Reports from multiple sources indicate that Stan Lee has died, at the age of 95. Mr. Lee (born Stanley Lieber) was a crucial figure in the 1960s renaissance of superhero comic books that has produced the current series of blockbuster movies called the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the characters he created with folks like Steve Ditko and (most notably) Jack Kirby have become the heroes of our various pop cultural mythoi, from my father’s generation to the Spawn’s.
All three of us in fact met Mr. Lee: Dad and I met him (along with Mr. Kirby, Dave Berg, and various other major figures of the genre) at a symposium at Vanderbilt when I was not quite seven years old. The Spawn, meanwhile, met him at HeroesCon six years ago. In 1972, Dad and I talked to him and got an autographed comic for free. The Spawn’s encounter, however, was much shorter, and a bit spendy. I suppose that says something about the Hulk-like growth of the medium.
One of the things that I find interesting about Mr. Lee’s career (and his mentions have popped up at this blog on several occasions) is that his revolutionizing of the field happened somewhat accidentally. Although he had been in the industry since before the beginning of WW II, by the early 60s he had wearied of the form and nurtured hopes of becoming a writer of what gets called “literary fiction” these days. As he was planning to leave the business anyway, his wife suggested that he try applying some of his ideas to his comic work. This led him to create characters with both superhuman powers and very human flaws, emotions, and problems. By the late 60s (and certainly by the early 70s), his work had helped turn comics from “kid stuff” to the sort of thing that received attention at highbrow places like, well, Vanderbilt U. And it hasn’t stopped; a quick check of one of Mondoville’s literature databases reveals dozens of articles about the man and his work.
Along the way, he displayed a genius for self-promotion, taking on his own character of Stan “The Man” Lee, complete with a number of catchphrases (including the one I used to title this entry) and a public persona that ran from a sort of hipster patois to corn and back again. Indeed, recent years have seen some challenges to his self-constructed legend (again, most notably from fans, friends, and family of Mr. Kirby), but even then the complaints were frequently met with winks and smiles. It was just part of Stan’s hype.
And now he’s gone, and unlike a comic character, there won’t be a surprise comeback. But while he may not always have wanted to stay in the world of comics, I’m sure there was satisfaction in the idea that his ideas have become part of the culture in ways that only the rarest literary authors can achieve. Very few people can quote Don DeLillo or John Updike (and I have a hard time imagining why someone might want to in the former case), but I guarantee that a whole bunch of people can tell you what comes “with great power.” And while I’d like to think that my morality is more developed now than it was when I was reading comics as a toddler and grade-schooler, I can’t help suspecting that some of my sense of right and wrong owes a bit to the stories he wrote and Jack (or Steve, or John Romita) drew.
So goodbye, Mr. Lee. Thanks for the stories.