It was a day, just like any other, when the news of Stan Lee broke. I had just been playing the new PS4 Spider-Man game the night before and seen Stan himself make a cameo there. He was a short order cook in a cutscene where Peter and Mary Jane… talked.

Then the messages started coming in, fast and furious. Stan Lee had passed on. And there and then, came a day unlike any other, when Earth’s greatest fandoms found themselves united in a common cause. To handle the news of a legend’s passing, something that no single fandom could withstand. Marvel, DC, Transformers, Star Wars – no matter the fandom, there was a collective wave of grief as we all learnt that Stan Lee had passed on.

On 12 November, 2018, Stan Lee passed away. He was 95.

His real name was Stanley Martin Lieber

Stan Lee, born Stanley Martin Lieber, took on that pen name at first because he was embarrassed to be a comic book writer. He eventually took on Stan Lee as his real name, even as he went on to help create world famous characters like Spider-Man, Iron Man Thor, Hulk, Black Panther and Doctor Strange, as well as super teams like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.

But back in the pre-Internet era, when you had to go to Serene Centre or Coronation Plaza for your comics (or World of JJ), we only knew Stan Lee as the person behind Marvel Comics. And back then, it was amazing to see someone who might be part Asian, with the surname “Lee”, being credited and applauded as the source of all those ideas.

It gave this writer some hope, as unfounded as it may have been at the time, that he stood a chance of being a successful writer, even when all the famous English authors he ever read about were of Western origin.

Stan Lee’s unique brand of superhero drama

Although Marvel Comics characters had a relatively shorter history than DC Comics characters, they would equal their distinguished competition in fame.

Stan Lee’s secret? Blending superheroes with soap opera.

You weren’t just invested in the X-Men – you wanted to see whether former besties Professor X and Magneto could ever be friends again. You didn’t just want to see whether Thanos succeeded – you wanted to know if his unrequited love would ever be returned by Mistress Death. You weren’t only interested in Iron Man’s latest armour – you wanted to see whether he could overcome his alcoholism and himself.

Everyone was related to one another (either by blood, cloning, or being alternate dimension versions) – which upped the drama so much more. You discussed the latest developments in the comics – Magneto tore the adamantium out of Wolverine’s skeleton! – because you cared for them and because, well, it was melodrama dressed up in super powers.

Like many of the comic characters of his era, Stan Lee gave his characters alliterative names (Pepper Potts, anyone?) so that it would be easier for him to remember all of them. He even forgot Hulk’s name for a while, calling him Bob Banner for a period of time instead of Bruce Banner, leading to a retcon where the Hulk’s real name became Robert Bruce Banner.

He also added evocative descriptors to the comic book titles of his superheroes. It was the Amazing Spider-Man (or the Spectacular Spider-Man), the Invincible Iron Man, the Sensational She-Hulk.

True, it might have been a shortcut to remembering the characteristics and names of the ever-expanding roster of characters at the time.

But as a child, all this bombast made superheroes stand out more. They were easier to remember. You could rattle off everyone’s secret identity because it was designed to be easy to commit to memory. You instantly knew how to play act Hulk or Thor when you were at the playground, and everyone was on the same page.

And the name “Stan Lee” entered your mind, joining the ranks of superhero secret identities you had memorised.

An advocate of modern mythology

They say that comics are the equivalent of the myths of the modern era. As professor of comparative mythology Conrad Hyers wrote:

By myths, people regulate and interpret their lives and find worth and purpose in their existence…

For many who grew up with comics, that was where we learnt our morality and our sense of ethics. We also learnt it in school, from religion, and from our parents. But their morality wasn’t constantly tested in the same visceral and high-octane fashion seen in comic books.

Spider-Man was responsible to a fault – and his quote, “with great power must come great responsibility”, would forever remind us to do our best, to do what’s right, no matter the cost. Star-crossed lovers Professor X and Lilandra couldn’t be together because the latter was the empress of a galactic empire – she could not forgot her duty for love. Hulk was forever trying to control his dark side, showing us the importance of temperance and self-control.

These myths were more than just bedtime stories. This was the stuff that our characters were built on. We became the men and women we are today, because of what we read so long ago.

Making the unacceptable, acceptable

But before the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a hashtag that influencers leeched off to attempt to boost their popularity, fans of Marvel Comics were considered… geeks, in every pejorative sense of the word.

It was the hobby of the unwashed, socially awkward outcasts of society. It was an unacceptable and embarrassing hobby to have.

Then slowly, the world began to embrace all these superheroes, and our hobby became acceptable, mainstream, even desirable.

And before he passed on, we learnt that just like us, Stan Lee was also once embarrassed about his association with superheroes. In a recent interview with The Atlantic, he said:

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. And then I began to realize: Entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives.

It struck a chord with every true believer who read it. From the unacceptable to the beloved, Stan Lee had been on the same journey with us all this while in the comic book world. He had felt just as embarrassed, just as shy, just as afraid as we were.

But he eventually came to have great pride in his creations – and it showed in his ever enthusiastic cameos in Marvel media.

Cameos galore

And boy does his pride show! His cameos in Marvel movies are legendary, but such was the extent of his appearances in all forms of Marvel media that he was also in

  • Ultimate Spider-Man as recurring character Stan the Janitor (and later, Principal) (hope this isn’t a spoiler!)

  • Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994) as himself in the series finale

  • and even the recent PS4 Spider-Man game as the short order cook (wait for it)!

We know that he’s already shot his cameo for the fourth Avengers film, and it will be a tearjerking moment when we see his posthumous appearance on the big screen.

Thank you, Stan Lee. You made mine, and millions of others, Marvel. Excelsior!

 

More articles about Marvel Cinematic Universe by Marcus Goh:

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