My mother tells me a story about as trip she made to New York City when she was a child in 1966 and somehow, through a friend of the family, found herself at Marvel HQ. She fondly recalls her visit because when she walked in, her first sighting was Stan Lee, sat in his studio, at the drawing board concocting a new caper for his beloved Fantastic Four. Midway through a sketch of The Thing, she recalls. This is emblematic of the man’s work, known to most as being the creator of the majority of our favourite ever superheroes, it’s fascinating to hear that he was always on the ground, diligently working away and getting stuck in with everybody else, infusing his creative, playful energy into his work. His involvement lasted right up to the end of his life, he was Marvel, and as it transpires, he was their greatest ever superhero.
Lee passed away this week at the age of 95, but such was his vivacious, blissful outlook on life, he seemed younger at heart than most of his readers and viewers. He would have cameos in all of the feature film adaptations of his work, and with it came his charismatic, winsome demeanour. It was clear through interviews and footage of the man that the universe he created was channeling his distinctive vision, with his personality enriching the material that has gone on to enchant millions, across decades – alongside his faithful collaborator, the artist Jack Kirby; the Robin to his Batman.
His list of creations is breathtaking, overwhelming in how many superheroes (and villains, of course) were born out of his adventurous, ambitious mind. His beloved Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, Black Panther, Iron Man, the Hulk – and believe me, I could go on a while longer. On the surface these were just superheroes, those who would save the world and make it back home in time for tea. But when digging deeper you realise there was so much more to these characters.
They were complex, multi-layered people, they were nuanced, with an emotional core. Lee bridged the gap between the real world and theirs, allowing us to live in his pages, and for the most part, never want to leave. For many young children he was offering progressive, meaningful messages without any sense of contrivance, subtle and yet full of conviction. The X-Men were, at their core, a group of outsiders, those who didn’t fit into society, and he made them ineffably cool. Being different was suddenly something to be celebrated, as he gave his readers, those who felt that they didn’t belong, a sense of worth.
He was political too, and yet never in a way that devalued his sheer and utter commitment to the art of entertainment. We’re lauding society’s progression in how the Black Panther film made such a killing at the box office (in 2018), and how we’re finally witnessing a black superhero on screen. Lee created this role back in 1966. To call it ahead of his time would be an understatement.
From the page to the screen, a new generation of fans have now fallen in love with a cinematic phenomenon. Marvel are releasing a handful of films every year, and every year they’re dominating the box office, stealing the hearts of both fans and critics alike. My mum, who despite her brief chat with the man himself 50 years ago, has never been a comic book fan, and yet even she’s at the pictures every summer indulging in the latest MCU endeavour. They’re accessible, they’re human and they’re so strikingly entertaining. You can see how DC have gone down a darker, more grittier path, and while there is always a place for the Nolan-type Batman movies, wit Marvel we get a real sense of escapism, and in such a vibrant way, and that is down to Stan Lee.
With this he leaves behind an unparalleled legacy, and the way he is so inherently ingrained into the fabric of popular culture, it will be one that continues to thrive and to outlive us all. If every superhero has a power, Lee’s is to be everlasting. The next Marvel film will be Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and having seen a third of the movie already, I can confirm it’s funny, energetic and exciting. It has a black protagonist, a hip-hop soundtrack and an indelible aesthetic. For these characters will always move with the times and always find a place in the modern world.
Oh, and you’ll be pleased to hear that Lee even has a cameo in the film himself. In fact, it was within this particular franchise where one of our very favourite Stan Lee cameos came along. In Spider-Man 3 he turned to Peter Parker and said, ‘You know, I guess one person can make a difference’, and he wasn’t wrong, for this is a man who has done just that. ‘Nuff said.