A Tribute To The Marvelous Stan Lee
Today we lost one of the most prolific and influential creators of pop-culture entertainment, Stan Lee. During an incredibly fertile creative period from 1961 to 1972, he was instrumental in giving birth to Spider-Man, the X-Men, Black Panther, the Mighty Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil and Ant-Man, among countless other characters. Creating comic books, like video games, is a team effort, so Stan did not do this alone, but with collaborators such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other artists and writers. But he was the visionary and face of Marvel Comics, and through his impressive work and enthusiastic promotion of that work, by appearing at comic book conventions and in movie cameos, his vision lives on today and is as popular as ever.
Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t a Marvel fan when I grew up during the Silver Age of comic books. Although I did enjoy the Spider-Man animated series, I preferred reading DC Comics, where the superheroes were more paragons of virtue and impervious, both inside and out. It wasn’t until I grew older (and presumably wiser) that I grew to appreciate what Stan Lee brought to the world of comic books. After all, many of the great talents I admired were fans of Stan’s work, and I took notice that the great writer Harlan Ellison, with whom I had collaborated on a video game adaptation of his short story “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream”, kept a large Spider-Man toy figure suspended from his kitchen cabinets.
Stan earned the respect of talents in other fields — even receiving the National Medal of Arts from President George W. Bush in 2008 — when he revolutionized comic books by putting the “human” into “superhuman.” As fantastic as his characters were, they were relatable because they had real-world problems like the ones you and I experience. His superhumans had very human frailties. Despite his extraordinary powers, Stan’s most popular creation, Spider-Man, had problems at work, at home and with his girlfriends,enduring many defeats and setbacks, sometimes ones of his own making. He suffered from the awkwardness, self-esteem issues, and dating difficulties that plague every real-life teenager. The other characters that Stan created together with his team of talented artists and writers all battled their inner demons while fighting off supervillains. Because we can relate to these inner struggles, we true believers can learn from them.
Stan made these larger than life characters accessible by having them relate to contemporary society. The X-Men, for example, have served as a metaphor for many groups of people who have been demonized and mistreated for their differences, but have to live in peace with those who hate and fear them. Through Stan’s stories, they became a symbol of hope for the readers who felt demonized and mistreated themselves.
By creating three-dimensional characters who had meaningful things to say about the human condition, perhaps Stan’s greatest achievement was in demonstrating that comics were not merely pacifiers for children, but could be legitimate works of literature. Stan was slow to realize this himself, telling the Chicago Tribune in 2014:
“I used to think what I did was not very important. People are building bridges and engaging in medical research, and here I was doing stories about fictional people who do extraordinary, crazy things and wear costumes. But I suppose I have come to realize that entertainment is not easily dismissed.”
That is an important message for game developers, who for many decades had their works dismissed by mainstream society as being toys for children. Both comic books and video games have millions of fans, and the influence that brings cannot be denied. Stan wrote one of the most famous lines in comics, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and in doing so, he set a very high bar of responsibility for all us other content creators to live up to by inspiring our imagination and challenging us to all use it to make the world a better place. As Stan told Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man in his cameo in the 2003 Spider-Man film, “You know, I guess one person can make a difference … ’nuff said.”