You may have already read: Stanley Martin Leiber, known by his professional name Stan Lee, died today at 95. I didn’t know Stan Lee personally, but I consider myself a fan. You can read about his complete history and achievements in obituaries and remembrances all over the Internet. I want to write about how Stan Lee’s writing influenced me as a writer.
There’s nothing unusual about being a young boy in the 70s who loved Spider-Man, Thor (the Marvel version), Iron Man, the Hulk, and so on. Superheroes are many things to kids—adolescent power fantasies, moral compasses, gateways to more longform science-fiction and fantasy. But Stan Lee brought something to the writing that DC Comics, as much as I loved Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, didn’t bring—complexity. DC heroes were gods, in the case of Wonder Woman, literally. Marvel superheroes were humans, with insecurities, ego problems, and addictions. Sure, you could just focus on the widescreen action and great art, but if you read Lee’s words, you got to read about characters deeper than a simple cartoon.
Stan Lee also wrote characters that were reactions to their times. He created the x-men as an allegory for oppressed groups (be it ethnic minorities, religious, orientation, etc) in 1963. Daredevil was a disabled superhero, a blind man with heightened senses and a deep Catholic guilt. He created Black Panther, now a billion-dollar box office draw, in 1966 due to the dearth of superheroes of color. And where the DC heroes usually lived in fictional cities (Metropolis, Gotham, Central City, Coast City, and so on) Marvel more often put their characters in real places, like New York City, adding another detention of “reality” to the heightened superhero fantasies.
Marvel comics were the first place I realized as a teenager that you could create exciting adventures and still tell gripping stories with complex characters. I subsequently read many other science fiction and fantasy stories with complex characters, but Stan Lee brought them to me before everyone else.
The closest I came to meeting him personally was the first time I sat and listened to him at San Diego Comic-Con in 2010. Neal Adams was hosting a panel for his educational motion comic, They Spoke Out, about Americans who were sounding the alarm about the Holocaust before America entered the war. Stan Lee had leant his narration talents to the series, and was joined his friend Adams, speaking personally about wanting to help. Neal Adams had always been a very outspoken social justice warrior, but Stan Lee was always more cautious about his personal views. It was nice to hear the human side of Stan, the side that put holocaust survivors in his stories, who made them complex and moral despite having human failings, something that I have always tried to do myself. I’d seen Lee subsequently at Comic-Con, but never in as small a setting.
Stan Lee created many of the characters that fired my own creativity. He infused them with a sense of depth and life, and their lives in turn engaged mine. His adventure was long and fruitful, and I’m grateful for his creative output, and for the fact that now, he’s part of my story. Thank you, Stan. As cliche as it is, please allow me to send you off with your own favorite sign off: Excelsior!