Upon his passing at age 95, it's worth reflecting on Stan Lee's complicated legacy as comic book geekdom's most visible brand ambassador.
The Stan Lee moment that stands out to me isn’t from one of his many famed cameos, or his legendary backpage columns, or his colorful promotional appearances. It’s from a short-lived television show called Who Wants To Be A Superhero? Stan was the master of ceremonies on the series, an effort to tap into the waning days of the reality T.V. show craze. Each week, a coterie of costume-clad hopefuls would compete to have the characters they created and cosplayed enshrined in a comic book by Stan “The Man” himself.
In one episode, one of the show’s more bombastic contestants faced elimination, and for a moment, decided to break character. He confessed to Stan Lee (represented via a giant video screen with Smilin’ Stan’s famous bespectacled visage on it) how much Lee’s comic books had meant to him. The contestant poured out his emotions, talking about how those tales of bravery and daring had inspired him, how they’d comforted him in difficult times, and how they’d almost made Lee seem like a father figure. There was a hint of playing things up for the camera to all of this, or at least a struggle to fully bare one’s soul while dressed in tights and talking to a video screen. But there was also a sense of sincerity in a grown man’s heartfelt speech about the hallowed place Lee’s stories had kept in his life.
Lee, his demeanor static, responded through his oversized projection, “That was very nice. Thank you.” He said it with all the energy and affection of a cashier informing you that the grapes you were purchasing were actually on sale right now. And the show quickly moved on.
I don’t mean to malign Stan Lee, who died yesterday at age 95, with that vignette. Ginning up authenticity and genuine emotion within the bounds of reality television is a fraught endeavor in the best of circumstances. For all I know, Lee (already in his 80s) had to film his segments separately or in advance, and so never had a chance to react to the contestant’s real live confession. And maybe, when you’re Stan Lee, you hear people tell you how much your creative efforts have meant to them everyday, to the point that it’s hard to avoid becoming inured to it.
But that moment feels emblematic of the figure Lee became over the past few decades. That era saw the Marvel brand he’d overseen reach unprecedented levels of mainstream success and recognition. So far removed from his former, legitimately revolutionary creative contributions, Stan emerged as a mascot and ambassador for Marvel and for comic books writ large. With scores of Marvel characters featured in thousands of stories, retold and repurposed in any number of collaborative mediums, the enthusiasm and gratitude of the fans needed a focal point, someone who could represent what we thought of when we thought of comic books. And Stan Lee gladly filled that role.
That’s part of the problem. One of the things that complicates Lee’s legacy is how readily he accepted being the public face for those characters and stories, at the expense of his collaborators and colleagues. Given the state of myth-making, you could be forgiven for thinking that Lee single-handedly dreamed up, designed, and debuted every single Marvel character you’ve ever heard of. That’s a disservice to all the other creative people who helped propel Marvel’s stable of heroes and comic books into the public consciousness, people whom Stan wasn’t necessarily apt to share the spotlight, let alone the residuals, with.
And yet Lee clearly excelled in his role as a promoter. At an early 1990s Comic Con appearance, where he introduced a then-forthcoming Spider-Man animated series to a crowd of adoring fans, you can hear him offer all sorts of exaggerated-but-exciting boasts. He’d assembled an unrivaled world-class team of creatives for this new show! It would change television! It would be 100% true to the comics! The lead voice actors might one day be the stars of a (then mostly hypothetical) live action Spider-Man film! Lee did it all with a salesman’s relish. He exuded the the chipper but firm sense that whatever he was talking up must genuinely be the brightest and best thing to grace the airwaves, the comic book pages, or the silver screen.
But in his later years, Lee would emerge mainly as a figurehead, the professor emeritus of all comicsdom, with his smiling face acting as a stamp of approval that whatever you were experiencing was an honest-to-goodness Marvel production. He cameoed in everything from theme park rides and single-season T.V. curios to the biggest superhero flicks of all time. Each time, his appearance was a pleasant surprise, a brief but cheery nod to the audience and to the history of the characters and the world he helped create.
Over time, that image slowly subsumed the man born Stanley Martin Lieber, who was a real, flesh and blood person. That made it easier to push aside the complicated history of claimed credits and bitter feelings amid Marvel’s various rises and falls. It made it easier not to fuss over rumors and recriminations that those closest to Lee were taking advantage of him in his old age. The Stan Lee the public knew in his later years wasn’t a human being; he was comic books. He had become a symbol, and symbols don’t have health problems or checkered pasts or complicated presents. They can just smile for the cameras, and everything will be fine.
But they also give us an outlet for our admiration and gratitude, meant for characters and stories with too many fathers and mothers to comprehend, let alone thank individually. Stan Lee’s creations will long outlive him, representing ideas like moral responsibility, persecution and tolerance, and the earnestly human within the larger-than-life, that will persist far beyond any single author or illustrator. And in the same way, the icon that was and is Stan Lee will long outlive the man himself, standing in for a bigger creative spirit that touched the lives of film-goers, comic book-readers, and yes, even reality show contestants.
That was his final gift. We need icons like Stan Lee, who make the big and wondrous feel graspable, so that we can say thank you, and goodbye, even when the truth is more complex, and we know we won’t hear much in return.