Last Monday, November 12 of 2018, Stan Lee was taken by ambulance from his home in the Hollywood Hills to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he would die. He is survived by his daughter, Joan Celia Lee, and us, his fans. “My father loved all of his fans,” J.C. Lee would tell TMZ. “He was the greatest, most decent man.”
The strands of Stan Lee’s influence are embedded at all levels of culture. His knack for aggressive merchandising harkens back to the late ‘60s when Marvel first saw the benefit of the licensing deal. This led to brand new avenues of commodification in the comics industry and eventually culminated in the film adaptations we are all so familiar with. Stan Lee was a household name long before Avengers: Infinity War, and the economic impact of his creative work creeps nearer toward market ubiquity every year, not to speak of toys, T-shirts, and a growing body of critically and commercially successful video games. In other ways, Stan Lee’s influence is less easily quantified: the success of anime in the west owes much to Marvel-imprint Epic Comics for first translating (and fully colorizing!) Akira for a western audience, an event which owes much in turn to Lee’s creation of the Fantastic Four in 1961 with Jack Kirby, pulling Marvel away from the brink of shutting down and framing the future of comic books for, well, ever.
And all of that is well and good. But at the root of Stan Lee’s success is a basic observation of what it means to live well in the world as a human being. And on the occasion of his passing, it would do us good to ponder how he would have us live in his absence. To do that, I want to draw from his most important creation (according to science): Peter Parker.
After I wanted to be an astronaut, and before I wanted to be an architect, I wanted to be Spider-Man. Because Spider-Man was cool. He could think creatively on the fly, both to find solutions to difficult problems and to flex his superior wit, and this while nimbly dodging fists, cars, and even bullets. He seemed untouchable. And when he wasn’t, he’d use science to reclaim the upper hand. I remember making web-shooter hands at desks in my third grade classroom and pretending to fling them at imaginary bad guys. Granted, I was on the nerdier side of nerdy. I loved science, and I loved that Peter Parker as Spider-Man used science to give him that extra edge when his super-powers didn’t do the trick. Spider-Man was also a nerd. And Spider-Man was cool. He was destined to be my favorite.
Spider-Man is still my favorite, but for only slightly more complicated reasons.
Stan Lee’s first characters were imagined in contrast to the escapist idealism of the Great Depression’s Golden Age of comics. The late 1930s were desperate times, and optimism was in low supply and high demand. Thus we got Batman the socialite millionaire, Superman the moral-supernatural savior, and the poster boy for American exceptionalism himself in Captain America. But by the 1960s, the formula was growing stale, and the audience was growing cynical. Enter Stan Lee.
Stanley Lieber had adopted the moniker “Stan Lee” early in his career under the assumption that he would eventually get out of writing comics and write the “great American novel.” In his own words, “I realized that people had no respect for comic books at all. Most parents didn’t want their children to read comics. And I was a little embarrassed to be doing the work I did, and I figured someday I’ll write the Great American Novel and I don’t want to ruin my possibilities by having my name disliked this way. And I became Stan Lee.” Stan had been hired to his uncle’s publishing company when he was 16. After spending three years in the U.S. Army Signal Corp during World War II, he would return to work in the comics division of Goodman’s company, seemingly without any idea of what else he could have done. Without his own passion for the medium, Lieber would write whatever he was told, which turned out to be whatever was selling at any given time. Stanley Lieber was in a rut. And the next decade would make life very difficult for anyone working in comics.
Even when comic books were still in their infancy, parents of children who read comics belabored their potential harm. It would be Fredric Wertham, a psychiatrist and youth worker, who would provide a legitimizing voice to these concerns. In the swing of a full fledged moral panic, concerned parents, educators, and religious leaders demanded regulatory action. In the same year that Wertham testified before a Senate subcommittee, the comic books industry formed the infamous Comics Code Authority in an attempt to self-regulate, hoping to salvage their image from the threat of declining sales. But it didn’t work.At the root of Stan Lee’s success is a basic observation of what it means to live well in the world as a human being.
