Stan “The Man” Lee has passed away at the age of 95.
I feel the only way I can start to be okay again is to write about it, and the impact of Stan Lee is a big part of why I’m built that way.
I know we geeks have dreaded this day, but I didn’t know how hard it would hit me, so here goes nothing, my fellow True Believers:
At 13-years-old, the very first trade paperback I ever purchased was a 1999 story by Jim Kruger, John Paul Leon, and Alex Ross called Earth X. There’s been some debate as to the overall quality of the story and the trilogy it’s a part of, Universe X and Paradise X being the second and third installments, respectively. However, it is undeniable that Earth X is a labor of love to the works of Marvel Comics legends like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, Larry Lieber, Carl Burgos, John Romita Sr., Dick Ayers, and, of course, Stan Lee.
Earth X was about the newly-blind Watcher, Uatu, drafting the android superhero Machine Man into a heavily coerced apprenticeship as the new Watcher of Earth, because recent events were in dire need of chronicling. Two of the most significant events were the development of superpowers by every man, woman, and child on the planet and the slow and steady takeover of the United States by a young, powerful, and extremely malicious telepath calling himself The Red Skull.
Sounds cool, right?
But wait, there’s more:
- The Avengers are dead
- Spider-Man is an overweight shut-in
- The X-Men are disbanded
- Africa’s animals are becoming humanoid
- Iron Man refuses to leave his armor
- Sub-Mariner is always on fire, literally
- Captain America is no longer relevant
- And only half of the Fantastic Four still live
You know, when I lay it all out like that, it makes it seem like Earth X is the kind of dark tale that’s grim for grimness’ sake, but that’s not what I took away from it. In between each issue in the collected work, which saw some heavy wear and tear as I took it with me everywhere and read it again and again, Uatu and Machine Man, or Aaron Stack, as he preferred, reflected on what they’ve seen and commented and debated on the nature of good and evil, gods, and men, and the existentialism of the extraordinary people they’ve been peering in on. And, throughout this epic, Uatu tries to undermine the sense of humanity Aaron was given by his creator, Abel Stack, so that he may distance himself and adhere to the Watcher’s code of non-interference and impartial documentation.
At the time, I didn’t understand all the themes of Earth X. I only knew I was being treated to an extremely imaginative and ambitious story with moralistic musings I could adopt and experiment with, as an impressionable barely-teen does.
I couldn’t see that Uatu represented the older, jaded comic book reader, looking to impress his perception of, well, everything, upon a starry-eyed new fan in Aaron.
I didn’t realize that every time Aaron pushed back against Uatu’s nihilism and apathy, it was the creators of Earth X taking a dig at the encroaching grimdark of the modern comic book industry, which, during the late 90s, almost saw the end of Marvel Comics.
As much as Aaron and I were drawn in by the depth of comic book lore wielded by Uatu, we not only held out hope for the harrowed heroes on Earth, but we wanted to do something for them. We wanted to put some skin in the game and affect the outcome.
We didn’t just want to sound the call that a darkness looms; we wanted to fight it.
I didn’t want to just be a fan.
I wanted to be a hero.
And that, I believe, is what Stan Lee’s ultimate legacy was. He loved the comic book medium and believed in his bones the capacity of comic books to create change in the real world.
Stan Lee co-created the X-Men to bring attention to social injustice in times like the Civil Rights Movement, using Professor X and Magneto as stand-ins for leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, respectively.
Stan Lee co-created Daredevil, a blind superhero, to teach us that everyone is capable of bringing good into the world, no matter how often they keep getting knocked down.
Stan Lee co-created Spider-Man, the ultimate underdog, as a representation of the struggles we all go through as we attempt the awkward transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Stan Lee co-created Iron Man to show that, no matter how much we may appear to have the perfect life, we all carry our personal battles with our demons around with us.
Stan Lee co-created Doctor Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts, to remind us that no matter how much knowledge and skill we obtain, our capacity for humility must be even greater.
Stan Lee co-created Hulk, to represent the duality of scientific achievement in its ability to both advance and annihilate.
And Stan Lee co-created Thor, because every so often, someone would have to show up and beat the ever living crap out of Hulk.
Finally, let us not forgot perhaps the most important and underappreciated contribution Stan Lee and Jack Kirby gave us: The Fantastic Four.
It’s a tragedy that The Fantastic Four hasn’t yet found its footing in the realm of movie adaptations. As we can concede, comic book movies are how characters and the themes they embody can go from dustbin obscurity to mainstream. Despite the false starts and scrapped film debuts, there’s a reason why executives and fans alike keep trying to jumpstart this property on the big screen.
The Fantastic Four, comprised of Reed and Sue Richards, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm, is Marvel Comics’ First Family. More than that, though, Jack Kirby, who had previously created a similar work in Challengers of the Unknown, and Stan Lee had given us something that would stand apart from other groups like the Justice League, which was a group of superheroes so different from one another that it was a miracle unto itself that it endured, and X-Men, which, as Universe X would later point out, was a somewhat flawed notion because self-segregation can be counterproductive to change. The Fantastic Four was about exploration, exposing yourself to new cultures, and enduring what life throws at you, even Chrysler-Building-sized-immortals, as a family.
Just as many of Stan Lee’s other co-creations were about incredible, fearless, and sensational individuals, Jack and Stan presented the most crucial theme to comic book fans: no matter how much you are labeled by yourself or others as an outcast or freak, you will never be alone, because you have a family you are born with and a family that is waiting for you to find.
There are always people who seek to emulate the Watchers with their sense of impartial smugness. There are always those who try to be like Magneto by forgetting that no matter how noble their cause can seem, might doesn’t make right. There are always some who fancy themselves as a Kingpin by believing that money can buy anything. And there are still people who buy into the fanaticism of Red Skull by fooling themselves into claiming that some are simply born inferior.
As in the comics Stan helped give us, the villains have a way of finding each other, taking what they want, and making us feel powerless. When that happens, we must find the hero that resides in all of us. We have to do more than watch. We need to realize we have both power and responsibility to affect change. We must remember that discovery and destruction are two sides of the same coin of science. We have to recognize and rectify the injustice of people being treated as less-than.
We need to realize that being a True Believer means believing in the best we have to offer.
And, in the worst times, it is imperative we remember that we are not alone.
Stan Lee wanted everyone to be a comic book fan, because, I believe he wanted us all to be a part of a family. Though they may bicker and even battle, families find strength in each other and remind us that, mighty we may be as individuals, we are at our mightiest together.
If you find yourself feeling broken by the passing of this Titan of Tales, the Mustachioed Marvel, a Sultan of Showmanship, Paragon of Parable-Peddling, Wizard of Wordplay, and Legend of the Literary, Stan “The Man” Lee, please know:
I am a True Believer, and I am your family.
And so was Stan.