After the death of Stan Lee last week, hard-core fans joined the world at large to celebrate the accomplishments and mourn the passing of the charismatic, larger-than-life figure. More than any other creator, Stan Lee embodied the fun of comics, and specifically Marvel comics.
Eulogies and retrospectives were everywhere you turned. Stan Lee was featured on TV, Radio and social media outlets. Those big things that marketing people call “outdoor media” but that the rest of the world calls “billboards” featured Stan Lee. Even the local video store (yes, some video stores still operate in Central New York State) got into the act with a tribute.
The Romans had a saying: De mortuis nil nisi bonum, that’s still use today, adapted as the admonishment: “Don’t speak ill of the dead.” As a society we generally adhere to this axiom in polite circles.
That’s why I was especially surprised last week when Joshua Johnson, the radio/podcast host of NPR’s 1A, asked his guests about a controversial part of Stan Lee’s story. Many fans feel that Lee self-aggrandized himself to the detriment of his co-creators. Such fans categorize Lee’s actions as shameful, especially considering the riches he earned while so many of his Marvel collaborators struggled financially.
Many comic lovers felt left out of last week’s celebrations, buttoning their lips and resisting their urges to speak ill of Lee, despite their intense frustrations and inner need to set the record straight.
Stan was always very warm and kind to me. Like everyone else, I’ve got a couple of Stan Lee stories. My favorite story is from the mid-nineties at the Marvel Comics Holiday Party in NYC. I was working for Nabisco at that time, and we had just collaborated on a Marvel Comics-OREO promotion. This marketing effort did great things for both companies. My corporate counterparts on the Marvel side knew I was really a comic fan and that I would get a kick out of meeting Stan Lee. They arranged for him to spend time with me at this Holiday Party.
Even amidst an opulent Holiday Party (hey, it was the 90s in NYC) Stan was larger than life. In his master showman way, he was friendly and kind. I was soon convinced that we would be long-time pals. Stan explained how fantastic and visionary I was – and how it was a thrill for him to meet me!
Now, I didn’t expect this conversation to last forever, but just as I started really gushing, a beautiful redhead with an enticing British accent came up and introduced herself to us. She reminded Stan that she was from Marvel’s UK division. That was it. Our blooming bromance was over. He was off with her and I was left to try look cool standing there by myself. But who could blame the guy? He gave me “my moment” and that was a treasure.
We’re all complicated creatures. That’s part of life. But upon reflection, I wonder if one of the reasons that there is this undercurrent of resentment towards Stan is that he was ahead of his time. I postulate he was ahead of his time in a way we don’t often consider.
Oh, he set the bar pretty high bar for “world-building”. He also created the clubhouse atmosphere for his brand better than anybody else. Looking in from the outside, it was clear that he was a having BLAST creating comics, and his merry band of creative types were too. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of all that? And the cost of entry was just the price of a comic book.
But while artists like Eisner or Kirby, or musicians like Van Morrison, learned from an early age to let their work speak for itself, Stan was different. Stan was one of the first guys to do the work and then, with just as much effort, to promote the work. Others embraced that ethos, presumably leftover from the greatest generation, that was all about humility. Successful people should be humble. That was the thinking.
In today’s social media obsessed culture, we eschew humility to chase a level of celebrity for even the most mundane things. “I just shoveled my driveway!” Great – post it on social media. “I have a thought about that TV show I just saw!” Wonderful – post it and let’s see how many likes and view you get.
Stan embraced this concept before it was a thing. Promotion and self-promotion can be just as important as creating.
To be fair, there’s no excuse for claiming someone’s efforts as your own, and that’s not what I am saying here. Instead, when Stan was working with professionals like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko, he was the guy who was promoting it too. It seems clear from the vantage point of today that the world at large would remember the history written by the guy who was writing the history. Humble artists like Kirby and Ditko weren’t self-promoting to the extent Stan was (was anybody?) so they didn’t get the national spotlight or accolades of a peacock like Stan.
Oh, and look at that. We’re “out of space.” So let’s skip the ruminations about Stan’s fantastic creation, Nightcat. Nil nisi bonum, remember?