Stan Lee was always recognized as the guy who wrote Spider-Man. Not the Fantastic Four. Not the Hulk. Not the X-Men, or Iron Man, or Doctor Strange, Black Panther, or the Avengers. “Nope,” he wrote in a foreword to one of his books. “It’s always ‘Aren’t you the one who wrote Spider-Man?’”
Stan had a theory for why he was recognized for Spider-Man more than any of his other heroes: it was because of his humanity. “He never has enough money,” Stan continued. “He’s constantly beset by personal problems, and the world doesn’t exactly applaud his deeds. In fact, most people tend to suspect and distrust him.”
“In short, he’s a lot like you and me.”
I don’t disagree with him. Long before I became absorbed into the world of Marvel, superheroes, villains, and amazing fantasies, I was just a kid on my elementary school playground, my daydreams limited only to the far reaches of my imagination. It was on that playground where I saw other kids going bam, pow, and ka-blooey with their colorful action figures, one of them wearing red and blue spandex covered in webbing and a spider symbol. I pointed to the figure, and I asked them “Who’s that?” The kids all laughed in unison. “That’s Spider-Man, dummy,” one of them piped to me. “You’ve never heard of him?”
I didn’t know about him then, but as the years passed I learned much more about him and became completely enamored by his story. I read the original comic where he made his debut appearance in 1962’s “Amazing Fantasy #15” and became heartbroken by the loss of his Uncle Ben, but touched when he realized his mistakes and promised to set out and be better. I felt excitement as I watched him battle incredible enemies such as the energetic Electro, the multi-metal-limbed Doctor Octopus, the ghastly Mysterio, the brutish Venom, and of course the menacing Green Goblin. I was crushed when I not only saw the love of his life, Gwen Stacy, killed on the fateful Brooklyn Bridge but killed by his own webbing no less when he tried to save her but accidentally snapped her neck. And I felt resolution years later when he found new love in the breathtaking Mary Jane Watson and had moved on to start a family with her.
Spider-Man was my introduction to the Marvel universe, but when I learned how big and expansive it truly was, I was nearly overwhelmed. I quickly became absorbed by all of Stan Lee’s stories and learned about the many subjects that he touched upon. I read the Incredible Hulk and learned how dangerous it was to inhibit your emotions. I read about Daredevil and learned that your disability doesn’t define you, and in some ways, it can embolden you. I read about Doctor Strange and learned that when you lose one gift, sometimes it opens up a path to receive another. I read the X-Men and learned that our differences are nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. In many ways, it is our very strength and represents the best humanity has to offer.
Stan Lee’s superheroes and stories have touched many lives – my own included. It becomes nearly impossible not to become enamored by his stories, or the person who created them.
But the truth was Stan was not a superhero. Far from it. Throughout his life, there was much argument over how much of a hand he really had in his characters and for sometimes hogging the spotlight from his fellow co-creators. Comic book legend Jack Kirby, who co-created the Fantastic Four and the X-Men alongside Lee, even went so far as to claim that he’s “never seen Stan write anything.” And artist Steve Ditko arguably had just as much a hand in creating Spider-Man as much as Lee did. Yet, you might be surprised to find out that he also died earlier this year to a significantly lesser tribute.
And then there are the even further complications of his last years on Earth. In July 2017, Stan lost his wife Joan died due to stroke complications. In April earlier this year, The Hollywood Reporter published an expose on Lee suffering from elder abuse from several associates looking to gain control over his assets, including one Keya Morgan whom he filed a restraining order against in August. Later, The Daily Mail published a story claiming that Lee repeatedly sexually harassed the nurses that came to take care of him by asking them to join him in the shower, walking around naked, and requesting sexual favors. Then, just as quickly as the story broke, it faded from memory. I have no idea whether those rumors are true or not. I pray they are not.
I say all this not to tarnish his legacy, but to be honest about it. Stan was a comic-book visionary, a passionate storyteller and a gargantuan pop-culture icon. He will no doubt be among history’s greatest creators, not unlike Walt Disney with animation or Alfred Hitchcock with the movies. And like these men, he had a complicated legacy with his success – one that should not be ignored or skipped over. How people react to that context is up to them. All I can do is speak for myself, and I know for a fact that Stan Lee’s characters and stories have had a profound impact on my life and the person that I have become – regardless of the confused, flawed human being who is behind them.
I will say this: regardless of what you may feel of Stan Lee or his history, I hope you remember and appreciate his many contributions to the entertainment industry. His stories have been compelling, thought-provoking, and relevant to the real world. His characters have been memorable, dazzling, and relatable. And the impact he’s left on the comic-book and movie scene has been mighty, uncanny, incredible, spectacular, fantastic, even amazing.
Stan Lee has passed, but his heroes live on. They will always live on. I cried this weekend while revisiting Spider-Man 2, realizing that the most profound thing about Peter Parker wasn’t his spider powers, his wall-crawling, web-slinging, or his Spider-sense. It was the fact that he was a person, and despite his personal troubles and issues, he was always trying to do the right thing for everybody – despite not knowing them or what they go through themselves.
I hope as time passes, people will remember that sentiment. That with many gifts comes much giving. That with our many talents comes the duty of sharing it with others. And yes, the lesson that has stuck with me all these years and will carry me for many more – with great power comes great responsibility.
Thank you, Stan. For everything.
– David Dunn