In Memoriam, Stan Lee

Stan Lee died today. His wasn’t exactly an untimely death, but it can’t not affect a person like me. Lee was the earliest and largest of my gods. The other two, from the start, were Stanley Kubrick and Roger Ebert. That probably sounds strange, but there it is; no denying that they were the first three to really open my interest in the capacities of the imagination. I owe a lot to him and his work. That’s not to downplay the importance of his best artistic collaborators (Schuster, Ditko) or the writers who took the baton from him and did better things (Claremont, Miller, Gerry Conway, Peter David). But the originating power lies with him.

Here’s an odd story. I met him once, privately, in an office, not at a convention or anything. Told him simply that I wanted to be a writer. He was just as energetic and enthusiastic and encouraging in person as he seems to be on the screen, and on the page. He gave me hope, respect, and well-wishes, and he took time out to do it when he really didn’t have any call to. I was just sixteen years old, some kid he didn’t know from a bar of soap, passing through the hallways of his building and seizing my chance to impose on him, to intrude on his day…

When I think back on so many of the avenues I have explored since then — first classical and early modern literature, then narrative theory, political theory, moral philosophy — I can trace the lines of influence back through the headline writers to the work of Stan Lee. Laughable, maybe, but still true. Ovid and Stevenson resonated with me, on first encounter, because of Lee’s early issues of The Incredible Hulk. In different ways, I found a path (independently, autodidactically) to Homer and Milton and Shakespeare through Lee’s creations. Early Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spider-Man: they were almost exclusively the literature of my childhood, and they led me into other worlds from my inescapable place in a tiny bush and beach town on the east coast of Australia, an hour’s drive along a dirt road to the nearest city.

That’s where I started out. Stan Lee’s inimitable characters were my compass. I have them with me even now, still in a box beneath my bed. And although the thesis I wrote for my PhD has only two writers named in the title (James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy) it’s Lee and his successors who serve as the crux between the two, being the subjects of the long central chapter that finds conceptual kinships between the Leatherstocking Tales and McCarthy’s Southwestern novels. So, in a sense, every stage of my journey (if it is indeed a journey) has been somehow directed by Stan Lee. He remains a god, in my eyes. What a loss.

Often, following the death of someone so influential, phrases such as “we will never see his like again” are doled out too quickly when they’re just not true. But Stan Lee was one of a kind, and in his case I’m certain that that overused phrase is apt.

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