Long before I’d heard of Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell, Verne, Otomo, Hornby and that bloke who wrote James Bond – there was Stan Lee. My earliest reading material, that I can remember, came in the form of comic books and those hard backed annuals that seemed to appear en masse every Christmas across the UK covering everything from Grange Hill to Look In. For me the most highly prized were any of the Marvel or DC annuals as they always reprinted back issue stories and would fill in the blanks for my favourite heroes from era’s I wasn’t alive for. Very specifically the ones I hoped Santa would source for me tended to be things like The Avengers, Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk as at the time their main sources of material to mine were the 60’s/70’s stories that Stan was responsible for. As my Grandmother would drag me around car boot sales every Sunday morning, on some wet, muddy race course or field in Nottinghamshire, the things I’d keep an eye out for were toys (Transformers, etc) but also old comics because we didn’t have the internet so the only way to trace Spider-Man’s history was through searching out old issues or buying the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe. My mums friends also had a knack for gifting me comics when they visited, which I graciously accepted with all the self control of Marv being electrocuted in Home Alone 2. One of my mums friends also worked in a comic shop so these sorts of things were more prevalent in our circles. Indeed, even the first time I ever met my own dad (long, shitnado of a story), I think I was 8, and he even gave me a bunch of Marvel Annuals from the 60’s and 70’s.
So it’s safe to say comic books have in some way been involved in many of the formative moments of my life and the news of Stan Lee’s passing today has hit me hard. To the point it’s almost surreal, if not entirely unexpected given the immense shift he put in over 95 years.
As much as I adored the tales he wove and the characters he created, it was Stan’s editorial approach that really hooked me into Marvel. Always one for a quick one liner, he pioneered the editorial text box, as “Smilin’ Stan”, with little quips to relay information that made not only the universe feel bigger – but also felt like he was speaking to you directly from the Marvel Bullpen. Not treating readers like children or customers, but like he was a pal. He upped this in the letters pages at the back of each issues, long before Twitter, Facebook and that Snapchat thing I still don’t understand gave you direct access to just about anyone on the planet, answering questions with humour that created a very personable feel. Giving writers and artists nicknames made them feel like friends, and he’d casually drop in names and mentions of Marvel staff like he was reading the letters to them. All in all it made you feel like were part of a fun club – the Merry Marvel Marching Band. This website is even named in homage to “Stan’s Soapbox”.
At school, where the ancient dingles running the UK education system force kids to endure “classical writers” who have little connection to them, I instead took much of my inspiration from comics when it came to writing – because my passion for it came from reading comic books. There was always a more personal voice to Marvel Comics, because of Stan, that sounded like the voice I had. Regular readers may be aware that I like to write as in a less straight style, and instead it’s like we are having a chat in the pub. That comes directly from Stan Lee. Instead of learning to understand storytelling themes from the likes of Shakespeare with Romeo and Juliet, for me it was Peter Parker and Mary Jane. The tragedy of Gwen Stacey occurred long before I was born, but Mary Jane having become Peter’s established partner when I got into comics being an early example of a very, very young Liam learning to appreciate how fictional characters are just as open to change moving forwards as real people. Something modern society could do well to be reminded of. Without Thor, I may not have been inclined to delve into Norse mythology in the school library, even though I was convinced the history books we had at Carrington Primary School were completely wrong because they didn’t wholly match up with the comics.
Stan created an alternative way to express and create mythology for people like me that would set fire to our imaginations and start a fire that would continue to burn into adulthood. You only have to look around you at the amount of comic book movies, people in nerdy t-shirts, how comic movies dominate Hollywood, and to see how much geek culture has taken root – Stan Lee was the driving force in that. In creating the Marvel Universe Stan became a gateway to other writers and artists, inspiring them to tell their own stories, and making me dream of telling my own. Whether it was the folk writing the Transformers comics, DC, Star Wars movies, TMNT and anything in between, the true impact of Stan Lee reached across everything and every time he appeared somewhere you couldn’t help but be swept up in his enthusiasm or his towering imagination.
Winning a No Prize was always a dream of mine and it was actually the first thing I always planned to ask Stan about if I ever met him. Which sadly I never had the pleasure of doing. With hindsight, in light of today’s heartbreaking news, I think I’d actually change that and just make sure I said thanks for all of the memories and the ways in which his work shaped my imagination. Oh, and also ask him to explain Norman Osborn’s hair. I am well aware that this article is a mostly an incoherent ramble, but a light in the night sky over Midgard has gone out and I only found out about it roughly an hour ago. So there’s a lot to process. Stan Lee didn’t create comics, but he is the person who bought them to me and for that I will always be hugely grateful. He was the very first creative person I knew existed, earned a reverence unlike anyone else I am aware of (other than Sir Brian Clough) and was the sort of person I dreamed of being. Stan created world eating giants, yet he was a giant in a class of pioneers. Not just in comics but in our culture at large with an impact on Movies, books, tv shows, art work and everything you can think has been in some way, large or small, inspired by this man. Not only that, but by all accounts he was a great fella who lit up a room and whose influence has touched so many true believers. Losing Stan Lee feels like losing a friend, even if I didn’t know him personally, as his voice was such a part of my life during many different periods, and it is a voice I will be sad not hear any more.
Excelsior, Stan. Thank you for everything – we’ll miss you.