With the passing of every long-lived celebrity you will hear similar words thrown around — words like “icon,” giant,” or “legend.” Along with the obligatory sad tweets and Facebook posts, you’ll immediately see media outlets releasing retrospectives which honor the dead, often followed shortly thereafter by less compassionate — and occasionally more accurate — studies of who they “really were.”
Interviews of those they’ve known will precede interviews of those they didn’t, until finally family, colleagues, fans, pet-groomers, and personal shoppers have all had their say on what this person “meant,” and who they “were.” Well before this point, words like “icon,” “giant,” “legend,” — or as I expect in this case, “hero” — will lose meaning. They will become euphemisms for “the big celebrity death this week.”
It is what it is; there is no reason to shame those well-wishers honoring the deceased on social media, or reporters writing about the passing of someone who many will care to read about. It does beg the question though, if everyone is a “legend” when they die, is anyone really one when they lived.
Yes – Stan Lee was.
For you Disney fans out there, especially the older ones, I don’t think I need to explain why Stan Lee’s passing is a bit different than your average entertainer’s death. I don’t need to tie in the fact that Disney owns Marvel now. I don’t need to convince you that folks have strong feelings about this man, because you know the depths of emotion that one person, a true icon, can evoke. You’ve probably read an article today including a comments section peppered with the phrase “Walt’s vision.”
His name may not adorn the sides of buildings or company letterhead, but to many generations of fans, Stan Lee is Comics.
I’m not going to get into an in-depth analysis of his history, there are other folks surely doing a wonderful job of that right now. I’m not going to contrast his public image with his private. Chances are, if you aren’t already a fan of his, interesting facts about Mr. Lee will stick in your head for a grand total of 5 minutes. I’d just like to explain why these words that get so carelessly thrown around lose their cliché status when used for Stan. I’d like to explain why, among all the rest, he is a legend.
I’ll start with a story…
I’ve got a friend, Gina. An absolutely wonderful woman I don’t get to see so often anymore, Gina and I had the exact same interaction twice within the same week which lead to an honest question and a nerdy answer.
On the first occasion, we were in a parking lot along with some other friends, enjoying each other’s company while discussing events both meaningful and insignificant. It was one of those delightful little life moments, seemingly unremarkable yet so sincere an example of the benefits of friendship that it would have stuck with me regardless. The pleasantries ended abruptly when we heard the screech of tires and the scrunch of metal on metal — like a giant chewing tin foil — followed by immediate shouting. I ran toward those sounds without hesitation.
A few days later, Gina was picking me up to help her out with some remodeling work for an apartment she was renting out. Just a block down the road, not even enough time to get frustrated with traffic yet, we heard the same noises about 10 cars ahead, coming from a four-way intersection that serves as a highway off-ramp. I told Gina to call 911, hopped out of the car, and ran toward the accident as fast as I could.
When I got back into her car about 40 minutes later, Gina asked me, “I’ve seen you do that twice. You don’t even hesitate, you just run off full speed. Why do you do that?”
“Because it’s what Peter Parker would do.”
He may be a photographer, but Spider-Man doesn’t take a cell phone recording when he could be lending a hand to the injured. Spider-Man doesn’t get pissed off he’s late for work and honk his horn. Spider-Man doesn’t drive past thinking, “I’m sure someone else will handle it. I mean, what would I even do anyway?”
Peter Parker, Matt Murdock, Scott Summers — Stan Lee’s creations — they stop to help the injured, they stand up for the bullied, and they push on through fear and apathy to do their best each day.
To you, they may just be comic or movie characters. To me, they were teachers. No, you can’t solve everything with a punch; that isn’t the lesson most of us take away though. We hold the epic brawls in our minds, but we hold the values in our hearts. Beyond the entertainment, that stuff sticks with you — if you let it.
Most good decisions I’ve made in my life have been built on a foundation of “What would one of my heroes do?” Every decision I regret has been made when I stopped using that principle, when I told myself the lie that my heroes aren’t applicable in the real world — When I told myself I needed to grow up.
Marvel’s heroes, along with others, helped make me a better person. I’m not alone in this. A lot of us look at the world from a young age, and it just doesn’t feel right. We see the unfair, the apathetic, the cruel, and a part of us can tell it’s backwards, even though no one is saying it out loud. This system of selfishness and spite is not how things should be. If those closest to us aren’t providing examples to balance out those feelings, we search for them elsewhere. We find them in stories.
Marvel’s heroes make me a better person, and Stan Lee has been the face — more importantly, the voice — of Marvel for my entire life.
I don’t know him at all, in any true sense of the word. I’ve never worked with the man, we aren’t related; I’ve seen him a few times from a distance at Orlando’s MegaCon — a secret convention for the handsome and well adjusted — but I’ve never even had anything signed by him. On those instances when he moved through the room, you could feel the legendary status radiating off him in waves. Energy jumping from fan to fan, turning us into vibrating nerd-molecules, transferring excitement from one to another until the room is filled with a palpable warmth of mutual admiration.