The ensuing years would see dramatic losses in the comics publishers. The leading publisher of the time, DC Comics, saw their sales dip 50% over the course of two years. Martin Goodman’s publication, which would eventually become Marvel, was hit even harder, going from 15 million copies sold in 1953 to 4.6 million in 1958. Other publications, such as the more adult-oriented horror publisher EC, would cease publishing comics almost entirely.
As for Stanley Lieber, Sean Howe puts it best: “In 1961, Stanley Martin Lieber was pushing forty, watching the comic book industry, in which he’d toiled for over two decades, fade away. Recently forced to fire his staff of artists, he sat alone. . .” And in an interview with The Comics Journal, Jack Kirby recollects, “Marvel was on its ass, literally, and when I came around, they were practically hauling out the furniture. . . They were beginning to move, and Stan Lee was sitting there crying.” After being told by Goodman to come up with a new superhero team to compete with DC’s Justice League, Stanley Lieber went home and told his wife that he was going to quit the comics business for good.
The reason Spider-Man is still my favorite is the role that trauma plays in his story. Stan Lee has gone on record numerous times stating that he wanted Spider-Man to have problems that people could relate to, the one thing superheroes of the time were not supposed to have. Stan Lee has also said that he wrote more for himself than anyone. So in saying that he wanted a hero that people could relate to, I can’t help but suspect that he wanted a hero that he could relate to. The heroes of the Golden Age gave many people hope. But to others, especially of later generations, that sort of saccharine idealism, when viewed against the backdrop of a world that doesn’t care about you, seems like a cruel joke.Peter had to experience the consequences of being selfish before he could understand the benefits of heroism. And he is rarely the beneficiary of that heroism.
We all know the origin story, and the degree to which we are simply tired of hearing about it has reached such a critical threshold that the last Spider-Man movie received widespread praise for skipping it altogether. But our over-familiarity is very likely a function of the story’s original impact. Even an era when heroes can save anyone, it was common for an origin story to include a traumatic death of a close loved one. For that person to die as a result of a hero’s selfish choices ought to have disqualified Peter Parker for hero-dom. Instead, it informs Peter’s heroism. It wasn’t just Peter becoming powerful that created Spider-Man. Peter had to experience the consequences of being selfish before he could understand the benefits of heroism. And he is rarely the beneficiary of that heroism.
It’s easy to want to be Spider-Man, with his extra-sensory perception, freakish dexterity, quippy confidence, and super-strength. Spider-Man is cool. I never said anything about wanting to be Peter Parker. I don’t think Peter wanted very much to be Peter Parker either, at least at the start. As a bullied high-schooler, Peter might have thought that becoming Spider-Man would make his life better. But just as the comics industry had Fredric Wertham to stoke the fears of the public against it, Spider-Man had J Jonah Jameson.
In his own meditations on the character, Aaron Drucker comments, “It is not difficult to hear Lee’s experience echo in Peter Parker’s frustration.” Many aspects of the character seem to be taken from Stan Lee’s life. Just like Stanley Lieber, Peter wanted to quit. And he did. More than once. But even in trying to put himself first, Peter couldn’t find it in himself to ignore the suffering of others. More than anyone, he understood the cost of doing the right thing, but also the cost of not doing the right thing.
In his own meditations on suffering in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, Viktor Frankl was fond of quoting Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Applying this formula to Peter Parker, Neil Musset writes, “If suffering is associated with meaning, with love, it becomes sacrifice.” In this way, suffering had taught Peter Parker to be selfless, and thus, to be loving—but also: to be Spider-Man.
Stanley Lieber never asked to be in the position he was in. He had never wanted to write comics. Why should he continue to suffer for an industry he had no passion for? So he told his wife that he was going to quit. But Joan Lee encouraged him not to. “That’s when I said to him, no. Do it your way, sweetheart. Do it exactly your way. Sink or swim. . . And that’s when it started.” Lieber began writing comics with the same love as his more conventional projects. Sacrificing his dream of writing the Great American Novel, Stanley Lieber became Stan Lee for good. And what Stan Lee did was at least as significant, if not more so, than any novel. And Stan Lee was cool.
No, not one shall be forgotten who was great in the world. But each was great in his own way, and each in proportion to the greatness of that which he loved. – Soren Kierkegaard