“Virtually every kid is exposed to giants and ogres and talking wolves, and so forth. And magic. And I think you never outgrow your love for those imaginative, fanciful, farfetched, fantastic characters and situations.”
– Stan Lee
My childhood bedroom was at the end of a long hallway, adjacent to my sister’s room on one side and my parents’ on the other. My bed was adorned by an Avengers comforter that featured portraits of Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor. Star Wars wallpaper, a finely illustrated collage of a few expertly chosen iconic moments from the film, had been plastered up across the wall behind my headboard. Action figures were littered across my floor; Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Stretch Armstrong, Darth Vader, GI Joe, Aquaman, and more; and I had a toy record player and spun a heavy rotation of the Beach Boys Christmas album, as well as Captain America and Amazing Spider Man stories.
I often petitioned my mother to allow me to wear my underwear, tighty whiteys, over my pajama bottoms, then would slide on my cowboy boots, safety pin a bath towel around my neck like a cape to fashion a makeshift Superman costume, and would run around the house with a yellow whiffle ball bat, a homemade lightsaber, fighting invisible monsters. Later, there were C-3PO and Captain America Underoos, significant upgrades in the sophistication of my everyday cosplay attire.
There were bike paths that veered off from some of the main streets of our little neighborhood and into the surrounding dark woods, and my friends and I chased each other through the trees on our Huffy’s, speeding, dodging low hanging branches and jumping exposed roots, imagining we were Batman and Robin.
It often took a long time to fall asleep. My mom worked nights, and after my dad would send us to bed, he’d stay up late watching horror movies. I’d lie awake, staring into the void of the mirror at the far end of the hallway, listening to my little sister twist and turn in the room next to me and to the distant murmur of the television set at the other side of the house, piecing together bits of wholly uncontextualized dialogue, sound effects and score to formulate my own fantastic plots, generally centered around a young hero that looked just like me, fighting off hordes of sci-fi alien demons.
We grew up under the constant and ominous specter of our potentially imminent nuclear annihilation, and moving through my quiet little neighborhood, by foot or by bike, I often imagined the sleepy streets, all lined with working class houses, as a post-apocalyptic landscape, deserted by humans and populated only by silently lurking, very hungry, radioactive monsters.
The world was a beautiful, sometimes scary and mostly wondrous dream.
I spent my allowances on baseball cards and comic books. Two weeks of cleaning my room bought me five comics or six packs of cards. We traded the cards back and forth and occasionally flipped them. The comics were sacred; sometimes shared but never traded. I collected Sgt. Rock, an obscure and long-since discontinued DC military title that somehow fascinated me, but the primary universe I moved in was Marvel’s, collecting Thor, Howard the Duck, the Fantastic Four, the Amazing Spiderman, the Incredible Hulk, Star Wars and Doctor Strange issues whenever my mom would drive us to the bookstore. I had no concept of how to purchase issues sequentially, so my library was a haphazard collection of To Be Continued stories. I read the same issues over and over again, memorizing the plot points, never knowing how they’d end, and studying each panel as though they were Van Goghs or Picassos. I’d draw and redraw my favorite images from each issue repeatedly; at home, at my grandmother’s house, on the school bus, in class; and would play out their conflicts and argue the strengths and merits of each hero endlessly with my cousins and friends in our backyards, on sleepovers, and at the bus stop.
The crown jewels in my collection were two primitive graphic novels, a thick compilation of early Fantastic Four issues and a similar collection of Spiderman tales, each beginning with their respective origin stories and spanning about a dozen properly aligned episodes. Each had Stan Lee‘s imprint all over the pages. His name appeared everywhere , not just on the cover pages of every episode, but often in the captions within the stories as well, providing enthusiastic commentary to supplement and augment the narrations. He was even drawn into one of the issues collected in the Fantastic four omnibus, confronting the notorious Doctor Doom alongside Stan’s legendary partner, Jack Kirby at their Midtown, Manhattan offices.
I had a friend who lived up the street from me named JP who had similar editions of the early Marvel collections, and Stan’s name, along with his enthusiastic commentary, was smattered across his books, too. We weren’t sure if Stan Lee was a real person, a writer of stories, or some omnipresent Being within the Marvel Universe, a strange Witness Consciousness thrilling in the adventures and characters we loved so much. JP once started and won an argument with me by positing that Stan Lee was actually the most powerful Being in the Marvel Universe, not an actual human person but rather the God of the Marvel realm, all-knowing and all-seeing and able to appear in voice at will, anywhere and anytime. More powerful than Thor. More powerful than Odin. More powerful than Galactus. How could I, a mere seven year old who barely understood what a byline was, argue with that sort of logic?
Just as Brahma, born from Vishnu, created all the forms in the universe according to the Mahabharata, the Marvel Universe that fired our young imaginations seemed to have been born from Stan Lee’s creative will, and we revered him for it.
