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Stan Lee Showed Me It Was OK to Love Both Art and Politics

Getty Images / Santi Visalli

One fan's final tribute on the eve of Stan's final cameo in "Avengers: Endgame"

Editor's note: This weekend's "Avengers: Endgame" will feature Stan Lee's final posthumous cameo in a Marvel film, five months after his death at 95. Playwright and Marvel fan Lissa Brennan penned this remembrance for Legacy.

As a young punk in the 1980s trying to figure out my future, I was torn.  

Theater, my first love, had held me spellbound with comedy, tragedy, music, and dance since I was a young child. But a new thrill beckoned: political activism, which punk bands like the Clash and X showed me could go beyond the cliché of teenage rebellion to conscious, considered, purposeful dissent.  

I certainly didn’t need Stan Lee to teach me either about art or about politics.  

But I did need him to teach me that I didn’t have to choose between the two.  

“Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun.” 

I read those words as a high school student, decades after Stan Lee wrote and published them on a Marvel Comics editorial page. They were true then, and they are true now. The difference is, back then, I thought the only people free to utter such words were those whose whole identities were defined by fighting for the cause. 

In my head, I screamed along with every last word, syllable, and hiccup of the band Crass’s diatribes against sexism, toxic masculinity, submission to government — whatever. At the same time, I was also ready to step in for any lead character or chorus member if someone happened to throw an impromptu production of “Grease” right in front of the Orange Julius hut at the mall.  

And I didn’t feel right about this. Which person was I? 

“Do both” didn’t seem like an option in those days. Participation in one thing felt like a lessening of the other. You had to choose. And as a teenager, you’re made to believe that your choices are irreversible. Once you’ve picked your path and walked upon it, there’s no backtracking, your bridges burn behind you even as you cross them. I was sure I had to choose. I didn’t know how.  

“The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”  

And then I saw these words: the words of an activist, the words of a partisan, a champion. Written by a man who had made comic books. And who went on making comic books. And his activism wasn’t cheapened by his creative work. And his art wasn’t undervalued by his activism. And this seems so simple an idea now. But it wasn’t then.  

Mr. Lee’s belief system was a part of him. It was meaningful, important, honest and pure. And being so, it always was, whether it was the part of him currently engaged or not. Whether it was visible in his work at any given moment or not.  

And sometimes it was. Sometimes. He allowed it rise to crest and crash in waves when it could effectively do so without becoming didactic or overbearing. He permitted to it swim beneath the surface, underlying inside currents when its greatest power was to be found in subtlety. And a lot of the time, he let it drift to the depths, sleeping on the sandy bottom because at that particular moment, that was where it belonged. 

He showed me that you could be an artist and you could be an activist, and if you were these things then you always were these things, no matter how in motion or at rest they were. He showed me that there could and should be intersection between them when that was what worked, but it needn’t be forced it when it wasn’t. And that choosing not to push an agenda at every single second didn’t need to mean compromise — which then to me was akin to submission — but could instead mean balance. A blazing sun grows invisible against a blazing sky, but is radiant in contrast to the darkness.  

“Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits.”  

Well, looks like it’s going to be later. And it looks like the plagues I protested when I thought they were as bad as they could be, during my first go-round of awareness, are back and worse than ever. And the thoughts I thought I’d left behind of needing to devote myself to activism and to activism only have returned.  

Those who are already doing something to combat the world’s evils are the ones most agonized that we’re not doing enough. We don’t see how we can go to work, go to school, eat in restaurants, read books, see movies, live and laugh and love when there is so much to be done. 

But the last thing any of us need to do is to be so overwhelmed by the fires that flame us into action that we are fully consumed by them.  And I am reminded of the lesson I was taught so many years ago, but apparently needed to learn again.