Comic books have always loved alternate histories, so consider a world in which Stan Lee never existed: One where he never created a single comic or character, never inspired a movie or a TV show, never signed an autograph for a fan dressed as Spider-Man at a comic convention.
It’s a weird place, isn’t it? Not as strange as the time Marvel did a series by Neil Gaiman in which Captain America and his super friends lived in the Elizabethan Court of 1602, but definitely weirder than that time Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four.
Our world is definitely better for having had him here. Because Stan Lee, as much as anyone, and more than most, changed the popular culture we love and live today.
Just look at this list of characters Lee co-created with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Larry Lieber during his heyday at Marvel: Spider-Man. The Hulk. Black Panther. Thor. Iron Man. The X-Men. All iconic figures to this day, thanks in part to the movies and TV series that have spun out of Marvel’s orbit in the past decade or so.
Lee was the face of Marvel, and to some degree, the face of the comic book industry as it boomed, so consider him the figurehead of the transformation of that world from a niche industry looked down on by other parts of the culture to the behemoth that dominates box offices, ratings, and other measures of pop culture today.
Before Lee modernized Marvel in the 1960s, most comic book heroes wouldn’t have been much fun at a cocktail party: Their dialogue was as wooden as the pulp they were printed on, and their personalities ran all the way from A, a crime has been committed, to B, we must catch this ne’er-do-well before he strikes again.
But in the pages of Marvel, heroes had flair, humor, angst. They were real in ways that comic characters had never before been. Spider-Man was a teenager. Black Panther was a super-smart and powerful black hero. Women such as Jean Grey of the X-Men or the Invisible Woman in the Fantastic Four had incredible strength and power.
Under Lee, Marvel also capitalized on the universes its characters lived in, finding ways to link them together for crossover potential in ways that the Marvel movies and TV series continue to exploit today. Ask a fan what the MCU is and they won’t need Google to tell you it’s Marvel Cinematic Universe, the umbrella that connects the Avengers to the Guardians of the Galaxies, Iron Man to Ant-Man, Captain America to Captain Marvel.
All of this helped to make and keep comics cool as readers grew up. What used to target pre-teen readers eventually held onto those fans as they entered adolescence and came out the other side as adults with money of their own to spend.
The rise of San Diego Comic-Con almost 50 years ago and all the conventions that followed might also not have happened had Lee not made Marvel and the world of comics into what it became. What started as a small gathering of fans has turned into the Super Bowl of pop culture, with millions of dollars spent there by the Hollywood studios that hope to make billions more on the latest comic book adaptation be it from Marvel, DC, or any of the smaller publishers out there.
You could see yourself in Lee’s Marvel books, even if you weren’t built like Thor, which, let’s face it, most of us who attend Comic-Con are not.
As for how Lee saw his place in the culture, it’s well-known that in his younger days he dreamed of success in business or science or the so-called fine arts, not expecting his life would revolve around the then-lowbrow world of comics. But a quote posted on the Marvel homepage after his passing shows how he came to feel about his legacy and his life.
“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,” Lee said at some point in the past. “And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it, they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain, you’re doing a good thing.”
On Monday November 12 2018, Stan Lee passed away at the age of 95. To this day, we still mourn the loss of a man who lived a long life, and who through his imagination gave all of us so much. Rest in peace Uncle Stan, and Excelsior.