We all know who Stan Lee is now, and while he may not have been the actual God of the Marvel universe, he was, along with the aforementioned Jack Kirby, the creative and enthusiastic spirit behind it. Joining the company as a gofer in 1939 when it went by the name, Timely Comics, he effectively worked his way into writing and editing responsibilities, and in 1961 ushered in the modern era of Marvel and comics with the creation of the Fantastic Four. Lee put an entirely new spin on the superhero genre, introducing characters with inner conflict, flawed humanity, and real life problems. He co-created such iconic characters as Daredevil, the X-Men, Spiderman, and the Silver Surfer, spinning a deep web of format-defying pop mythology that has garnered legions of fans from all generations, from all over the world and transformed Marvel into an enormous and beloved entertainment entity.
He left his body on November 12, 2018 at the age of 95. I was in the middle of composing a blogpost on the Fantastic Four’s first super villain, the Mole Man, when I received a text message with the news that morning from my 16 year old daughter, who had received a text message with the news from her 13 year old cousin. I put my computer to sleep, went to the bookshelf, found a copy of that early Spiderman collection, which I’d happened to repurchase earlier this year, and curled up on the bed, just like I used to so long ago.
Fittingly, the world mourned Stan Lee’s passing. Tributes immediately appeared everywhere, from inside the comics and entertainment industries to social media, news outlets and beyond. We had lost an iconic storyteller, a modern J.R.R. Tolkien, a rare being who, through his creativity and enthusiasm, had affected countless people’s lives and imaginations.
“Rest in peace, Stan Lee. The many worlds of imagination & delight you created for humanity will last forever.”
– Elon Musk
Thank you Stan Lee for making people who feel different realize they are special.
– Seth Rogen
His contribution to Pop Culture was revolutionary & cannot be overstated. He was everything you hoped he would be & MORE. I loved this man & will never stop missing him. They say you should never meet a childhood idol. They are wrong.
– Mark Hamill
Not everyone was so moved. Bill Maher, a comedian and host of the HBO show, “Real Time With Bill Maher,” upset a lot of people with his comments following Stan Lee’s passing.
“The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess,” Maher mused. “[T]wenty years or so ago, something happened — adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff, and so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature.” He went on to link the rising popularity of graphic novels to a cultural dumbing down of America that consummated with the election of Donald Trump as President. He later doubled-down on those comments in an interview with Larry King, stating, “I am agnostic on Stan Lee. I don’t read comic books. I didn’t even read them when I was a child. What I was saying is, a culture that thinks that comic books and comic book movies are profound meditations on the human condition is a dumb fucking culture. And for people to get mad at that just proves my point.”
While Maher may have a point about the dumbing down of America, his blame is misplaced. We live in a society that encourages and chases constant distraction, that values spectacle over substance, selfishness over selflessness, entertainment over truth, celebrity over character, and information over wisdom. We seem unable to read as well as we used to, write as well as we used to, or think as well as we used to. Whether this spiritual and intellectual devolution has been by design or is the natural progression of a democratic culture in a tech-obsessed world, I don’t know, but if the popularity of graphic novels and blockbuster films are symptomatic of such a devolution, aren’t the influential and prominent cultural platforms we surrender to celebrity entertainers like Maher also a symptom of a “dumb fucking culture”?
Maher’s comments were unpopular, to say the least, not to mention misguided and a gross misunderstanding of Stan Lee’s importance. Sure, maybe Lee shouldn’t be compared with the likes of Thoreau, Melville, Whitman or Baldwin, but his stories, filled with action and monsters and mutants and color and science fiction and adventure, were a warm blanket for many of us growing up, a universe to dream in, with incredible modern heroes we could identify with as our own. This is of no small significance. Lee’s costumed characters are the modern descendants of Odysseus, Rama, Beowulf and Arthurian legend. They recount the hero’s journey, the universal and fundamental age-old struggle between selfless action and self-serving action, the conflict that plays itself out within us over and over again throughout our lives, and present it in thrilling ways to contemporary audiences raised on and by technology.
Lee’s nuanced and often flawed protagonists humanized a form of storytelling that had previously largely been constructed on overly two dimensional, archetypal and infallible warrior personas. I read somewhere that his transformational vision of comics could be considered akin to the New Wave movement in 60’s French Cinema, a challenging counterpoint to the entrenched establishment of the time, inspiring new generations of writers like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison to experiment and push the medium of popular graphic storytelling further towards more mature, sometimes existential and even metaphysical themes.
As Stan would often say, “‘Nuff said.”
But wait, there’s more.
Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you’re young, you’re a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there… it doesn’t matter. You know. The older you get you say, “Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left.” Think about it. Thirty-five summers.
