Stan Lee: What he did, and what he means

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Stan Lee: What he did, and what he means

Sam Mwakasisi, Editor-in-Chief

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Stan Lee, one of the most instrumental figures in the world of comics, has passed away, and the world’s response has ensured that his legacy will be upheld.

This past Monday, Lee, comic book writer and editor, passed away at 95 after a battle with pneumonia.

What did he do?

You can’t enter the modern comic world and as much as take a step without feeling Lee’s impact. The vision he had to combine his goals of serious writing and the medium of comics — oft demeaned as juvenile kids’ material — led to him co-creating ideas alongside fellow comic creator Jack Kirby that revolutionized the medium.

On the other hand, they also single-handedly brought a comic book publisher from the brink of collapse in the 1960s. That company is now known as Marvel Comics, and was able to become a commercial juggernaut bolstered by hundreds of iconic characters that Lee helped create, from the Fantastic Four and the X-Men to the Hulk, Iron Man, and Spider-Man (comics’ first successful teenage lead hero).

Lee and Kirby’s ideas were groundbreaking for their time. In a scene dominated by perfect, problem-lacking characters, they most principally revolved around realism; human flaws were prioritized in character building, and wants to incorporate real-world issues like drug addiction in stories led to shifts in the standards of acceptability for comic distribution.

This decision opened comics to a wider audience that could grow more emotionally attached to these fantastical worlds, and without Lee’s work, comics never would’ve come close to the ubiquity they experience today. Moreover, Lee’s unparalleled self-promotion skills turned him into the public face of Marvel and earned him the adoration of the public, with his continuous cameos in Marvel films always warmly received.

Many celebrities publicly took to social platforms to pay respects. While most of this crowd was composed of known Marvel actors, some outside the scene were equally impacted, including actors Seth Rogen, Mark Hamill, and Jamie Lee Curtis, alongside entrepreneur Elon Musk, to name a few.

What does he mean?

At this point, you may be thinking, “Well, he’s important to comics, but how does him being dead impact the world?”

This same question became a confrontation when comedian and commentator Bill Maher chose to weigh in five days after Lee’s death — and drew ire from seemingly all of the still-reeling Internet.

On his Real Time with Bill Maher blog, Maher made it clear that he didn’t see Lee’s death as the tragedy many made it out to be. “America is in…deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess,” Maher said.

Maher continued, stating that comics’ growing in ubiquity led to adults deciding to “[pretend] comic books were actually sophisticated literature”, and their teaching in formalized school systems only meant “some dumb people got to be professors”.

“I’m not saying we’ve necessarily gotten stupider [sic],” Maher said. “The problem is, we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.”

Due to the dismissive tone of the blog post, notably his beleaguering of comics in the same fashion that Lee actively wanted to eradicate, backlash came briskly and bountiful from various places, especially in the comic world — but notably from those at POW! Entertainment, a company Lee formed.

The company directly responded to one of Maher’s main claims by saying that “comic books, like all literature, are storytelling devices,” and when “written well”, they can “teach us lessons that hopefully make us better human beings,” but they made their true feelings over his words heard.

“To say that Stan merely inspired people to ‘watch a movie’ is in our opinion frankly disgusting,” the company said. “Countless people can attest to how Stan inspired them to read, taught them that the world is not made up of absolutes, that heroes can have flaws and even villains can show humanity within their souls. He gave us…heroes and stories that offered hope to those who felt different and bullied while inspiring countless to be creative and dream of great things to come.”

This, in its purest essence, is what Stan Lee means. The work he’s done transcends speech bubbles and grawlixes — it dives into the depths of human behavior and surfaces with nuggets of wisdom. For this reason, and many more, Stan Lee deserves to be remembered.

Featured image by Sam Mwakasisi; components from Gage Skidmore and Roger Murmann