Stan Lee: A Reflection

There have been plenty of memorials and obituaries written to honor Stan Lee since his passing yesterday.  There’s nothing I can say about his life that isn’t being said/hasn’t already been said.  Yet, at the same time, I can’t not say anything.  I was talking to Jeff when the news broke.  He told me.  David called soon after.  Texts began coming not long after that.  As with many pop culture deaths, I find myself mourning someone who was a major part of my life despite our never having met.  Unlike most pop culture deaths however, few have influenced my life to the degree Stan Lee did.  His worlds and characters have shaped me since Mom bought me my first comic book – Web Of Spider-Man #12 – when I was four years old.  When I heard he’d died I was at a loss.  All I could do was read.  I had exams that needed to be graded (exams I got back to later that night) but for that moment in time, as I sat with the reality of his passing, the only place I could go to find comfort was back into the worlds he created.

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Here it is…in all it’s tattered and well-loved glory! / Photo Credit – um, me, actually

I’ve told this story before, but Mom bought me my copy of Web Of Spider-Man #12 from the spinny rack at the grocery store when I was four-years-old.  It was March of 1986.  Wait…if it came out in March of 1986 then I got my first comic book when I was three-years-old.  I just realized that!  The cover had Spider-Man in his black costume crawling down the outside of his apartment building as Mary Jane entered inside.  She called out, “Peter!  Peter Parker!  Hope you’re not asleep, tiger…’cause mesmerizin’ Mary Jane’s gonna drag you out of your room and make you have some fun tonight…even if it KILLS me!”  Hidden behind the door inside the apartment was a sinister looking man with a rifle.  To this day this cover is one of the primary images that comes to mind when I think of comic books.  For me, it all started here.  I was hooked.  I loved Spider-Man and his world.  I never looked back.

This issue was written by Peter David.  Stan Lee wasn’t writing Spider-Man anymore in 1986, save the newspaper strip.  But it was his characters I was meeting, his world I was entering for the first time all the same.  Growing up reading comic books in the ‘80s, this was how it went.  Easily accessible trade paperbacks weren’t a thing and a service like Marvel Unlimited (and the internet itself) were closer to an idea Reed Richards or Tony Stark would dream up than something I could use every day.  So I entered Stan Lee’s world – the Marvel Universe – care of the people who were carrying his characters forward.  Of course I’d always read his monthly column – Stan’s Soapbox – in the Marvel Bulletin page.  That was where I first found his words, where I first heard his voice.  But the actual comics he’d written were something I’d encounter years later.

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Spidey works on his catchphrase in the fateful Web Of Spider-Man #12 which would change my life forever. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

But I met the spirit of his characters, of his worlds, for the first time in Web Of Spider-Man #12, as I’ve found it in hundreds of comic books since.  It was love at first sight.

Reading comic books in the late ’80s through the ’90s (I stopped my first wave of comic reading in 1998) didn’t yield the sort of social persecution it often did in the ’70s and early ’80s but it was far from mainstream.  I laugh sometimes to myself now, watching my students become animated as they discuss the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I’d’ve loved to have anyone in my middle school or high school class (and oh my gosh can you imagine girls?!?) who cared to talk about Spider-Man let alone cared enough to eagerly debate the potential shape of the next Avengers team :).  My love of the Marvel Universe and comic reading then was something I shared with David and our cousins growing up.  David and I are still first in line for every Marvel movie on opening night too!

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Photo Credit – Steve Breen

All those memories, all those comics, all those movies, all those days spent playing with toys or imagining ourselves as superheroes, I owe to Stan Lee.  Even if I didn’t read his comics first, it was always his world.  And I’ve taken so much from it over the years.  His characters have helped shape my morality, my spirituality, my sense of purpose and potential and they’ve always been so, so much fun.  Some of my life’s happiest memories come from sitting on the couch with Mom as she’d read me comics; running around our house pretending to be superheroes with David; or Aunt Judy bringing me my weekly file of comics from Books Galore when I was in the hospital, newly diagnosed with diabetes.  I was never a DC guy.  So if it wasn’t for Stan Lee and the Marvel Universe, I woudn’t have these memories.  I wouldn’t love or read comics.