Yeah, many of us know enough to criticize. We can talk about where credit was given, and where we think it should’ve been given. We can gives backstories, secret histories, and little-known facts that turn the legend into a fallible human being.
That falls apart when you hear the voice, though. “Hello, true believers!”
When he said those words, he was talking to me. I am a true believer, or I try to be, and I want to hear what he’s going to say next. The cadence, the tone, everything between “hello” and “excelsior” is music to my ears. Because I’ve heard it at some of the most important moments in my life, moments when I was in equal need of distraction and hope. I hear that voice right now.
A true icon, a legend, isn’t just someone who put out a few really great albums, worked for longer than average in Hollywood, or built a highly successful company. It’s someone whose work shapes lives. It’s someone who stands for something greater than themselves, someone who represents an idea.
Do you know who Jack Kirby is? If you aren’t a fan of comics, you probably don’t. A brilliant artist in both technique and visual style, Kirby was the co-creator of many of the famous heroes attributed to Stan. He is a legend in comics. I love his work, and you see his inspiration consistently without even realizing it, but he was never the face of Marvel. I don’t hear his voice when I think of Spidey.
A large part of being an icon — not just in your field, but everywhere — is in the promotion. Stan Lee is a legend not only because of his creations, but because of the way he marketed himself and his involvement. By being the voice of Marvel in cartoons and the face of Marvel in big-budget blockbuster film cameos, he ingrained himself in pop culture. He became our lovable comic book grandfather, enthusiastically proclaiming the wondrous adventures we were about to embark on.
That cannot be undone – Stan Lee is what Marvel looks like when it’s at home.
There isn’t even anyone to compare him with in his field; there is no Steve Jobs to his Bill Gates. No other publisher has had a similarly famous and charismatic icon at their lead, so to many, Stan Lee is the face of comic books as a whole.
Brilliant creations, business savvy, intertwining his own branding with not only his product but an entire industry – remind you of anyone, Disney fans? More important than any of those aspects, though, is that his creations have a real-world affect on how folks live their lives. People all around you have been — and are continuing to be — inspired to hope, to love, to support, to fight, to make peace, all because of the characters and world he represented.
In that spirit, and because it is the only way I can think to honor his passing, I’m going to close this article with a list of very real lessons I’ve learned from Stan “The Man” Lee’s creations, growing up as a Marvel fan:
- Spider-Man: “With great power comes great responsibility” just means that with power comes responsibility. You’ve got a little power, even if you haven’t figured out what it is yet. Find it, use it to make the world just a little better. It’s okay to get beat up from time to time. Losing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have stood up, it just means you may have to stand up again and again until you stop getting knocked down.
- The X-Men: When the world hates and fears a group of people, don’t join the mob. Those we demonize are never the monsters we make them out to be, and often enough they need people like you to stand with them. Find out if they are really evil, or just different and doing their best to survive in a hostile environment. I wish this lesson didn’t need to be learned so often, but here we are again. The X-Men are the largest super hero team for a reason; bigotry never rests, it just changes costumes.
- Daredevil: Guilt, angst, and regret will lead to poor choices. It is easy to give in to that darkness, to close yourself off from those who care about you. Don’t. You’re at your best when you listen to the people who still see good in the world. You aren’t the arbiter of all that is right and just in this world. Have a little faith.
- Fantastic Four: Science is the path to unlocking the secrets of the universe. By embracing our intellect instead of being ashamed or afraid of it, we open ourselves to new adventures and occasionally make the world a better place. Before modern culture made nerds look cool, Reed Richards was owning the multiverse.
- Black Panther: Intellect and drive can accomplish almost anything, but leadership is a burden whose responsibilities must be put above personal ego. Always be working for the people you serve, not above them. Respect isn’t a birthright or privilege, it has to be earned through your actions.
- Thor: Regardless of how amazing or important you think you are, unchecked ego leads to failure. You don’t always have to trust those closest to you, especially if they have a track record of letting you down, but never give up on them. They may surprise you. Even gods can fail, and even gods can change; power doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else.
- The Hulk: You can’t live your life hiding rage until it becomes uncontrollable. Find ways to live with your negative side, don’t let it overwhelm you. You can try to bury it all you want, but that just makes the monster more powerful for the next time he shows up. He won’t stay buried forever. Anger feels satisfying when you let it all out at once, but the path of destruction you leave behind will tear you up inside. If you don’t want people looking at you with fear behind their eyes, be calm, be measured, and find a productive way to channel those destructive feelings.
- Iron Man (my 1st favorite hero): It is possible to accept your past and change for the better. Set aside your ego, admit you have a problem, and then work to make sure you never repeat the same mistakes. Some deeply flawed people have made the world a better place; try and be one of them.
Image of Stan Lee: Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
Image of X-Men #1: Marvel