Remembering Stan Lee
I have read very few comic books or graphic novels. Why would I? They’re just funny animal stories for children and I have more important things to do, like compulsively re-watch Muppet Babies on Youtube. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at my home or office. I belong to the Marvel Collectors club, my son’s bedroom and playroom are filled with countless action figures and Funko pops of a broad array of Marvel superheroes and villains, my son has a goddamn costume box with multiple Spider-Man and Iron Man capes and costumes and I spend a fair amount of time playing superheroes with my boy. He likes to play Spider-Man. I like to cos-play the Disney executive making the tough phone call to James Gunn informing him he’s being pulled from Guardians of the Galaxy 3 due to the offensive nature of his tweets. We honestly don’t interact very often. I’m starting to think I should choose a different character.
I read Sean Howe’s wonderful history of Marvel and wrote about the disastrous meta-Marvel parody Marville for My World of Flops. For the most part I dig the Marvel Cinematic Universe and love, love, love standouts like Thor: Ragnorarok, the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and Black Panther.
Aside from never reading comic books, I am a total Marvel maniac so I, like the rest of the world felt a deep sense of loss upon hearing that after 95 blockbuster years on planet Earth as one of our greatest and most boffo entertainers, creators and all-around characters, Stan Lee had succumbed to the inevitable and died.
It’s not hyperbolic to argue that you’d have to travel back to Shakespeare to find someone who created so many characters and so many stories that caught fire in the public imagination and have endured over time, gaining rather than losing popularity and cultural relevance.
Though I don’t read many comic books, I love reading about comic books. I’ve always been gobsmacked that one man could create so many important characters. Even if Lee is only responsible for a third of the characters he’s credited or co-credited with creating, then his legacy is still staggering, almost incalculable. Needless to say, the world we live in would be a considerably different place if Stan Lee has not invigorated it for nearly a century with his creations and his magnetic and larger than life presence.
It’s no insult to say that Lee’s role as the grinning, endlessly energetic and self-promoting face and guilelessly ebullient voice of comic books was nearly as important as his work as a writer, creator and universe-creator. Even before he mugged his way through pretty much every Marvel movies in cameos fans came to know and grudgingly endure, Lee was everywhere talking up his heroes and his art form, whether on a famous, hilariously self-deprecating guest appearance on The Simpsons or with his cameo as himself as paternal dispenser of life lessons in Mallrats.
Stan Lee didn’t just make comic books. No, to me he was comic books. He embodied the medium. He was its unofficial official face in no small part because he was an upbeat, charismatic, handsome, energetic man with a gift for gab and genius for branding and self-mythologizing, and not a brooding, angry, sullen loner raging at the world.
Lee was to comic book conventions what Robin Williams was to comedy clubs in the 1980s: a ubiquitous fixture who traveled far and wide as a Johnny Appleseed of their art form, spreading enthusiasm and getting photographed with roughly 73 percent of the human population. I’m not kidding! Go to remote outposts in Antarctica and you’ll be all, “Shit, Robin Williams and Stan Lee came here to do stand-up and a convention gig respectively and took photographs with every human being in a ten mile radius! Excelsior! Impressive but also not that surprising.”
One of Stan Lee’s gifts was for being photographed with people, which is not as easy as you might think. But, as with so many other things, Stan the Man made it look easy, like you were doing him a favor instead of the other way around.
Stan Lee was a hustler as well as an artist, a showman and entertainer who mastered the art of branding before the phrase was even invented. He was so synonymous with the art form he loved that when he promoted comic books he was by definition also promoting himself and when he was promoting himself he was by extension also promoting comic books as a medium.
Lee’s hustle was a quintessentially, unmistakably Jewish hustle. It was the hustle of a man who could never forget that no matter how much money he made or how well-established in the culture he might be, it could all be taken away from him in a heartbeat, and had been for many Jews of his generation.
Hell, Lee’s own final years were marked by dark whispers and heartbreaking articles alleging that the comic book legend was being manipulated and abused by parasites intent on exploiting his legacy and famous openness. He knew firsthand, tragically, that massive fame and cultural importance and money sometimes cannot protect you from being mistreated by bad people without super powers, only sinister motivations and ill intentions.
Lee understood what it was like to have remarkable powers and abilities that simultaneously set you apart from the rest of humanity, help mankind evolve and grow and engender fierce hatred and resentment from people who hate you not because of what you’ve done but rather because of who you are.
Canonically, very few superheroes are explicitly Jewish. Spiritually, damn near the lot of them are. Lee’s Judaism gave him special insight into the plight of outsiders. It engendered empathy for people who are not like everybody else in ways that are sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse, and oftentimes an unfathomably complicated combination of the two.
We are living in Stan Lee’s world, in the never-ending shadow of his creations. And now Stan is gone, a mere five years before a centennial that would have undoubtedly proved a merchandising bonanza. But Lee’s creations will be with us forever, just like that Shakespeare jerk, only better because very few of the so-called Bard’s creations had radioactive blood, let alone the powers of a man-sized spider and I can think of a certain Stan Lee/Steve Ditko creation with both.
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