The world has lost a comic book legend. Stan Lee, the co-creator of Marvel and every fanboy’s favorite cameo, has passed at the age of 95.
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Imagine building an entire universe that people love, worship, and consume on a daily basis. Stanley Lieber started Marvel in the 1960s. Collaborating with Jack Kirby, Lee created some of the most iconic superheroes the world has seen. Not because the heroes were powerful and unbreakable, because he made them flawed, with tempers and depression. He made them more human for the reader.
I have only lived in a world with Stan Lee. He was there when I was a kid, and I consumed his comics daily, weekly, and monthly, from Fantastic Four to Incredible Hulk. Believe it or not, there was a time when reading these comic books, like wearing a backpack with two straps, was not the cool thing to do. I would eagerly await each issue, to take me away from my daily problems (as many as I could have at age 10) and escape, if just for 30 minutes. I wanted to be Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, or Tony Stark. More importantly, I started to realize that I wanted to write and tell stories like this.
Spider-Man is one of the most iconic superheroes of all time. Lee and Ditko introduced him to the world in August of 1962. I was still a ways away from birth, and a long way away from seeing him on The Electric Company and then finally on the big screen. Peter Parker is all of us, at least those who read. He was a shy, nerdy high school kid with a quick wit and genius IQ. Ditko and Lee created a character that would change all of us. It changed how we read comics, how we consumed media, and ultimately how we watch a superhero movie. As a kid and teen, Lee had a direct effect on me, and nothing was better than reading his letters at the end of the comics each month. He built his community with Dear Editors letters and with things as simple as crediting inkers, writers, and pencillers. He was a pioneer with those innovations into comics.
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As I grew older, I started to leave the comic world. I had to get out and experience different things in my life. I never lost the love; it just shifted to movies and tv shows. As a young adult, I was more into the darker DC comics, partly because of my love of Batman.
Marvel at that time was evolving. They were selling various characters to different companies to try to stay afloat. One important purchase was Spider-Man by Sony. Sony would go on to produce two great Spider-Man movies with Tobey Maguire. They shattered the box office and brought Marvel back into the game. Something new was starting to bubble up. Stan Lee transformed himself into an icon, not just for his comic work, but also because of his cameos.
We had seen Stan Lee our whole lives, including a brief appearance in the TV show Incredible Hulk, which might have sparked something in his head and with future writer/directors. I have had a love affair with Kevin Smith movies my whole life. He had seemed to do exactly what I wanted to do but never could. In 1995, he made the movie Mallrats, and cast his idol, Stan Lee, into the movie as Stan Lee. Lee helped the central character to find his balance while answering annoying questions. It got Stan Lee back into the spotlight, and praise for him started to flow again. And then there was a light bulb.
With properties spread all over Hollywood in 2000, Stan Lee made his first cinematic cameo appearance in X-Men. This became his introduction to my kids’ lives. I became a father in 2003, and this was when all the cameos started happening:
Spider-Man (2002): He saved a little girl when Green Goblin showed up and dropped debris on crowd.
Daredevil (2003): He is saved by a young Matt Murdock.
Hulk (2003): He shows up as a security guard with the original Hulk, Lou Ferrigno.
I could list them all, but there are 56 of them. Here are a few of my favorites.
Iron Man (2008): Lee is mistaken for Hugh Hefner.
Amazing Spider-Man (2012): He listens to classical music with headphones as a fight rages behind him.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Lee is a military vet, drunk on Asgardian liquor.
Deadpool (2016): Lee is a Strip Club DJ.
I could go on and on listing cameos; the point is that they are what my son remembers about Stan Lee. Every time Lee’s cameo happens, he turns to me with the biggest smile on his face, like he found an Easter egg in the movie. He is so excited to tell me about it that I have to calm him during the film and wait till we are done. It is always the first thing he says about the movie when we exit. And yes, he knows what Stan Lee means to me and others, but to have a connection like that between a father and son is priceless.
At 95 years of age, Stan Lee had lived a full life, even though reports of abuse and legal difficulties marred his last few years. But for me, he will always be the person who let me explore my mind. He took me to other worlds where I met characters that are still relevant today, if not more popular. He developed characters like Black Panther because he was someone who had had enough of the norm in comics. He was someone who always seemed to be working and creating, because he truly loved his craft and his community. Iconic is not a big enough word to describe him. He was EXCELSIOR!