I read a lot of comic books growing up during my childhood. There was something about finishing an issue and impatiently counting the days to the next issue. Characters like Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Punisher and the X-Men provided some of my favourite stories.
There was one particular storyline called Reign set in a dystopian future when New York was trapped in an authoritarian regime, walled off from others, with superheroes a thing of the past. An old Spider-Man was missing his deceased wife, in a time where his body could no longer meet the city’s enormous need for a superhero. But still he persisted, defiantly, and prevailed.
It was an inspirational story, one that showed Spider-Man at his best and Marvel Comics doing what it did really well. Telling a powerful human story through the prism of magic and superpowers. It was a story of accepting grief, not lying down from it, but embracing that death was a part of life just as it was its end. We do not stop appreciating life, but rather appreciate it and those who decorate it that little bit more.
Stan Lee’s death sparked an outpour of tributes and sadness. Those close to him will mourn. The rest of us are strangers to him even if we embraced the wonderful universe he created. For a lot of young people today, he was the funny old man with the shades who made movie cameos. There was always a laughter in the cinemas whenever he popped up in a scene, with no more than a line or two, but a reminder that he created this world.
It’s a world that today has sprawled as far and wide as possible. The geeks are ruling the film industry and credit will always be attributed to Stan Lee for it. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) launched an ambitious idea of multiple films spanning well over a decade, but threading it all together is the man who created them. Before the MCU set into mention there were other superhero films like the X-Men films and Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man. There were the terrific cartoon series during the 90’s that a lot of my early mornings were comprised of.
Lee created a special world and during the pre-MCU time, it felt like I was one of the few members of. But it was fine, it was our community, our world. Then the films rolled in and I found myself resenting the new generation of late comic book fans whose claim to this community was based on films than actual comic books. But later I realised they were grabbed by the films in the same way I was waiting every month for the latest X-Men issue.
It’s important we appreciate him because he is the embodiment of liberal artistic expression, a concept threatened by today’s brand of toxic identity politics in which a white man writing about a character of colour, a gay or a woman, would be castigated. But as someone on Twitter eloquently put it, here was a Jewish man who gave the world characters like Black Panther and Luke Cage and Wakanda, and would anyone complain about their creations just because he was a Jewish man? Stan Lee understood that real life issues could be written about subliminally but they could never inhibit creative freedom. He could have rested on his laurels, but he continued creating not just characters but a deeply rich world.
Stan Lee was a comic book writer, but he was so much more than that. A storyteller whose gift lay in creating a fantasy world of unrealistic beings and somehow making us able to empathise with them. He reeled us in, immersed us within their storylines and struggles, and created a world that can never be matched.
Spider-Man wasn’t about his enhanced strength, wall-crawling or extremely useful “spider-sense”. He was an insecure young man defined by everyday problems of rent struggle, heartbreak and the guilt of a loved one whose death he could have stopped. He is a character ultimately reduced to the famous line of “with great power comes great responsibility.” Likewise, the X-Men become a metaphor for marginalised groups, with Charles Xavier and Magneto mirroring Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The story wasn’t about their gifts but how other people feared and hated them for it.
There will never be anyone like him.