I’m a comic book nerd, but I’ve never been a die-hard Marvel fan. My main stan is Superman, and before that I was all about The Shadow, in pulp and radio format. DC always seemed like mythology to me, and Marvel more soap opera. That’s less of a knock against the respective styles and more about the fact that you can kind of step into a story of mythology at any point as long as you know the framework, and soap operas were just too much effort (and cost) to follow along with. But even taking all that into account, Stan Lee still stood apart as an important figure to me.
Maybe it’s the fact that he himself seemed to be a mythological figure himself. Lee stood larger than just a piece of Marvel, he was an epic figure that, for a time, was the physical embodiment of comics. He created or co-created countless characters that are familiar names to this day. While the corporate monstrosity that is Disney/Marvel/Lucas is probably too large to exist, it is sort of fitting that Marvel and Disney found a corporate kinship. Both have created beloved characters that are so firmly implanted in pop-culture that it’s difficult to tell where brand awareness ends and general cultural awareness begins. Mickey, Spider-Man, and Captain America all seem both timeless and of the moment.
Beyond his presence as a comic media mogul, he was also a Jew I could look up to. Both he and my parents grew up Jewish in New York (he in Manhattan and the Bronx, my family in Brooklyn), he was a writer like I wanted to be. And then there was the subtle Jewish influence in his perspective. While Siegel and Shuster spun Superman out of a mythology of Jewish immigration in the late 30s, Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) was still just an assistant in the industry at the time. Lee began creating the characters we now know him for a bit later on, in the late 50s and onward. His creations were less a reflection of fresh immigrants and more of outsiders trying to find a place in the society they already thought of as home. If Superman was an immigrant then the X-Men were children of immigrants, trying to balance assimilation (Charles Xavier) and cultural identity and pride (Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr).
I met Stan Lee once, in 2011. It was at the 6th New York Comic Con, and I was there before the floor was open to the public, with a professional pass. The Marvel booth was set up right by one of the entrances, designed to look like the bridge of the Helicarrier from the upcoming Avengers movie. They were handing out character cards, like baseball cards, from a bucket. Each character denoted a different prize. There were things like hats, frisbees, can coosies, and comic book issues. I forget which card I pulled out, but was told that I had won an autograph from Stan Lee, and to come back as soon as the public hours started.
When I returned, he was sitting at a table on the bridge of the Helicarrier. I was completely unprepared. I had nothing Marvel for him to sign. Hell, I was dressed as Starman from DC comics. I quickly became flustered and embarrassed. I was sure I was probably going to piss him off. I waited in the line and handed him the only think I had that early in the morning: my NYCC badge. He looked me over and smiled. I think just the fact that I was dressed up at all was enough for him. I don’t remember the exact exchange but it was a couple of words, and I’m pretty sure it ended with a muted “excelsior” from the man himself. I’ve misplaced a number of my old NYCC badges over the years, but I know exactly where that one is. I took it out when I heard he died on Monday, and just looked at it, trying to crystallize any nearly forgotten details of that encounter. I don’t feel a gaping loss like I have with other celebrities with personal connections to my life, but there is a sort of dull sense of loss. I suppose that makes sense; his presence in comics and culture had become like background radiation: ubiquitous though not often at the forefront of awareness. It makes sense that his death leaves a similar sense of vacancy in the world.
His life wasn’t without controversy. There’s the amount of credit he has taken, compared to what is owed to others. His later life has been peppered with sexual misconduct allegations, instances of low-key racism and bi/homophobia. He’s been on the victim side of allegations of elder abuse, and possibly the victim of fraud. But for better or worse, Stan Lee is now more legend than man. His legacy of characters is front and center in main stream pop-culture and shows no sign of fading.
Excelsior, and may his memory be a blessing.