When Stan Lee passed away Monday, the world lost a pop culture titan — a man who revolutionized his medium, but whose personal life turned to tragedy even as the comics and characters he created turned into billion-dollar franchises. There are plenty of wonderful pieces this week covering Lee’s entire life and career, and how, for a few years in the 1960s, he was a creative genius — a man arguably as ground-breaking and brilliant and important to comics as the Beatles were to music. But his importance stretches far beyond that. For countless people over the last half-century — myself included — Lee’s legacy is personal.
To truly understand Lee’s influence, you have to understand his work, and in output alone, it’s astonishing. I mean, my god. From 1960 through 1969, he created (with luminary artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko): Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Black Panther, the Avengers, The X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot, The Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Black Widow, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Hawkeye, S.H.I.E.L.D., The Inhumans, and many, many more, including these characters’ equally varied, often-just-as-popular villains, and their rich supporting casts. This is incredible, as is the variety of characters Lee helped originate; there wasn’t as much diversity, although Black Panther was the first mainstream black superhero, and a major star in the Avengers comics. These heroes were hits among the young comic book audience of the 1960s; more impressively, their popularity has endured for decades, persevering until superheroes came to conquer the entertainment world.
Part of Lee’s genius was in humanizing his superheroes. Prior to the debut of “Fantastic Four #1” in 1961, most superheroes, like Batman and Superman, were in a state of arrested development, trapped as noble, perfect, super-powered paragons, so unremoved from reality that they lived in made up cities like Metropolis and Gotham. But Lee’s heroes lived in the real world (almost always New York City, specifically), and they had problems — real problems, not just evil villains to defeat. Peter Parker fought evil as Spider-Man, but as himself, he was a nerd bullied at school, who also had to care for his elderly aunt. Captain America was a man eternally out of step with the modern world, his family and loved ones left in the past. The X-Men protected a world that hated and feared them for their mutations.
This universe existed in Stan Lee’s head, and the fates of all its inhabitants were in his hands.
These superheroes had their own flaws, like actual people: They could make mistakes, act like jerks, and even be defeated — but that meant they could also develop. They were affected by their experiences, and could learn from their failures. They also had their own mission, code, and personalities, and since they lived together in the same universe, even heroes and villains from different comics could encounter each other (usually on the streets of New York City). Relationships between these characters developed and grew, and there was no guarantee they would get along just because they were good guys. What one hero did could affect everyone.
This universe existed in Stan Lee’s head, and the fates of all its inhabitants were in his hands. He wrote and masterminded dozens of narratives simultaneously across Marvel’s many comics, weaving them together and careening them off of each other, essentially telling one giant story that has never stopped being told.
In a very real way, every page of Marvel Comics in its 58-year history is Lee’s, and every cartoon, TV show, and billion-dollar movie they spawned succeeds in part because of what Lee created in the 1960s, but his influence stretches further than that. Once DC Comics recognized it needed to step up its game to match its new, much more enticing competition, Lee’s influence could be felt on those comics, too — as well as many of the cartoons, TV shows, and movies that grew from them. Hell, practically any superhero entertainment after 1968 has Lee’s DNA in it somewhere, however distant. But here, I’m speaking only of stories told, content produced, and money made; this doesn’t account for the amount of joy his work, and the works he inspired, brought to multiple generations of kids, as well as adults.
But to me, Lee’s legacy is even bigger than this.
When I was just beginning my professional nerd career, I worked at a publisher called Wizard Entertainment, whose main publication was Wizard, a magazine devoted to primarily superhero comics, targeted to the older 20- and 30-somethings who had never stopped loving them as they grew up. It was extremely popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, so much so that the publisher created ToyFare, which was basically the same magazine except for fans of the nascent world of adult-target toys and collectibles. I was hired to write for the latter in 2001.
This logic chain is very indirect, but I believe it to be true: Without Lee’s work in the 1960s there is no telling what the comics industry, and the various industries it affected, would be at the turn of the millennium, which means there’s no telling what modern fandom would be like, either. Without those fans, with that level of passion, there would likely be no ToyFare. Without ToyFare, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have this career, or been inspired to take a chance on becoming a writer in the first place. Without Wizard magazine, there would be no ToyFare. And without the massive popularity of superhero comics in the 1980s, that kept its young readers reading into their adulthoods, there would almost certainly be no Wizard. And those beloved 1980s comics grew directly out of Lee’s groundbreaking in the 1960s. Without Stan Lee, I genuinely don’t know what career I might have right now, which means I don’t know what or where my life would be right now, either.
I know for certain that I wouldn’t have become lifelong friends with the wonderful co-workers I met there, many of whom became shapers of the comic book industry themselves. My friend Chris Ward, who wrote for Wizard and is now a writer, DJ, and bon vivant, pointed this out in an email sent to all of us who have stayed in touch, and he was absolutely right. And while we met in very special, specific circumstances, we are hardly alone.
Nerds and geeks are defined by their passions, whether it be for a character or a comic or a show or whatever. Nowadays, when the divisiveness of these fans can seem almost deafening, it can be hard to remember that fandoms bring more people together more than they tear apart. Wherever two people meet — be it a comic book shop, a convention, a school playground during recess, a website, a niche magazine publisher, or anywhere — they can bond over their shared love of Spider-Man or Star Wars or Game of Thrones, and so on.
Stan Lee’s work shaped pop culture, but it also affected people’s lives. It started relationships. It built friendships. It inspired people’s careers, including my own.
Spider-Man, X-Men, Iron Man, and the other characters Lee created will likely be a major pillar in the world of entertainment until the apocalypse (and probably a while after that, if we’re being honest). I hope we’ll always need superheroes to fly through the skies, punch bad guys, and web-sling throughout New York City. That’s the Stan Lee I’ll remember, and the one I am, and will always be, grateful for.