This is a story about stories, as much as it is about a man. After all, Stan Lee was a storyteller. His stories are some of the most enduring and impactful mythos of Judeo-Americana. The Marvel superheroes he co-created and wrote have been adapted in every medium beyond the frames of their comic panels. They’ve appeared in movies, video games, and novels; and alongside their capes and banners, so too has appeared the smile, sunglasses, and mustache of Stan the Man, an icon all himself. As a storyteller, Stan Lee must have known that stories can only really be impactful when they reach their end. It’s only at the end that the story can be taken stock of. All stories must end. Even a story about stories. With the end of Stan Lee’s story, we can truly feel the significance of one of the world’s greatest figures. The truth about Stan Lee can finally be revealed – He was a superhero.
You see, true believers, there is more to superheroes than just masks and amazing feats. Superheroes possess a power that reaches beyond the confines of their universe, the ability to inspire. Heroes have always acted as teachers of self-reflection, morality and truth. Stan Lee, raised in a Jewish immigrant upbringing, versed in an America rich with Christian lore and Western tales, helped combine, refine, and revolutionize these traditions. The hero became not just a distant preaching champion of astonishing tales, but also a struggler with the mundane. This spoke to readers at a deeper level, laying the groundwork for greater moral emulation. Stan Lee’s amazing fantasies motivated readers to become heroes in their own fantastic struggle with everyday life. Inspiring rather than just teaching others is therefore the hallmark of the superhero. And we all should be inspired by the story of Stan Lee.
Born Stanley Lieber, Stan Lee was the son of poor Romanian-Jewish immigrants. Living in cramped apartments with a father who struggled to find work to support his family, Stan started working part-time jobs. From an early age he loved heroic stories, books, and movies. While it was his dream to write stories someday, he had to make do as an obituary writer and newspaper subscription salesman. Eventually, he was hired as an assistant at Timely Comics, which later became Marvel Comics. While fate offered him the opportunity to become an interim editor, America’s entry into the Second World War soon after demanded that he enlist into the military. It was only after the war, when he returned to comic books, that he did get the chance to tell the heroic stories he had always wanted to write.
Stan’s story resonates not because he was a famous man, but because the adventure of his life had moments everyone could relate to: To work hard, to struggle with money, to find one’s place in the world. We relate to heroes because we see part of ourselves in them. The best parts. This makes us listen to them when they have a lesson to teach us. In the same way we can recognize the need in ourselves to hold our ground like Captain America, or to try to control our anger like Bruce Banner, we all saw the adventurousness, good humor, and diligence in Stan Lee that echoed our own. He embodied creative spirit and ambitious drive in a way that even fictional characters fail to do, and made us listen in the same way.
Stan’s creations echoed his spirit. For a superhero to be real and relevant, they need to be flawed. Stan was not a perfect man. He quarreled with his co-creators, and got into spats even with Marvel comics. Once upon a time, heroes were perfect. Upon returning from the military, Stan began to grow disillusioned with his job, and the contents of his works. He took a risk with a new story, encouraged by the great love of his life, Joan. Like Stan and his collaborators, this new breed of hero squabbled and had self-doubts, but always tried to do the right thing, even if it cost them everything. It began with the creation of the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s first family. On this rock of success, the House of Ideas was built, giving us Spider-Man, The Avengers, and The X-Men. Each showed us a different aspect of heroism.
What Stan showed us with these flawed but relatable characters was how to be good people. A hero’s flaws teach us what not to do. His triumphs and conduct teach us what to emulate. These lessons span communities and countries as a common mythology, a societal fabric to bind us together. We know the difference between justice and revenge thanks to Daredevil. We know that “the other” are people too, thanks to The X-Men. With Spider-Man, the world learned the importance of taking responsibility for one’s actions, as “with great power, there must also come great responsibility”.
The great adage about responsibility is not only something people should abide by, it is also a truth about reality, as were much of Stan’s works. By taking on great responsibility, people become greatly capable. It’s a huge responsibility to show the world its reflection. Our mythos are needed to impart our knowledge and morality to the next generations. They discuss suffering and death, love and courage, and make them accessible for children. Stan bore this responsibility, and met it with capability. He created a whole universe to serve as a mirror. In the trials and tribulations of good men and women, he showed us our potential and greatness. As a storyteller and the holder of that mirror, Stan must have known not just that all stories have their end, but that we all have our own stories. Like Stan’s creations who engage in epic battles with both the fantastic and the mundane, so too do we face challenges, overcome them, and grow. The truth found in the mirror is that we are all the heroes of our own stories. Having comic book role models made our own personal silent battles and responsibilities a little easier to bear.
He wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider or bombarded by cosmic rays, but Stan never needed powers to inspire. A hero by his hard work alone, he was always creating, always showing us by example how to be our own heroes. To motivate so many on such a massive scale to be righteous is nothing other than super. And though his story is at its end, we can now understand that it’s only so many others can begin. This is a story about stories, as much as it is about a man as it is about us. With Stan gone, it’s now our responsibility to continue telling stories. It is our responsibility to act as examples, to show what is good, and what is true. Thankfully, we had a superhero for us to model ourselves after. Stan Lee inspired us to inspire.