My God, if you were a Nice Jewish Boy “afraid of his own shadow,” a kid whose mother had to literally drag him to school because he was too shy to have other kids look at him when he got on the school bus, who would spend countless hours alone in his room, too afraid to go outside where there would be people who, again, might look at him or worse, talk to him, giving him an opportunity to say something stupid, to do the wrong thing, whatever the “thing” was that you were supposed to be doing, who spent most days practically blind with anxiety, or, alone in his room, having crashed from hours of that sustained anxiety into a catatonic stupor, the message was hard to resist: wear a costume, adopt a persona, and you can participate in the world.
Like most superhero tropes, the idea probably originated with Superman, but I don’t know; I didn’t read DC comics. In my neighborhood (a suburb, stereotypical home of comic book obsessives), we were Marvel fans, and the appearance of a DC comic was a sign that you had reread your Marvels so many times that you were desperate for something to hold you over until the new issues came out, or until you could get to the Englishtown Flea Market on the weekend and stock up on ink-stained back issues from the table that guy kept near the butcher stall (if you were reading something from a grossly inferior publisher like Charlton you were in a state approaching pathos). So while it probably wasn’t Stan Lee’s idea, he was the messenger, of this and many messages so resonant to a sensitive boy’s psyche that in retrospect, I think, with the exception of my parents, he had the greatest influence on my conception of the world and the possibilities of my place in it.
That first paragraph was me. Multiply it by millions, and you get an idea of what the big deal was about Stan Lee, and why his death has generated reverential mourning from a remarkably wide swath of the populace. Talk to me for five minutes, and you’ll get an idea of why critics claim that comic books retard the developing mind. But whichever side you’re leaning towards, if you only know his name from The Avengers franchise, you’re missing the point, almost entirely. As with most movies, the books were better; the source material, rife with Lee’s examinations of culpability in power dynamics, has largely been distilled down to the action elements, and whatever philosophical broad strokes have been retained serve only to add a patina of depth to what are little more than professional wrestling scenarios writ large. And as with most revolutionary gestures from long-past decades, it’s impossible to register the extent of the change that originated with Lee’s concept of comic book characters suffering internal conflicts often more debilitating than the external. Yes, as boys we loved the mad combat between morphological extremes, those ridiculous costumes such battles necessitated, the fact that every single woman seemed to measure 36-24-36. But this was just incidental sensationalism. What stayed with us, what formed us, was the morality.
Repeatedly, we received the messages: Any gift is a burden, and its energy must be harnessed for good. The most powerful are the least appreciated, and even in the most trying of circumstances, virtue must prevail over praise. And that great phrase, first attributed to Voltaire, later to Ben Parker, uncle to a troubled Queens teenager who, bitten by a radioactive spider, assumes arachnid-like abilities: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Those messages… My juvenile dreamer self let them fuel my greatest geek fantasy, that one day, it would transpire that I indeed had a gift, and I swore to the nebulous powers of the cosmos that once the gift was exposed, I would never lose sight of my humility in the face of that greatness. My teenage self eventually reckoned that I would never have the skills requiring me to live by any of these dictates, so, better to move on to Vonnegut. And my adult self realizes now that the resonance of those themes wasn’t about the power aspect at all. It was the complexities of responsibility and how I might deal with them, given the chance. I had been knocked silly by my first exposure to profundity.
Of course, the writing was often execrable (one of the reasons I finally abandoned comics for the novel in my teens), but the ideas. Surely there’s a crucial lesson to be learned in Stan Lee’s career about the relationship between invention and necessity, but strict deadlines can only account for so much; in terms of characters, quantitatively, Lee is up there with Dickens, and as far as sheer narrative invention goes, Lee is up there with…Dickens. And the empathy. You can read Lee’s corpus as one long, uninterrupted ode to the outsider, and while I’m hesitant to align him with Camus, I challenge anyone to find a writer who explored the theme in a more sustained, sympathetic, multi-dimensional manner. Much critical hay has been made about this being Lee’s channeling of the existential dilemmas facing Jews in the Twentieth Century. And, that’s correct. But all I knew as a kid was that Lee created characters displaying both the traits I saw in myself (loneliness, the desire for social acceptance, good qualities gone unacknowledged) and the ones I wished to one day have (physical and emotional strength, intelligence, will, the ability to resolve the aforementioned traits). To a one, every guy I’ve ever met who didn’t obsessively read Marvel comics as a kid said they had never felt, as the term used to go, like they “were on the outside looking in.” But if you shared a shyness akin to mine, there was a monumental power in the concept of an ethical isolation, of good men ostracized by forces beyond their control, a state infused with meaning because it was providing you with a righteous fight for your life. This is what I took from Marvel, that all of us yet to find our way still have worth as yet unrealized, and once realized, the world awaits. It was both balm and incentive, escapism and a gateway drug.
And despite having found a costume (pseudonym, same thing) and a way to modulate the shyness, I can’t fully accept that it’s long gone. I suffer occasionally from that most ludicrous of middle-age maladies, the impossible wish of return to a halcyon moment of youth, and while I’d rather gnaw off a limb than move back to my hometown, I sometimes long to experience, one last time, a childhood ritual. Once a month, my mother would pull into the 7-11 parking lot, say, “Hurry up!” and I would run inside, a couple of bucks in my pocket, and head for the comic books. They were displayed on a metal spinner rack, four sides to the rack, maybe six or seven comics per side. In my memory, the rack towers above me, its ominous power akin to the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I would turn it slowly, the thing squealing like a weather vane, and feel the remarkable visceral wallop of the covers. For a few minutes, I was free of my fears, and literally stunned with exhilaration. Then my mother would honk, I’d pay for my selections, and run back to my place in the back seat, whereupon my brother would do something typical, like suddenly stand over me and fart in my face.
Years later, Marvel started publishing Omnibuses, doorstop hardback collections of classic reprints. I bought the first volume of the Fantastic Four, then Spider-Man, then X-Men, a Tales to Astonish, another Fantastic Four, another Spider-Man. As each came in, I leafed slowly through every page, then put it on a shelf. Every time, I just couldn’t find what I was looking for: the thrill I had felt in the 7-11. It irritates me that I still haven’t found the resolve to give the books away, and that I still mourn for sensations long dead. But I take some solace in knowing I won’t turn out like one of those aging guys that still carry around a copy of Catcher in the Rye.
And that certain memories remain. When I was thirteen, I waited in line at a comic book convention to get Lee’s autograph. When it was my turn, there was no glow, no chorus of angels, just a kindly old man (fifty-something was ancient then) at a desk, urging me forward. I gave him a piece of blank paper. I couldn't tell him what his work meant to me. At the time, I couldn’t comprehend what the work meant to me, or that one day I would understand that more than any other artist, he nourished my imagination, reinforced what I suspected might be good about myself, and made me believe that I could find a strength that seemed meant only for others. That I would come to insist, to anyone who still demonized the work he’d devoted his life to, and despite whatever ugliness he might have contributed to in the world (the legal disputes with Jack Kirby’s estate, personal issues I’d rather not hear about, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer), his influence is incalculable, and much of whatever grace still exists in American culture can be traced back to his work.
When he gave me the autograph, I said a quiet, “Thank you.” And Stan Lee smiled.
Steve Danziger is a writer living in New York.