So there I was, working on finishing up this week’s column, when I heard the news. Stan Lee had died.
I can’t say it was unexpected. The Man was 95, his health wasn’t great, but still – Stan the Man.
I never actually met him to say hello or shake his hand. The closest I came was at a convention; Kim and I were having dinner in the hotel restaurant and it turned out Stan was having dinner at a table near us. I could’ve said hello but he was eating and talking with someone. I got the shys and didn’t feel I could break in on his dinner.
However, in a way I did know him in a manner that all of us could and still can. Through his work.
It was in high school, my sophomore or junior year, when I first met him. I was idly looking at a comic book spinner rack in a train station. (Note to younger readers: there was no comic book stores in those days. It was spinner racks or nothing and you couldn’t always be sure that the next issue was going to show up or when.) I was already a comic book fan. I came across a comic I had never seen before from a company I didn’t know. It was Spiderman 49; on the cover, Spiderman was being towed through the air, arms bound and mask ripped off by his enemy, a grotesque character I would come to know as the Green Goblin.
This was serious. I could tell. Nothing like that ever happened to Batman or any of the other DC stalwarts. The image grabbed me and I grabbed the comic. I knew nothing about Spiderman and yet I had no trouble keying into the story and the breathless climax where the real identity of the Green Goblin was revealed. That didn’t really mean much to me although I would later learn it had been a secret for years. Still I was hooked and haunted that spinner rack until Spiderman 50 came out.
Marvel comics used to have “house ads” on the interior of the books, pointing the reader to other characters and other books that the company sold. I sought them out on spinner racks and newsstands. Almost all of them were written by Stan (the Man) Lee. Look, I know that Stan would give a few sentences of plot to the artist assigned to the book who then worked it out and drew it. Stan would then dialogue it. How else was he going to write all those books in the time he had? It still makes my head spin.
I learned things from Stan. One issue started with Spidey in the middle of a pitched battle with a brand new character called the Rhino. In a caption, Stan told the reader not to worry, effendi, and that he would catch us up as the fight went on. He did, too. That taught me you could do exposition without boring the crap out of everyone.
In the same issue, Rhino tries to stomp Spiderman who is on the ground, rolling out of the way. As Spidey went, he admonished Rhino, “Uh uh! Kickies no fair!” I laughed out loud. You know how everyone loves how Deadshot motormouths his way through battles? Started here, folks.
In an issue of Fantastic Four, the team was trapped in the Negative Zone, heading to the exploding center of that dimension. Three of them got out safe but their leader, Reed Richards, was sacrificing himself so the other three could make it. They can’t reach him and that issue ended with Reed heading towards certain death with no way the others can save him.
I wanted that next issue RIGHT THEN and it taught me how you want the reader to feel when you did a cliffhanger.
His characters were more complex than DC’s, having real life problems and neuroses. There were themes and a greater depth to the stories. And, of course, there’s that single sentence that has transcended comics and has become pop culture wisdom: “With great power comes great responsibility.” It has been quoted and used by many folks outside of our comic book realm.
That’s how I know Stan Lee and that is why I think of him as still living. His work, the characters that he created, still speaks to people. There are living people in your everyday life who don’t do that. So long as his words are read and his characters survive, Stan lives on.
I had to do that.