I first met Stan Lee in a Georgia barbershop.
Oh, not Stan “The Man” himself. But I met his creations in that shop.
Barber shops in the early seventies were places were men went to dissect the doings of their fellow beings, or talk baseball, or get therapy, barbers being the equivalent of psychiatrists without the stigma, all while they got their hair cut. Their sons or grandsons tagged along for a trim and, glory of glories, to read the comics with which the barbers so thoughtfully stocked their waiting area tables.
I’d been reading DC Comics for years, of course—Superman and Batman, Green Lantern and The Flash. And they were fine, manly men using their super powers for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
But then, what to my wondering eyes did appear but this new upstart comic imprint, Marvel. And it was sooooo different from everything I’d seen before. For one thing, Marvel’s heroes tended to wear their underwear under their costumes, unlike Superman and Batman. And where Superman and Batman were definitely heroic, they just seemed a bit…well, stodgy and straight-laced and *good*. Marvel’s heroes? They didn’t just break the mold—they joyfully exploded it, shouting “It’s clobberin’ time!”
Marvel heroes had a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) edge to them. This was something I’d never encountered in comics before but that resonated with early-teenage, somewhat introverted, and slightly angsty living-with-my-grandparents me. And those Marvel heroes had something else that appealed to my younger self, and something that is still with me to this day, for which I thank Stan Lee—a well-honed sense of humor.
Spider Man. *sigh* A super hero with his bvd’s on the right side of his costume, his heart on his web-slinging sleeve, and his arsenal loaded slam bang full of wisecracks. Spidey was a smart-ass teen because he *was* a smart-ass teen, learning the hard way that “with great power comes great responsibility”, taking his knocks, and always quick with a comeback line. But through all his toils and trials, Spider Man faced life with a sense of humor that I just knew would help to see him through to overcome the darkest peril or the nastiest villain.
And that was important to a rather nerdy teenager in south Georgia in the seventies. And probably just as important to nerdy teens (and adults) in urban metropolises and suburbs the world over, then and today. In Spidey, Stan Lee gave us someone who channeled not only what we were, but what we could be.
The story lines were absorbing, the artwork was captivating, and the characters—all those wonderful Marvel characters we so take for granted now—were exciting and daring and, dare I say it, fun in a way that their straight-laced DC counterparts would never be. DC eventually tried to imbue some humor and angst and existential conflictedness into their characters, but it was too little too late—Stan Lee had already cornered the market and the hearts of fans.
And he talked to us. Not just through the stories he told in all those luscious comic books, but through the editorial page. Stan’s Soapbox—a little column at the end that let readers know that yes, there was actually a human being with hopes and dreams and foibles behind the stories. Someone who understood us.
Stan Lee told us stories. That they were stories of superpowered teens and troubled mutants was both the point and beside the point. Yes, the artwork was amazing, but it was the stories and what we learned about those characters and how they endured and changed that was the key. Stan Lee gave us “Excelsior”—his catch-phrase and his signoff at the end of each Stan’s Soapbox. He challenged us to look ever upward, to keep that sense of hope and optimism and joie-de-vivre with which he infused his characters, and to strive for better things in an oft-times dark world where perils beset us at every turn.
I learned some of my own story telling techniques from Stan Lee, although I certainly didn’t know it at the time. It was many, many years later that I understood those lessons learned at the master’s knee. I learned that characters are what drive story, not the other way ‘round. I learned that while action and excitement and danger pull in a reader, the dropping of a perfectly timed wisecrack is what will make that reader keep reading, because he just likes that character’s outlook. Because being able to crack wise in the face of adversity is something we’d all like to be able to do.
So thanks, Stan The Man, for all those years of entertainment and lessons in both life and storytelling. The world may be a bit darker without you, but we still have your legends to look up to, and your enthusiastic “Excelsior!” to keep us going.