Last week was a sad one for fans of comic books and superheroes in general. Stan Lee, the most famous comic writer of all time, passed away. He was 95, and while his death may have been anticipated due to his declining health in recent years, it still wasn’t any less surprising when the news finally hit. Tweets and Instagram posts rained down, thanking the man who helped introduce such icons as Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. And with good reason. Much has been lamented on the effects that comic book culture has had on society (more on that later), but last week we saw a generation of nerds showing appreciation for the worlds and characters that inspired them to dream bigger, as well as the man who was responsible for a large part of it.
I say a large part because Lee’s legacy, and Marvel’s omnipresence in the pop culture consciousness, would not be possible without the contributions of artists/writers Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. To this day fans will still debate just how much credit is owed to each man, but one thing that can be agreed on is that the trio of Lee, Kirby, and Ditko are Marvel. They created the style, the tone, and the relatability that turned Marvel into a dominant brand. Prior to Marvel’s transcendent popularity in the 1960s, comic book superheroes more closely resembled Greek Gods as opposed to relatable, human characters. Many of them were blank avatars, and the powers were the real character. Stan Lee helped change that by making the characters just as important as the powers.
Kids could read about about a seemingly average, bullied, smart-ass teenager – who just happens to be a superhero in his spare time. Minorities could read about an oppressed community of super powered beings. Characters such as The Thing showed that certain super powers can be a burden rather than liberating. It was the mix of the fantastic and the relatable that was Lee’s trademark, and he utilized that key mixture to create heroes that were just as interesting out of the suit. Appropriately, this is demonstrated in the current Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the most popular characters, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, are typically the most interesting and personally tortured.
So you would think that with the passing of Lee, his fans would have an opportunity to mourn for him and then move on with their lives. That was until TV host and occasionally funny comic Bill Maher decided to unnecessarily throw dirt on Stan Lee. Writing on his blog, Maher criticized the outpouring for Lee’s death, suggesting that comic books have trapped millennials in arrested development. Maher’s main point is that “kid things” like Marvel should remain kid things, and that embracing such hobbies as an adult only leads to immaturity. He even went so far as to deposit that the current generation’s obsession with comic books is indirectly responsible for the result of the last political election. At no point does Maher go in great detail to see if that theory holds up, but he doesn’t need to – we know it’s ludicrous.
Every generation has it’s own societal burdens, both political or otherwise, and to suggest that the absence of nerd culture would change this is incredibly short sighted scapegoating. It is the great black mark on comic books as a genre – they are seen by many as intended exclusively for children, and the idea of adults enjoying them at any level is often incorrectly seen as a sign of intellectual decline in our society. These theories have yet to be backed up with actual facts, just the usual grumpy musings of people who can’t stand it when others enjoy something that they don’t. Not only has this attitude been apart of the comic book industry since it’s inception, but it has specifically hounded Lee his entire career.
In the June 17th, 2005 episode of Dinner for Five, Lee reflected on how his work was viewed by colleagues in the writing industry. During the peak of his career, he would go to parties and talk to writers who wrote what some would call “real books.” He felt insecure about his line of work, and could sense the people at those parties looking down on him. At the time of the airing of this episode, Lee was a pop culture icon and had seen some of his creations turn into box office hits. So it can be hard to imagine that same guy, in the 60s, feeling self conscious about his work – about his legacy.
What we’ve seen in the past week is the dichotomy of how Stan Lee will be remembered. To many, he will be the man who helped bring us an entire catalogue of complex, human heroes that have helped shaped pop entertainment across an array of mediums. And to some, he’s that bastard that turned grown men into Peter Pan. And that’s OK. Perception is reality, and whoever Stan Lee is to you is what should ultimately matter. Stan Lee. Jack Kirby. Steve Ditko. They’re work inspired more than enough people to make it all worth it, regardless of whoever thinks that they’re line of work was a waste of time. So in closing, I think the man himself should have the last word.