I was born in June of 1961, about a month and a half before the release of “Fantastic Four” #1, the comic book in which Stan Lee and Jack Kirby reinvented the American superhero. I’ve always said that I was born with the Marvel Universe, and that has had a tremendous impact on my life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Stan Lee’s name.
I learned to read early, thanks to my mother, a voracious reader herself, who included comic books as a regular part of my diet. Stan’s distinctive literary and editorial voice, embodied in his characters and stories as well as his monthly “Stan’s Soapbox” column, was instrumental in forming my worldview.
It’s a worldview that is fundamentally humanist in nature. Stan gave us heroes, yes, but the essence of these heroes is that they are everyday, flawed human beings, just like the rest of us. Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four is brilliant, but emotionally distant. Tony Stark has a debilitating heart condition. Matt Murdock (Daredevil) is blind. Peter Parker has amazing powers, but he shoulders great responsibility as well, not just to fight crime, but to provide for an ailing aunt while finishing high school. The tag line for Spider-Man was ‟The hero who could be you,” and this sentiment resonated. If these people could be heroic, through all of their flaws, then maybe the rest of us could be as well.
Stan was not exempt from these human flaws. There has been tremendous controversy surrounding who actually deserves credit for creating many of the characters and stories published by Marvel at that time. I’m not here to resolve that issue. Some of the problems with assigning credit stem from the way the comics industry had always worked. Some of it can be attributed to failing memories on the part of those who were there. No doubt some of it is because Stan took more credit than he was due. He was flawed — but the simple truth is, the Marvel Universe and the entire comics industry as we know them would not exist today without him.
Stan made comics cool. In the 1950s, when people would ask him what he did for a living, he would answer by saying he wrote “children’s books.” Thanks to several well-known opponents and the Senate hearings about the supposed connection between comics and juvenile delinquency, his profession was not seen as a noble one. A little over a decade later, Stan was lecturing at universities and making deals for television. How gratifying it must have been for him to see how the world regards the art form now! He instituted letters pages in his books where he interacted with the fans. Through his hyperbole and the force of his personality, he made readers feel as though they were part of an exclusive club. While he didn’t create the phenomenon of fandom, he certainly shepherded it. And he made working in comics seem like something to aspire to. He was one of the first publishers to regularly give credit to artists and inkers and colorists and letterers — maybe not as much as they deserved in some cases, but more than they had ever received before. Stan was a salesman, and what he sold was the wonder of comics.
He also was very good at selling himself. One of the most enduring characters he created was his own persona, Stan ‟The Man” Lee. He made himself the figurehead of Marvel very early, and it is an image that continues into the movies, the marketing, and the overall perception of who he was. Stan had mostly stopped writing comics by the mid-’70s. He was no longer editor at that point either. He never owned the company. He never owned the rights to any of the characters he created, so he never saw royalties or residuals from them. In creating himself, he created the one idea Marvel couldn’t use without him. He became the living embodiment of the very concept of Marvel Comics.
And if that isn’t a Marvel Universe story right there, I don’t know what is.
Since entering the world with the Marvel Age, my life has been inordinately connected to comics and graphic novels. I’ve been selling them at a long-standing neighborhood retail store for twenty-one years. I’m also a published comics writer and artist; I have had academic work on comics published; and I regularly teach comics-related topics at local universities. It’s safe to say my entire career would not exist without Stan Lee and the life lessons he, and many others in the industry, taught me when I was a small child. Power and its attendant responsibility. Perseverance. How the things that make you different can be the positive things that define who you are. The importance of family — your real one (Fantastic Four) as well as the one you create for yourself (X-Men).
I met Stan Lee a few times over the years. The first time was at a convention in downtown Pittsburgh sometime in the early to mid-’80s. A decade later, I was lucky enough to do a telephone interview with him for a Pittsburgh newsweekly article. I called his California office at an appointed time; his secretary put me on hold, and then Stan came on the line.
In the first couple of minutes, I got to speak to the real Stan Lee. ‟Hold on a second,” he said as soon as I said hi. ‟I gotta get a cup of coffee in me.” For the briefest of moments, he was just a guy who was at work too early. I saw behind the persona of Stan ‟The Man.” As the interview progressed, I listened as he turned it on, as he put on the mask. Before our talk was over, I heard him say both ‟Excelsior” and ‟’Nuff said” — but my favorite part of the exchange was him just needing some coffee. Like his characters, in that moment, he was both a hero to me and a wonderfully flawed individual.
Stan Lee, with a lot of help from his collaborators, created worlds. He helped configure and define a modern, humanist mythology, one where diversity and multiculturalism are strengths. One where human beings, with all of our faults, can not only take on the great responsibility of doing the right thing, but can aspire to true heroism. The fictions he created have helped create the real world we live in. It is more colorful, more fantastic and amazing and uncanny, and more heroic because of him.
It’s tempting to end this with his famous ‟Nuff said.” But as long as the characters and concepts he helped bring into this world continue, then maybe there will never be enough said. These characters still speak, with many other voices and with brand new truths. They still resonate. As long as this is true there is an immortality to Stan Lee. He lives on through his creations and the countless worlds they create in the hearts and minds of their fans.
Thank you, Stan Lee, for the wonder that is your legacy.
Wayne Wise is a comic book writer, artist, retailer, and scholar living in Pittsburgh. He has taught classes on Comics and Pop Culture at Chatham University, seminars on Writing for Comics at Seton Hill and Point Park University, and is currently teaching Introduction to the Graphic Novel at the University of Pittsburgh. He served on the Board of the Pittsburgh ToonSeum, where he has presented numerous lectures and workshops.
We invite you to share condolences for Stan Lee in our Guest Book.