– Benny in Rumblefish, played by Tom Waits
Recently, we moved to a new apartment near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. My daughter and I had spent the better part of 12 years in a small flat in Bay Ridge, and as we packed up the old place, I kept stumbling across these little, hidden-away, practically forgotten relics; Uma’s finger paintings from kindergarten, a patchwork quilt she had tied together during a Christmas snowstorm, newspaper clippings on the Red Sox 1986 World Series run I’d saved from High School, old photos of me and my sister in the house where we grew up. Among all these old treasures, I discovered, hidden away in a brown box in my closet, a copy of an old Marvel Star Wars comic from the late 70’s. It was one of the first they published and it was incredibly familiar. I must have read that story hundreds of times over. I knew every panel. I knew the feel of the pages, the cover, the corny advertisements, and with that book in my hands, I felt like a kid again. Of course, it was just a moment, a glimpse, this inexplicable remembrance of Me without all the grownup attachments and worries, but it was real and it was profound.
In Vedantic philosophy, it is said that a state of childlike innocence, a state of seeing, understanding and enjoying the world as a fascinating play and moving through it unattached, is considered to be an important and necessary attainment for seekers of truth. In his commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, the esteemed vedic pundit, Chinmayananda states that “’Innocence,’ means here a child-like existence wherein egoism, vanity, attachment and hatred are the least predominant.” In India, these qualities are worshipped by some in the form of Bala Gopala, the child Krishna. The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzche believed that real spiritual maturity meant rediscovering the seriousness and absorption one had as a child at play. In “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” Nietzsche says, “The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a sport, a self-propelling wheel, a Sacred Yes.”
A thing that rekindles that feeling of childlike wonder; just for a moment, of fully absorbed and unattached joy, whether it’s an old comic book, a quick interaction with your mom, a walk in the empty woods; that’s a beautiful thing. Because we’ve forgotten. We’ve forgotten who and what we are and where we came from. It’s not a place or a thing, or our parents, or this or that. But sometimes those things can help us remember what we’ve forgotten, if only for an instant; who we are, really.
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.
– Holden Caufield from Catcher in the Rye, by JD Salinger
My daughter, Uma, was introduced to Stan Lee, not through comics, but through the movies that have become so insanely popular. Before she turned 10 years old, she hadn’t shown too much interest in superheroes or comic books. We had tons of graphic novels lying around the house, as well as plenty of comic book paraphernalia; Incredible Hulk Coffee mugs, Dark Horse Buffy the Vampire Slayer dining room glasses, Wolverine Bobbleheads… I had started her on Emily the Strange comics when she was six, and while she liked them fine, nothing indicated she’d share my childhood obsession. Then, in 2012, the first Avengers movie was released, arguably the Star Wars of her generation, and she became an obsessed fan. When I pointed out to her that Stan Lee appeared in a cameo role in that film, just as he had made so many appearances in the comics of my youth, she was thrilled, and with every subsequent film release we’d look forward to seeing his role.
In Captain America, The First Avenger, he played a General who mistakes another man for Steve Rogers. In Iron Man 3, he plays a beauty pageant judge. In Thor: Ragnarok, he plays the overenthusiastic sci-fi barber who chops off Thor’s hair. And on and on.
Perhaps his most brilliant cameo occurred in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2, where he is seen sitting alongside a group of cosmic beings known as the Watchers. The Watchers appear here and there throughout Marvel’s storylines, their purpose being to watch, to witness, but not interfere with, the goings on in the multiverse. These characters have always been fascinating to me, as this concept is reminiscent, in a way, to the concept of Sakshi Bhava found in Vedanta, the idea that what is witnessed by the body and mind in life is different from the Sakshi Consciousness within us all, which witnesses, but is not the body, not the mind, and not the action. It is innocence, untainted, untouched. The Watchers have always seemed to me to be a cool sort of embodiment of this principle, and in this particular cameo, Stan Lee is sitting on a moon somewhere in the middle of the cosmos with several of these eternal big-headed bald guys, entertaining them by recounting his many incarnations, as cameos, within the cinematic multiverse.
“I was a Federal Express man,” he says, referring to his appearance in Captain America: Civil War, and later “I’ve got so many more stories to tell.”
Of course he did.
Uma and I were fortunate enough to meet Stan Lee a couple years ago at New York City Comicon. It was his last ever appearance there, and at 93 years old, he was exuberant and incredibly gracious, signing autograph after autograph, posing for photo after photo, and spinning story after story during the panels he participated in. He seemed to have a boundless love for his fans and his energy was nothing short of amazing.
Thank you, Stan Lee, creator, sustainer and omnipresent witness of multiverses. Thank you for your imagination, and for reminding us that, as we move through this big, fantastic, terrifying and beautiful world, there’s a childlike innocence inside all of us, free, unattached and thrilling at the wonder of it all.
“I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing.”
– Stan Lee