On Monday, Nov. 12, to paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, millions of nerd voices cried out in terror as one particular voice was silenced. Stan Lee, who co-created the Marvel Universe (the Avengers, Spider-Man, the X-Men and more), passed away at age 95.
This is the second time in my life when I heard of the death of a celebrity that I actually shed a few tears. The first time was when Steve Jobs passed away from pancreatic cancer.
Both of these men had a profound impact on my life despite never knowing them. I had but fleeting chance encounters with both; an email and phone call with Jobs and watching Stan on a panel at Comic Con International with a brief hello and handshake afterward. It was the art they produced that has left an indelible mark on my psyche.
When I was a kid, no one liked super heroes or comics. There weren’t any movies like now. The best we had was two good Batman movies with Michael Keaton and then two mediocre Batman movies with not-Michael Keaton. Expressing my joy of reading comics, letting alone my desire to make comics was a one-way ticket to Nerdtown, population: me. I was an outcast even among outcasts.
But I didn’t feel like an outcast. I felt like Spider-Man, who was a nerd in high school, but was destined to do such great things that even the guy who bullied him would become one of his biggest fans. (And he got to marry a super model!) Surely that was me! Or, if I was angry, maybe I was Dr. Doom and soon the world would realize my genius and tremble before my vengeance. By far, though, my favorite were the X-Men, who were “the strangest teens of all time.” The X-Men were mutants, who were a minority group. They fought and protected a world that feared and hated them. While much has been made of the X-Men as metaphor for civil rights, as an arty/nerdy kid in rural Minnesota, boy did I identify with them, having to conceal who I really was just to make it through daily life.
Most importantly, I always felt like I was in an exclusive club when I read these comics. In the 90s, Stan still did his “Stan’s Soapbox” column, and his personable style of writing crafted in the 60s still rang true 30 years later. The fact that everyone refers to him still as “Stan” rather than “Mr. Lee” whether they personally knew him or not is because he made you feel like he was just talking to you. Not unlike Fred Rogers, he made every one of his fans feel like they were special just because.
By the time I got into comics, Stan had long since stopped writing, but throughout the years I would find reprints of his stories, and now nearly all his classic Marvel comics from the 60s are available on Marvel Comics Unlimited. I spent the night of Nov. 12 reading some classic “Fantastic Four” comics. I’m not a collector, but I did seek out and own one particular FF comic from Stan and Jack (Kirby)’s run; “Fantastic Four #51: This man… this monster!” The issue after the Fantastic Four found a way to defeat Galactus, the Devourer of Worlds, a quiet story where Ben Grimm, known as the Thing, found a man who was able to free him of his monstrous curse. I won’t spoil it, but it is perhaps the greatest comic ever written.
It is strange to feel such grief over someone I didn’t know personally. Stan Lee made such a positive impact not just on the world, but on me and many other men and women. Stan didn’t just create the Marvel super heroes, he created the super hero in all of us. ‘Nuff said.