Stan Lee died on November 12. He was 95, and had been active in comic books for more than 75 years.
During his unmatched tenure in the industry, Lee helped turn Timely Comics, a small family-run business, into massively mighty Marvel Comics, arguably the biggest and most powerful publisher of comics and associated tie-in media – including the incomparably beloved Marvel Cinematic Universe – on the planet.
Beginning in 1941 as a filler writer on Captain America Comics #3, and quickly moving up to the editor of that title later that year, Stan Lee had a hand in creating some of the most cherished comic book characters ever, not the least of which include Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Black Panther, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Doctor Strange, and, of course, Spider-Man.
It was through the latter that many members of my generation had our first introduction to Stan Lee. Long before many of us were old enough to read comic books, there was Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. The Saturday-morning cartoon, which ran from 1981-1983, featured Lee as narrator. He began every episode with some variation of, “Greetings, True Believers! This is Stan Lee!” before telling us how our intrepid heroes were in for real trouble this time.
And we bought it, each and every week, because Stan Lee said it was going to be good.
And later, when we were old enough to read them, we bought comic books each and every week (my first, actually, being The Amazing Spider-Man #231 from 1982), because Stan Lee said they were going to be good.
And he was never wrong. Even when the stories were bad (I’m looking at you, Spider-Clone Saga), they were still good.
Why? Because they were all, in some way, relatable. Under Lee’s direction, beginning in the 1960s, Marvel Comics’ stable of super-heroes grew exponentially, and each of them were flawed, imperfect beings with worries, fears, tempers, joys, loves, heartbreaks and grief whose problems – ranging from relationship issues to bigotry to substance abuse – often didn’t go away after one issue. It didn’t matter if they were mutants, aliens, millionaires, or irradiated teenagers. Unlike the god-like beings of DC Comics, the denizens of the Marvel-verse were human.
Because of that, regardless of their powers and abilities, they were – and are – believable.
And much of that is because of Stan Lee. As Marvel’s editor-in-chief, and later its publisher, Lee was responsible for assembling some of the mightiest minds ever to grace the medium, and allowing them to tell the kinds of stories they themselves would want to read: engaging, intelligent, action-packed, and entertaining.
“Entertainment,” Lee once told The Washington Post, “is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing.”
Stan Lee spent his entire adult life doing just that – entertaining people, first through his comics, then cartoons, and later his movie cameos. (Other films notwithstanding, Stan Lee had some manner of cameo in virtually all Marvel films since The Trial of the Incredible Hulk in 1989.) Lee was also a frequent guest at conventions around the world.
“If there are people who like the work you’ve done, because of that, they like you and want your autograph and to take a photo, that’s really gratifying,” Lee told USA Today in 2013. “You have to be appreciative.”
It was through these many appearances that fans got to know Stan – the man, not just the name – and got to enjoy his bombastic personality. The same is true of those who worked with him.
“The most amazing thing about him was that his public persona was not an act. That’s who he was,” said editor and author Keith DeCandido, who has written several novels set in the Marvel Universe.
“I had the pleasure of working with Stan when I worked for Byron Preiss from 1993-1998. One year, we were at San Diego Comic Con, and Byron took us all out to dinner with Stan and his wife Joan. Stan spent pretty much the entire meal, not talking business with one of his regular clients, but rather with Byron’s eight-year-old daughter playing with the action figures she’d bought that day on the show floor. Because even in his 70s, it was all about having fun,” DeCandido said.
Former Marvel editor and artist Timothy Tuohy similarly had good things to say about a personal moment with Lee.
“At [one particular] Marvel Christmas party, Stan was making the rounds. Hector Collazo and I were just staring in awe. Finally one of us – I’ll give that honor to my late friend, Hector – just said, ‘Let’s get a picture.’ It had already been a long night for him; [Stan] was in his 70s, after all. He put his arms around us and he slumped down a little bit. He asked us if we worked at Marvel or were just guests. We told him we worked for Marvel. And he said – in that Stan Lee voice – ‘Well, I’m not sure of who you are, but keep the home fires burning!’ I got to work directly with him later on, but I never brought it up because to me, and hopefully to Hector, it was a magical moment,” Tuohy said.
I myself only met him once, briefly in passing, at the 2011 New York Comic Con. I had gone outside for a few minutes, and just as I getting ready to go back inside there was a commotion, and an entourage started to walk by me. There he was, in the middle.
“Oh my God, Stan Lee!” I said, louder than I intended. Then, “Stan! We love you!”
He turned his head, smiled, said, “Thanks, True Believer!” and kept walking.
Thank you, Stan, for making me – for making all of us – True Believers.
This article originally ran in the November 21, 2018 edition of The Hammonton Gazette.