I’m not going to pretend that I’ve been a comic superfan all my life. I didn’t grow up getting new comic books every week. I didn’t spend hours in comic book stores – there weren’t any near me in the suburb of Houston that I grew up in. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve been a lifelong fan of the Avengers or pretend that I knew who the hell the Guardians of the Galaxy were before the movies came out. But I did grow up watching the X-Men on Saturday mornings. I glanced through the Spider-Man strips in the newspaper every morning when I had my breakfast before catching the bus to school. Even though I’d never read a single Captain America comic in my life, I could recognize his iconic red white and blue uniform with the shield and ask “ok, so he has a goofy ‘yay America’ uniform, but what does he do??”. Before I knew Iron Man’s real name was Tony Stark, I was able to point out the classic red and gold flying suit. I grew up with the common knowledge of what it meant if someone “hulked out.” You didn’t need to be a superfan to see Stan Lee’s influence everywhere.
Stan Lee’s story isn’t about a man who achieved his dreams. When I saw his panel at Alamo City Comic Con I remember a teenage boy excitedly asking Stan for advice on how to get started in comics because he wanted to become a comic writer himself. Stan’s answer was a telling one in terms of a generational divide in choosing career paths. Stan didn’t write comics because he wanted to, he did it because he had to. He was an aspiring novelist, but because he needed to put food on the table for his family, he took on the job as a comic book writer as a teenager and the gig stuck. He never became that best-selling novelist that he wanted to be, but he became something so much more than that.
He made comics relatable. DC had their own successes with Batman and all the lore surrounding Gotham City, but at the end of the day Gotham City was a fictional setting. In 2003 I skipped out on studying for an organic chemistry exam in college to see Stan Lee speak at the University of Texas, and one of the things he mentioned in his talk was that he made it a point to make his stories take place in real life cities, so that readers could imagine all of these adventures happening in their own backyards. New York City had been his lifelong home, and he couldn’t imagine his characters being anywhere else. He wanted his characters to be flawed so that they could be more human. He wasn’t writing superheroes for the sake of creating a good guy and calling it a day. He wanted to make it seem like we could all be heroes, and that heroes could be all of us.
In 2014 I wasn’t able to see Stan Lee’s panel at Comicpalooza, but I got a photo with him because I knew it’d be one of the few opportunities for me to get a picture with a living legend without having to wait in line for hours at a larger convention. I also made a last minute decision to stay up late the night before and crochet a Spider-Man to give to Stan Lee. Here’s the excerpt from my previous blog post about giving Stan his little Spider-Man critter:
The next morning I sleepily waited in line for the photo op. Once the line started moving, the photo op went BLAZINGLY fast. Stand in, smile, and you’re gone. Not even a chance to say anything more than a quick hello. So when my turn came around, I kind of became that asshole who held up the photo op line, even if it was just for a few seconds. I told Stan I had something for him and handed him little Spidey, and after exchanging thank yous (no, thank YOU, sir, for influencing so many generations!) it was all shouts of “ma’am, look at the camera” before I had to scurry off. My tiny little victory was when I saw his handler try to take the little Spider-Man away from him and he snatched it away and put it in his pocket as if to say “NO, MINE.” Stan Lee now has one of my critters in his possession. VICTORY!
It was that split second of watching him tuck little Spidey into his pocket instead of handing it over to his handler that touched me the most in that brief interaction I had with him. He appreciated the work of his fans. He didn’t just say thanks and let his assistant toss it into a pile of other pieces that he would undoubtedly get throughout his time while sitting for photographs. He kept little Spidey with him, and that meant more to me than any thanks that he could’ve said to me.
Thank you, Stan, for creating such a vast universe of heroes that were still human at heart. For reminding us that while we may just be people, we can be so much more. And that at the same time while you could be the strongest, fastest, and smartest person on earth, it’s still okay to have flaws. We can all be heroes, but heroes aren’t invincible. You may not have ever published that “great American novel” that you dreamed of writing, but you created a pathway of dreams for so many generations of kids and adults alike. Thank you for giving us so many heroes for us to look up to, learn from, and remember for years to come, including yourself. While you may no longer be here on this earth, you’ve given us all a gift that we could never repay. Good night, dear Generalissimo. May you take your place with the greatest names in history. You’ve earned it. Excelsior!