With Stan Lee’s passing, there has been an outpouring of emotion and condolences to a man who impressed the world with his creativity and wit. For those like me, who grew up reading his comic books, the loss of Stan “The Man” is expectedly heavy. But the truest testament to his ingenuity is the impact expressed by fans who never read comics. For the longest time, comics were not recognized as worthy literature, proving little more valuable than low forms of art like graffiti and tattoos, but the superhero craze in the cinema has elevated the value of comic literature as an art form. In the process, Stan Lee has been thrust into the unofficial creative hall-of-fame (which may become posthumously official before too long), marking him among the greatest visionaries the world has ever seen and repositioning comics as a recognized and universally respected form of art. Out of respect for his decades of hard work, I want to take a moment to look at Stan’s achievements relative to contributions of undisputed greats, the likes of classical composer, Homer; Elizabethan dramatist, William Shakespeare; and modern cartoonist, Walt Disney. Each fathered great works that impact the whole of civilization. And, like their works, Stan Lee similarly fathered the Marvel universe, crafting modern epics through heroic, tragic, and creative archetypes.
Stanley Lieber was born on December 28, 1922, in the Manhattan borough of New York City, NY, the setting of so many of his beloved characters. He grew up in Manhattan and in the Bronx, graduating from high school in the latter at sixteen. He worked odd jobs following high school until he landed a position writing for a pulp magazine, eventually making his comic debut writing filler for Captain America Comics #3 and holding the editor position at the spry age of nineteen. Following Captain America’s example, Stan entered into Army service in 1942 at the height of the Second World War, serving with the signal corps in the same division as Theodor Geisel, the world-famous Dr. Seuss. After leaving service, Stan started the Marvel Revolution, and the rest is history!
An Odyssey of Creativity:
Homer is the father of the heroic epic and its archetype, composing the Iliad and the Odyssey and chronicling the likes of Achilles and Odysseus and the Trojan War—all before Rome was any more than a tribal society. Like Homer before him, Stan Lee crafted timeless characters that braved all manners of challenges for the betterment and prosperity of humankind. New York City was Stan’s Troy, and the heroes’ battles against evil were his Trojan Wars.
Et Tu, Shakespeare?:
William Shakespeare, known as the undisputed father of drama and theater and the bane of English students everywhere. Shakespeare romanticized tragedy, setting the stage (See what I did there?) for storytelling today. All writers draw inspiration from him even if they don’t admit it. And, like Shakespeare before him, Stan gave us tragedy, pathos, and a way to connect with characters that were otherwise larger than life. Hardly conjecture, Stan’s Shakespearean ingenuity catapulted comics from pulp magazines to the silver screen, resulting in an Oscar nomination. Unprecedented.
Welcome to the Mouse House:
Walt Disney wasn’t the first cartoonist, but he’s definitely the most famous—the heavyweight champion. Walt Disney crafted timeless characters that have marveled (I’m on fire right now!) children for nearly a century. What started as garage illustrations of anthropomorphic animals, grew into a worldwide media empire that has touched billions. Where can you go to find someone who wouldn’t recognize Mickey Mouse? And, just like Mickey Mouse, where can you go to find someone who doesn’t recognize Spiderman or the Hulk? I’ll also point out that the Disney conglomerate built its empire retelling and repurposing old European (and the occasional African and Asian) folk tales. Stan Lee did the same with modern retellings of ancient, folk, classical, and premodern stories. Stan Lee, like Walt Disney before him, crafted equally timeless characters on kitchen counters and living room tables, delivering magic to audiences that will define our civilization to archeologists two thousand years from now. Isn’t it simply poetic that Disney, Inc. owns and distributes Marvel Entertainment?
So, the next time you’re out for dinner, raise a glass for Stan “The Man” Lee, a man who has given us heroes that have walked with us and guided us through some of modern history’s darkest times. And, for the writers and English professionals out there, consider influencing curriculums to include our modern Shakespeare.