Forget the box office billions – Stan Lee’s real legacy is the readers he leaves behind
The late comic-book maestro created many of the superheroes that dominate the multiplexes – but that’s not just what we should remember him for, says Huw Fullerton
Stan Lee created some of the biggest, flashiest and most recognisable comic-book characters in history, including Spider-Man, Black Panther, the X-Men, Doctor Strange, The Hulk, Iron Man and Thor.
He put Marvel comics on the map, indirectly opened the floodgates for the superhero revolution we’ve seen in popular culture over the last decade, and even found his own personal fame thanks to those movie cameos we all got so used to.
It’s not a bad legacy for anyone, and as we look back on the life of the writer, editor, businessman and professional cameo artist (who died yesterday aged 95) it’s easy to look at these achievements as the sum total of Stan Lee’s time on Earth – but for me, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Because more indelible than a long list of masked heroes he created (or co-created), a blow-by-blow account of his business management of Marvel or even a ballpark figure for the amount of cash the movies based on his characters have made at the box office is something else that Stan Lee leaves behind – the impact he had on people’s hearts and minds.
How many young readers were inspired to pick up a pen, or a pencil, or make the first strokes on a keyboard, because of Stan Lee? How many artists, writers, directors, actors, and other creatives took a step towards their destiny (directly or indirectly) because of stories and characters he created?
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And even if they didn’t want to imitate him, how many sad, lost or just plain bored children found joy and adventure in the worlds he made real?
The outpouring of grief and remembrance on social media following Lee’s death would suggest quite a few people felt that way at one time or another– and I’d count myself among their number.
As a child, I tried and failed to draw and make my own Spider-Man or Iron Man comics (yes, I even bought How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way) – but I never lost my appetite for the stories, and never gave up on the writing.
And then, bizarrely, just as I began trying to write about movies, TV and popular culture professionally, the comics I’d loved began to creep into the mainstream in an even bigger way than they had before. All the time I’d wasted poring through Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s run on Spider-Man suddenly became something to put on my CV, not hide from absolutely everyone I met.
I’d arrived in the industry at a perfect moment for my interests to help me write about the boom in superhero movies – and the icing on the cake was the fact that one day, I thought, I’d probably get to interview Stan Lee.
It’s a strange (and sort of arrogant) thing to admit in print, but I really did think it was fairly likely to happen. Right up to the end, Stan Lee still worked, created characters and did press for the projects he was involved in, and considering how much I wrote about comics I figured it was only a matter of time until we crossed paths.
I wouldn’t say anything “real” to him, mind. I wouldn’t tell him how much happiness his characters brought me as a kid, how avidly I read and reread the comics that had followed his time at Marvel, how I still (to this day) idly wonder what it’d be like to swing like Spider-Man through the streets of my hometown (arguably, Spidey might have struggled to cover as much ground in central Cardiff).
Really, I just liked the idea of being in his presence, and chatting to him about his work, and factoring, just for a moment, in his orbit. Sadly I’ll never get that chance now, but like so many others Stan will live on for me in his work, the work of others that he inspired and the upbeat, avuncular version of himself that he played so well in the public eye (and of course, there’s almost certainly a couple of pre-filmed cameos left).
Stan Lee’s not the only person to create work that touched millions, or even the first to create superheroes that became icons of pop culture – but for a lot of people, he’s the source of so many happy, creative and downright fun memories that they’ll carry with them forever.
What a legacy to leave behind.