So yesterday, when I heard the news, I read.  It seemed the best way to honor this man who’s given me so much, to wrap myself yet again in the world he created.  I began with J. Michael Straczynski’s The Amazing Spider-Man #538.  After a decade, I’m finally reading Marvel’s iconic “Civil War” event.  It’s been a slow but steady march through the saga over the past few months and this was the issue I was on.  It felt right to start here too, as it was Spider-Man.  As Peter prepares to enter what will be the final battle of the Superhero Civil Was he calls Mary Jane.  It was a story of life and love, what’s worth sacrificing for and what’s worth dying for.  It was a story of doing incredible things in the name of protecting the ones you love…but it was also full of quiet, intimate moments like the one below.  However, it was an emotionally heavy story, coming near the end of an emotionally heavy storyline.  So I didn’t stay with Civil War for long yesterday.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Then I did something I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.  I read, for the first time, Fantastic Four #1.  I’ve been wanting to read it for ages.  And ever since I got my Marvel Unlimited subscription I knew it was right there waiting for me.  But, for whatever reason, it never felt like the right time to visit the very beginning of the Marvel Age.  It was a big moment for me, to finally read this myself.  Yesterday, reflecting on who we lost and all he gave us, I felt like it was finally time.

As with Stan Lee’s life, there’s nothing I can say about Fantastic Four #1 that hasn’t been said before.  But I appreciated how it starts with Reed summoning everyone.  They already had their powers!  I wasn’t ready to pick the story up in the middle and then flashback to the beginning.  But I realized in addition to helping grab the reader’s attention, it served as an accurate example of how I joined the Marvel Universe, how most of us did for that matter.  We got hooked in the middle – falling in love with what we found – and then we excitedly went back to learn as much as we can :).  Reading Fantastic Four #1 was everything I wanted it to be, feeling simultaneously dated and timeless.  It meant a lot to me too, reading it on the day Stan Lee died.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

This was where it all began.  The Marvel Universe, the Marvel Age of Heroes was born.  And the world would never again be the same.  Thank you God for such a beautiful, beautiful gift.  And thank you Stan :).

From there I considered reading Fantastic Four #2 or The Incredible Hulk #1 (another iconic comic I’ve never read) or even picking up one of my old reprinted copies of Amazing Fantasy #15 or The Amazing Spider-Man #1.  I knew I wasn’t ready to go back to working, to leave the Marvel Universe yet.  But they weren’t what my heart needed.  Instead I pulled out my very first comic box, now a little battered around the edges, and took out my tattered, well-read and well-loved copy of Web Of Spider-Man #12.

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Looking at these panels now feels like coming home. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Opening this comic book floods me with memories.  The story begins with Peter and Mary Jane in the burned interior of Peter’s apartment.  He had stopped a robbery the issue before (a comic I’ve never read) and the kids-turned-would-be-thieves retaliate by starting a fire inside his place.  Peter tries to navigate dealing with this just as Peter Parker and, while his heroic act brings accolades, he still wants the kids in jail.  Reno (the leader of the teenage gang) asks his brother Hector (a small-time hitman) to take care of Parker for them…leading to the setup the cover promises.  Everything about this comic feels like home and this was exactly where I needed to be yesterday.

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Reading this feels like sitting in my parents’ family room on Christmas morning or gathering around the dinner table Friday night at Grandma’s.  It’s familiar, safe, welcoming, and fun.  It also helped shape me into who I am. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

I loved it then and I love it now.  I love how it was very local, very personal.  This has always been my favorite type of Spider-Man story.  I like when he’s the “friendly neighborhood” guy.  I prefer those tales to seeing him battle Thanos or Skrulls or when he gets tangled up in Secret Empires or Civil Wars or Onslaughts.  In Web Of Spider-Man #12 Peter Parker was swinging around his neighborhood, trying to keep his life together, while looking for purse-snatchers, laundromat robbers, and dealing with a would-be gang and a local hitman.  And through it all, personal drama and Spider-Man trouble, Mary Jane was right there beside him :).  This is how I love Spider-Man best, in part because this is how I met him first.

