This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
When Den of Geek asked me to write a few words about Stan Lee’s passing at age 95, I only had one thought: how could I even begin? As the co-creator of characters like Spider-Man, Iron Man, the Hulk, the X-Men and countless more – each one an industry unto themselves – Stan Lee has left as indelible a mark on popular culture as any single person could hope to. He was a legend in his own lifetime. What can I say about Stan Lee that won’t have been said by someone, somewhere?
Still, I’m going to try. Because as much as Stan Lee’s characters mean to me, as much influence as they’ve had over my life, what I find most inspirational isn’t Peter Parker’s determination, or Matt Murdock’s ability to carry the world on his shoulders, or Bruce Banner’s struggle to find peace within himself. It’s the story of Stan Lee, a wannabe novelist born to a poor family of Romanian-Jewish Immigrants in 1920s New York who became one of the defining figures of the entertainment industry in the twentieth century and beyond.
On paper, Lee’s story is quintessential rags-to-riches stuff – the seventeen-year-old Stanley Lieber is hired at a relative’s publishing company, beginning his career as an inkwell-filler and going on to run the place after showing off his genius creative mind. But what actually happened is that Stan Lee, as he’d come to be known, worked at the same company, slowly climbing the ranks, for no fewer than twenty years (pausing only to join the military during World War II) before finally hitting on the idea that made his name – and even then, it was almost by accident.
You see, in 1961 the comics company Lee worked at (which had yet to take the name Marvel) was going nowhere fast, churning out cheap imitations of successful concepts as was the publishing ethos at the time. There are many versions of what happened next, but Lee’s story is that as he was on the verge of quitting, his wife encouraged him to try writing a comic the way he wanted just once before he did so. The result, co-created with Jack Kirby, was a team of adventurers called the Fantastic Four – a critical and commercial smash.
In co-creating the Fantastic Four at age 39, Stan Lee kicked off a period of creative fertility the likes of which few writers can lay claim to. Just between 1961 and 1965, Lee (usually with Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko) co-created characters like the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Hulk, The Avengers, Thor, Daredevil, the Black Panther, Doctor Strange – and far more besides, including villains like Doctor Doom and Magneto. That one man could have a hand in them all would be impressive at any age – but that he could do so in his forties after achieving little to no notability in decades previous? It’s beyond impressive.
Having done this, Lee then took his success to Hollywood. In the 1970s he stopped writing comics and concentrated full-time on running Marvel’s media empire as the spokesperson and public face of their company. In the 1990s, when corporate mismanagement put Marvel into bankruptcy, Lee – now past retirement age – was released from his expensive lifetime contract and set about undertaking new business ventures. Latterly he became known for his movie cameos, bringing his magnetic personality and sense of fun off the page and onto the big screen.
In more recent years, it’s become de rigueur to focus on the negative things Stan Lee did during his time at Marvel. The business practises that involved taking characters and artwork from their creators, though common in the industry, remain far from laudable. Lee, while himself a victim of these same practices, was certainly complicit in them and more than willing to take the whole credit for characters and stories he was only partly responsible for.
But at the same time, it’s impossible to diminish his contributions to Marvel. The ideas he came up with, the style he championed, the shared universe that he contained within his own head as he scripted and edited multiple Marvel comics week after week – no-one else could have done them until he had. When we see another Marvel Studios movie smash box office records with its upbeat tone, inimitable characters and unique concept of a cinematic universe, remember that it all originated with Stan Lee, who sat in an office in New York, sometimes completely alone, trying to make his ideas work.
And that’s the thing that inspires me about Stan Lee: he changed the world almost without trying. All he did was what he was good at, and eventually the world noticed. So if you’ve reached your thirties without writing that novel, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. If you’ve hit fifty and haven’t done a degree, it doesn’t mean you can’t. When Stan Lee became one of the most important comics creators of all time he’d been toiling in the same job for decades. No matter where you started from, no matter how stuck you might feel in your circumstances, Stan Lee’s life shows us that there’s always another act coming, and that the best may yet be ahead.
When Stan Lee signed off, he always did it with the word “Excelsior” – a Latin word that roughly translates into English as “onwards and upwards.” There’s no doubt that over his nintey-five years, he lived that philosophy. If it worked for him, maybe it’ll work for us too.
Rest in peace, Stan Lee. And excelsior.