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Honor Is Due

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Stan Lee is gone.  You should recognize him from his cameo appearance in virtually ever comic book film based on a Marvel Comics title or character, but I know there are people that have not seen the films.  Stan Lee is simply “The Man” when it comes to superhero comics.  He billed himself as Stan “The Man” Lee back in the 60’s when the Silver Age of Comics kicked into high gear and his legend has done nothing but grow since.  It is somehow fitting that his life terminates as this bit of pop culture reaches a zenith in motion pictures.

Kevin Smith, a comic book geek come movie director and comic book writer in his own right, said this of Stan in a Facebook post today:

You dreamed up some of my favorite modern myths and created characters that instilled in me a moral barometer, teaching me right from wrong and showing me it’s always better to be a hero instead of a villain. Your characters represented us: yes, they had extraordinary, unbelievable abilities, but they were also reflections of a world we knew, where a Spider-Man is really just a boy who wants to help.

Wish I had said that.  But if you are so inclined, and do some digging over the next few days, you will find, I am quite certain, Stan Lee detractors.

In the comic book creative community, Stan is a figure of some controversy.  You will note in most of the stories that have come out since his passing earlier today he is referred to as “creator,” not “writer.”  Stan’s role was, when the Silver Age was born, that of “Editor-in-Chief.”  As such, he dreamed up characters, plotted vague storylines and oversaw every title Marvel published, but while he credited himself as “Writer” back in the day he rarely, if ever, produced a script.  His chief collaborators during that seminal period, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, left Marvel after relatively short periods embittered towards Stan feeling he was a glory hog.

Any serious student of the medium must acknowledge that Stan Lee’s self-credit as “Writer” was an overreach.  He may have dreamed it all up to some extent, but it was Kirby and Ditko and the other members of the famed Bullpen that made them real.  However, that does not change the fact that Stan Lee’s role in the industry and in the imagination of thousands of young people is massive.  That which Stan may have failed to do when it came to creating the comic books, he more than made up for in the publication and promotion of them.  “Stan’s Soapbox,” appearing in virtually every Marvel comic on the letters page, was a must read.  “No-prizes,” awarded routinely to observant readers picking up some misprint or continuity break, were actually as coveted as Stan claimed them to be – even if they really did put the “NO” in no-prize, being nothing but a written acknowledgement.  And to this day, “True Believers” of a certain age will establish their bona fides by greeting each other with “Excelsior!” as Stan always signed the Soapbox.  Stan Lee built a fan community long before anyone even dreamed of social media.

Stan may have grabbed the spotlight more than he earned it, but the fact remains when you think Marvel Comics, you think Stan Lee.  The fact also remains that the methods Stan used to grab that spotlight sold a whole lot of comic books – enough that they now are the pillar of the motion picture business.  Stan’s editorial style also foreshadowed where the industry would be today, with story arcs crossing multiple titles, and short-run miniseries to boot, the plots being dictated by editorial and the creative teams carrying out their dictates.  This cross-title, long arc approach has sold far more comic books than were dreamed of when a scripter and artist were left alone to pursue their imaginations.  Stan may not have created comic books in the sense that writers and artists do, but he sure did create the modern comic book industry.

I have gotten into the tall grass here.  To most fans, Stan Lee is comic books and comic books are Stan Lee.  He is a pop culture figure of almost unparalleled stature – on a level with Walt Disney.  The world lost a leading light of several generations today.  That light shown brightest on my generation and a small piece of me died with him today.  Stan Lee will be sorely, oh so sorely, missed.

EXCELSIOR!

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