Even the ads were ripe with nostalgia!  This comic was the first place I’d see Captain America, Thor, even Spider-Ham :).  And I remember being captivated by the final ad in the comic.  It was an ad for comic subscriptions…boasting a discount off the usual cover price by fifteen cents.  But I didn’t care about that.  I didn’t even know what a subscription was at three-years-old!  I was hooked by the image of a Santa hat-wearing Hobgoblin (who I didn’t know at the time) dangling Peter Parker (in ripped civilian clothes revealing his red and blue Spider-Man suit (which he wasn’t wearing in that issue)) from his glider.  They seemed excited about the discounts but I wanted to read that comic!  It looked exciting and dangerous and something I needed to experience for myself.  It took me a long time to realize, sadly, it wasn’t a specific story I could get and a while longer to finally meet the Hobgoblin for myself.  But from the very beginning, even with the ads, I wanted to know more.

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All these years later, this STILL looks like a story I want to read! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

This is what the world Stan Lee created is.  It’s exciting.  It’s inviting.  And you just need to know more once you’ve entered it for yourself.  Obviously, it makes me sad to know he’s gone.  But all he created will live with us forever.  His work has left an indelible mark on my heart, mind, and soul.  And, while we mourn, I’m happy for him.  He lived a long, prolific life, gifting the world with so much and he’s earned his rest and the beginning of a new journey, one human imagination has wrestled with forever and can never truly grasp until we take it ourselves.  God bless you Stan Lee, go in peace.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

As I was reading, there was a line that struck me in Fantastic Four #1.  When Ben sees Reed’s signal calling for the Fantastic Four to come together, he says, “Everywhere it’s the same!  I live in a world too small for me!”  These words felt very poignant yesterday.  The world was too small for Stan Lee’s imagination…so through his characters, creatures, and creations, he made it bigger.  And we are all so blessed for where he’s taken us.

Now and forever, MAKE MINE MARVEL.

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Photo Credit – Marshall Ramsey c/o The Washington Post

11 thoughts on “Stan Lee: A Reflection

  1. This was truly wonderful to read. Whilst all the tributes to Stan have been great, it’s accounts like yours that truly reflect the impact this beautiful man has had and will have for decades to come.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I feel you.
    I haven’t been a fan for as long as you have- 5 years now- but then again, that’s more than a third of how long I’ve been alive, so Marvel has become one of the most influential parts of my life. And I owe that to Stan. When I heard the news of his passing as soon as I woke up, I was in a state of shock, because someone as important and fundamental to my character and my growth as a person, was no more. And I feel like I should have written a tribute of my own as a mark of gratitude. But as the day passed, I simply couldn’t form any words. It was as if my brain had chosen for me to deal with this on my own.
    I’m so glad that you wrote this post, Michael, because it says everything that I want to say, and everything I couldn’t have said, owing to my lack of experience. If there’s one thing I want to add, about your post and Stan’s life, it’s this:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much Udita. That means a lot. I hadn’t planned on writing anything…but then I started and it just sort of flowed out of me over the next day. It was a cathartic as well an emotional process.

      I get what you mean when you said Marvel’s been with you for over a third of your life and how influential it’s become. That was what happened with me. I got that first comics and then, before I knew it, I was all in with this amazing world. It means to much to all of us. It’s a beautiful bond we all share.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Michael,

    Great tribute to Stan. We are praying his place won’t ever be filled, but really filled bu someone with the same heart and humor. Thanks for honoring him with this great tribute.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Gary. It wasn’t anything I planned on writing…but then it became something I had to write, as I worked through everything in my heart. You’re right – I can’t imagine ever finding someone with quite his heart, humor, and creative vision again. He’s one-of-a-kind.


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