Stan Lee, Marvel Comics’ patriarch and father of innumerable modern legends, has died. He was 95, and, in nearly one century on this earth, Lee attained mythic status reserved for those who define industries, genres, and generations of childhoods.
There is no doubt that Stan Lee was a visionary. In this context, though, that seems too vague a descriptor for a man who created, with various cohorts, seminal characters through which he told countless classic morality tales and old-fashioned hero sagas.
Stan Lee was a crusader for doing good, for no better reason than ‘you could, so you should’. His heroes did right because someone needed to see it done. For his most famous creation, Spider-Man, ‘Doing Good Even When You Suffer For It’ remains a defining characteristic.
Lee was an outspoken supporter of civil rights. His X-Men comics began as a none-too-subtle laser beam in the face, pointed at those who would withhold human rights from folks based on skin color. Later, the same characters would be used, in the same way, to support gay rights.
Lee was a champion of science who respected the idea that scientific curiosity could go off the rails. His stories displayed the wondrous potential and devastating dangers that are inherent when humans apply their intellect and curiosity to their fullest potential, and they did so without asterisks or apologies. Curt Connors wanted to regrow his arm. Turned himself into a raging monster instead. Doesn’t matter why he did it, he still has to be restrained. Ditto, Bruce Banner.
Still, Lee left room in his world for redemption. Connors and Banner discovered their better angels, as did at least half the revolving roster of X-Men. Of course, Lee was not afraid of allowing those of “singular vision” to succumb to their blind spots either. Charles Xavier, Scott Summers, Matthew Murdock, and many others all fell victim to their fragile hubris in one form or another, and each had a hand in destroying what he loved.
From the very beginning, Lee’s heroes taught his readers, mostly young men, to respect themselves and each other. The weak and “nerdy” could be strong. Misfits could choose to rise above their circumstances, or they could choose to give in to their base temptations. Despite what the outside world said about them, they held the power, because they held the choice. Lee left no ambiguity as to which was the better path, and he never made excuses for the “evil that men do.” He just encouraged people to make better choices.
His characters struggled with the overwhelming desire for revenge, with addiction, and other inner demons. They made stupid decisions and paid real consequences. They made good choices and suffered for those too. Through the medium of mythical heroes fighting larger-than-life battles, Lee spoke to people about very real truths.
Looking at his legacy through the prism of time, and through the eyes of a kid who bought his first Marvel comic at the age of 11 to help pass the time on a long road trip and still reads them today, I see Stan Lee as a champion of science, of imagination, of telling good stories, and, more than anything else, of people.
He believed in Us, even when we didn’t believe in ourselves. When he was asked, he said one of his goals was that his readers would think of him as a friend. I think I speak for most of us when I say we can all use a friend like that… and I wonder if, at least a little bit, we could all try to be a friend like that.
Faith in the power of story to inspire people to choose to do good may be Stan Lee’s greatest gift to the world. His message through the years remains clear: When people choose to do right, no matter what comes next, we can usher in an Age of Marvels.