, manuals, slogans, and occasionally penned cartoons. When he retired from the service in 1945, he returned to Timely to resume his work as Editor-in-Chief.
It was after the military that his true work began. It wasn’t until the 50’s that Stan Lee became the creator we know and love today. In the 50’s he had a crisis of self and considered quitting comics altogether. His wife suggested that he write the stories he had always wanted to write in a last bid to help him rediscover a passion for the work.
And he did. His work began to burn with such an intensity it compelled people to talk about it. He made his characters flawed and human. He tore down the trope of the idealistic and infallible hero and made them vulnerable. They suffered from fears, anger, and envy. They failed, they struggled, and they felt real. From this era came The Fantastic Four, Thor, and Spider-Man. He made characters we could see ourselves reflected in — they were mirrors to our own experiences and emotions. He created characters we could root for because we knew they had to struggle to get to where they were.
And as his renown grew, so too did his platform, and it was one he used to direct the conversation. He made X-Men to give oppressed communities and outcasts a reflection of themselves in comics. He made Black Panther so that the black community could have a hero to see themselves in. And his activism was not confined to his comics.
He spoke out against hate, violence, and intolerance. He brought his fans together and encouraged them to be better than they were. He spoke out time and time again and asked us to rise up to become the heroes we saw in his comics. He reminded us we don’t need spandex or a cape to help people. All we need to do is use our voice to speak up when we see injustice. Nothing changes if no one stands up.
In 2010 he continued his rampage of heroism and created the Stan Lee Foundation to promote literacy, education, and the arts. He made the foundation’s goal to support programs that provide access to literacy resources and to promote the arts, culture, and diversity on a national level.
You see, Stan Lee was never satisfied just to write heroes. He strove to be one. He aimed to make us better. He went out and met his fans so we could see he was real, that he was flesh and blood like us. He reminded us that we too could do the things he did if we worked hard and tried. He told us that our voices have power and we can use them to fight for what is right.
I met him in 2017 at LA Comic Con as a representative of Gemr. It wasn’t anything profound. I didn’t have a conversation with him, he never said a word to me. I was getting a comic signed so we could proudly display it until it was time to pass it along to a fan who would love it and cherish its significance. I stood in line for two hours pondering what I would say to Stan Lee. Pondering what to say that he hadn’t heard every stuttering, gushing fan say ten thousand times before. What do you say to express how profound an impact someone has had on your life? How do you convey how deeply in your being someone has rooted themselves and how important the things they created are to you?
But when I got in front of him, I couldn’t speak. I watched his hand fly over the comic, and for just the briefest moment his eye met mine, and I knew there was nothing to say. I was completely star struck in front of him. All thought of trying to express all the deep and profound thoughts I had pondered for the last two hours left me. I just took the comic back from him and forced two words from my throat “Thank you.” At this point (I’m a bit embarrassed to admit) I ended up bolting away with the same nervous scamper you would expect from a gazelle avoiding the jaws of a lion, not a fan retreating from her hero. I stood, holding the comic in between my hands, knowing that moment was just a passing second in his life, one that held little consequence to him in the grand scheme of things. But that memory is essential to me and is still as vivid in my mind as it was in the moment. He said nothing to me, he did nothing to change me. But he did. He has. He always will.
I don’t really know how to say goodbye to a man who has meant so much to me for so long. He was so deeply good to the comic community. He was so profoundly kind to touch so many of us. His stories will live long beyond him and far beyond me, and that thought gives me comfort. He was the father of heroes, but he was so, so much more.
He was a real hero. An actual, flesh and blood, hero.
I hope in whatever place there is after death, whatever comes after this life, he has been reunited with the wife he loved so much, and they are happy together again — happy in the knowledge that together, they made the world better. That they know Stan Lee taught us all how to rise up and become heroes.