The creative force behind Marvel Comics is gone
Stan Lee was a creator of worlds. Ones that sad kids and sometimes sad adults could enter into and feel accepted. A place to go to set aside your troubles. To dream big. To dream out loud. In vibrant color and heroic deed. A place to go where your agency was your imagination.
I know. I was once one of those sad kids.
I was an only child growing up in a tough home. I didn’t have any heroes or role models to look up to. My mom worked at a grocery store and sometimes I would walk over from school and wait for her to get off when she was on the day shift. I usually had a couple of hours to kill. I would commonly step over to the comic book stand and pick out a couple to read. I often talked my mom into buying them for me.
I knew that superheroes weren’t real. I knew that when I read about the adventures of the X-Men, Captain America, and Spider-Man that they were fantastical fiction. They were an escape though. A brief interlude that let me forget about the strife at home and the fact that I wasn’t the cool kid at my elementary school. That’s something, you know.
When I heard that Stan Lee, the creative force behind Marvel Comics, passed away today at the age of 95, I wasn’t terribly surprised. He had looked increasingly frail over recent years and there were rumors of elder abuse and mismanagement of his funds related to his business manager. Most accounts say his life started to become more fraught after his wife of 69 years, Joan, died in June of 2017. Joan handled his finances and kept the wolves and hangers on from the door.
Despite being the creator of many of the iconic Marvel characters we all know so well, Lee’s deal with Marvel studios was decidedly unfair. Lee did not own any of the rights to the characters, and as of 2002, he was not being paid anything. This lead to a lawsuit which he won, but was later overturned in favor of a $10 million lump sum payment. Which is obviously a lot of money, but paltry to anyone who has looked at the opening weekend of just about any Marvel product. Lee sued again in 2011. The case remains unsettled.
That of course is a shame. One would have liked a better ending for him. Especially for a man almost as legendary for his kindness as for his art. There was much more to his life though. So much more.
Lee pioneered a revolution in comics beginning in the late 50s and into the 60s. His characters often had problems. Money (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), prejudice (The X-Men), or conditions that felt more like a curse than a power (The Hulk and The Thing). Things that are easy to miss if you are struggling with the idea of a man turning into a big green monster when angry.
There’s considerable debate around the point of whether the success of Marvel and comic book movies in general has been good for the state of modern film. It’s a valid discussion. There’s an argument to be made that superhero movies have dominated the multiplex so much that it takes a lot of oxygen out of the creative side of film creation. Most Marvel films are pure entertainment. A few genuinely don’t work. But there are some that reach a higher level. The second Captain America movie is a great paranoid spy thriller. Black Panther was a cultural earthquake. Logan had the temerity to explicitly echo the classic western Shane and earn the comparison.
I don’t think the world of film would be better off without those movies. Is Guardians of the Galaxy any sillier than Star Wars? Guardians has a talking raccoon; Star Wars has a big dog that can fly space ships. There’s room for art films and big budget extravaganzas in the world of cinema. There always has been.
What Stan Lee’s creations have allowed for is people to be entertained – and sometimes more than that. They bring people joy. Maybe they aren’t high art. Or at least not often. But nor are they a pestilence on the state of cinema. People need a release. There are so many troubles in the world. Especially at this moment. Movies serve many purposes. They take us to places we’ve never been before. They open our minds to the conditions of others. And sometimes they simply allow us to escape the darkness outside of the theater. That’s what I call a service.
It’s one I know well. One that began for me in the colorful print I pulled off the newsstand at Tony’s Supermarket in a small town in Michigan. It helped me cope. Made my life better. Gave me something to look forward to.
I can thank Stan Lee for that. I’m far from alone.
In the second Guardians of the Galaxy film, Lee made one of his well-loved cameos. Sitting on a rock in an astronaut suit, Lee laments the lack of a ride home. And then he says, “But I have so many stories left to tell.”
Were that only true.