Stan Lee died a comic legend on Monday at age 95, and fans across America mourn him.
Lee was Editor of Marvel Comics for 31 years, 1941-1972, and was involved in the creation of many characters beloved for generations, several of whom are heroes that have been brought to a new life in the digital age and which will be with us for a while — think Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and Spider-Man. Although nobody predicted it, the fantasies and admiration of kids who even a generation back would have been dismissed as geeks or nerds have proven prophetic — in large part thanks to what Lee did for American boys and young men who harbored secret ambitions in their hearts.
We live in age where the creativity of our entertainment industries seems to be obsessively focused on recycling old ideas. What can survive in this cycle of forgetfulness and nostalgia, of anxiety about the future and restless scavenging of the past Memorable characters and their typical stories. This is why Lee is a legend and his cameos in all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and beyond are small stamps of approval — and reminders of the power he was wielded when it comes to the moral imagination of American men, so much of which has been concentrated in the figure of the comic book hero over the last two generations.
Comic books themselves seem to be as good as dead, and the way the industry abuses its fans seems to be a consequence of that fact. Whatever new stories are cooked up, the initial numbers get considerable sales that then quickly drop off, and collectibles seem to be more important than the stories themselves. Instead of rewarding fan loyalty and making a claim to the American imagination, comics, including Marvel comics, seem to be another consumerist fetish. Our love of adventure and our secret desire to confront our fears has moved to the movies.
When the medium changed from print to movies, two things typical of Hollywood were added to these movies. First, stars could be recruited and, chained by the strong bonds of contract to beloved characters, they gave Marvel comics the glamour they really needed. Second, creators, poets, men of imagination could finally be recruited to work on the stories that would make Lee a legend beyond the death of print. Especially, I suspect, Gen X-ers had the love of comics instilled from youth together with the ambition to make it in Hollywood, and thus they were able to work on these movies as an act of love, not merely creativity or talent. Inspired by Lee, they grew up to build his legend and, indeed to prove he is worth remembering by a more important argument than popularity: good stories.
Many things are popular in America, but most are forgotten instantly — indeed, being forgettable seems to be a necessary condition of popularity most of the time. People don’t want to all love the same thing, and want to change their minds about what they do love tomorrow! Few of the things we love have any staying power in our hearts and those that do are mostly tied to the memory of one cohort or generation.
Far more frequent is the, “You had to have been there,” than the, “Wait till you see this!” We are even afraid of sharing things with younger generations, because we know, intimately, how few things are memorable with us. So if two or three of Lee’s characters are remembered in another generation or two, he will have accomplished something rare.
So it is right to honor Lee; it is right to make a legend of him. He gave us myths we still find enchanting, both as audiences and as myth-makers. Those who want to honor him had better get to the hard work of turning the heroes he loosed on America into computer games — that’s where boys and young men are today, as surely as they were reading comic books two generations back — and it is just as sure that they are in need of visions of heroism, of tragedy and empire, to complement the safe limits of a middle class life. Disney has bet on this with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it has not flopped once since “Iron Man” came out ten years ago.
Lee offered several versions of each type of hero and we had better treasure them, if we are to learn about the secrets of our own hearts. They have served us well so far and they may continue to do so if we allow them to face our fears and to speak to our ambitions.