An ode to Stan Lee and the heroes he created

Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Stan Lee’s universe of heroes captivated my shy, wide-eyed, four-year-old self and inspired me to read, watch and absorb as much comic book lore as possible. Without his passion and enthusiasm towards making Marvel Comics a global phenomenon, I would not be the same nostalgic, pop-culture-centric person I am today.

It all started when my mom brought home a one-dollar pack of comics as a reward for my good grades, secretly disguised to encourage reading — something I stubbornly refused to do outside of school. Out of the random comics in the pack were old Amazing Spiderman issues from the 1980s and ’90s. While my early exposure to super heroes began with VHS tapes of the Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer Batman films, these dark iterations starkly contrasted with the humanity and nuance behind Lee’s creations. Despite his lack of wealth and influence, the down-on-his-luck Spiderman managed to accomplish amazing feats, trying to lead a regular life and do the same things I wanted to do at that age: make friends and play video games.  

Spiderman set a standard of storytelling not only because he was a kid without means (like me), but because he never lost touch with the essential relationships around him. His Aunt May, Harry Osborn, Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson always came first in Spidey’s heart, even when he was forced to act otherwise. This inner conflict was one I wasn’t able to grasp as a kid, but it increasingly resonated with me as I got older and dealt with my own responsibilities and relationships.  

To me, one of Lee’s most impactful story arcs was the alien symbiote saga in which Spiderman acquires a new black suit that gives him increased strength and agility at the expense of his empathy, sense of justice and personal relationships. He eventually gives up the symbiote, knowing it is slowly corrupting him and tarnishing what it means to him to be a hero. The introduction of Venom at the end of this saga, whose vengeance and lust for power lured the symbiote, proved Spidey’s point even further.

Understanding what is morally right and balancing out great power are present in Lee’s X-Men series as well. To this day, the ‘90s cartoon theme brings back nostalgic memories of watching the show with my sisters as we chose our favourite characters, with mine always being Cyclops, Kitty Pryde and Magneto.

Around the same time in 2000, the first X-Men film was released, and seeing Cyclops, Wolverine and Magneto on the big screen felt like a living dream. The film was also Lee’s first of many cameos, which became the standard in Marvel movies almost a decade later.  

Like Spiderman, the X-Men are a team of misfits with superhuman abilities. Despite being alienated from the rest of the world, the team uses their powers to save lives rather than destroy and seek retribution. Lee professed the message of collective humanity in his work, emphasizing that individuals ought to use their gifts for the betterment of the world.  

After being firmly entrenched in the marquee franchises of Marvel, I had the naïve insistence to delve into their mature library. This search led me to the Blade film series about a vampire hunter that was created for the 1970s Tomb of Dracula comic run that Lee helped develop.

Watching Blade II, directed by Guillermo del Toro in 2002, was one of the most terrifying experiences of my childhood, but it exemplified the potential of the characters and storytelling that Lee helped create beyond his most popular material.

Once I entered high school, the mainstream appeal of comic books was in full swing with 2008’s Ironman that set Marvel’s shared cinematic universe in motion, each installment featuring a new Lee cameo.

As the cinematic universe expanded, the thriller setting of 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier showed that same sense of wonder and creativity that I experienced with the Blade series 12 years prior. Despite Marvel’s continued success, its characters and stories were malleable enough to explore diverse plots and genres. This is also evident in the 2017 film Thor: Ragnarok, where another popular character that Lee helped create was given a comedic redux to reinvigorate the franchise; funnily enough, Lee’s cameo as the worker who cuts off Thor’s hair on the planet Sakaar is the key turning point in the film.  

While I made sure to watch all of Marvel’s new film releases, it was not until my second year of university that I rediscovered my love for reading comic books. Today, I look forward to “new comic book day” every Wednesday, and the sentiments in them now are all the same as those in the one-dollar value packs of my youth. Every Marvel adventure feels fresh with the right balance of action, emotion and humour that Lee standardized. Some purists may stick to the comics more than their cinematic counterparts, but I believe Marvel is meant to be enjoyed on all platforms, and I would like to think that with Lee’s over-the-top cameos in most Marvel films, he felt the same way.  

Following his death, Marvel posted one of Lee’s famous quotes on their website: “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.”

Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth, as his humble beginnings as a comic book writer and artist made Lee a beloved celebrity and household name. He will be missed by comic book enthusiasts and casual superhero fans alike. More than just a creator, Lee has become an immortalized figure and storytelling visionary that entertained and amazed fans across generations.  

Thank you, Stan Lee, for making Marvel Comics what it is today, and for being a benefactor of my amazing childhood and continued fandom. You will be missed, but never forgotten.