A few thoughts and feelings in the wake of the passing of the great man himself. He lived a good, long life. He created universes. He redefined a genre. He saw things and did things most of never will. But for me he represented so much more.
Growing up without a father sucks sometimes. Without a strong male presence around ideas of toxic masculinity tend to creep in. When none of your friends have fathers either it tends to get worse.
You make an ideal up. A type of superman. Someone who’s ‘alpha male’. Someone who never gets it wrong, backs down or feels any emotion whatsoever. Someone who handles every situation thrown at them, easily. No tears, no tantrums.
At a very young age I had to have bloods taken (I was always a bit ill as a child) as a reward for ‘being brave’ my mother bought me a comic. I chose Wolverine because he looked cool. I was hooked.
I ended up buying every new issue when it came out. I expanded into getting X-men annuals, comics, Spiderman, watching the cartoons in the nineties and enjoying the move to the big screen nearly twenty years ago with the first X-men. I even drew the comic book characters over and over and tried to design my own. At one point I wanted to be Stan Lee, inventing characters to share with the world.
Why was I so involved? In all honesty the characters jumped from the page. They spoke to me. In darker moments they were my imaginary friends. The heroes Marvel created were real. They had problems.
Hulk and Wolverine both had anger issues. Wolverine also had a troubled past. Spiderman couldn’t seem to get his life together and make it work to balance his personal and (what he saw as) wider social responsibilities. Captain America was suddenly thrust into a different time period than the one he grew up in. Rogue couldn’t touch anyone and therefore felt unloved (which teenager can’t relate to that?) Professor X could read minds but had to limit his ability lest it drive him insane and was confined to a wheelchair.
Even the bad guys had compelling back stories. Magneto believed humans to be evil having survived the holocaust. Loki suffers an inferiority complex to his brother (you would too if your brother looked like Chris Hemsworth-sorry Liam and Luke!) and many more such as Kingpin or Bullseye suffered traumatic childhoods.
I’ve heard it said that Stan intended for his characters to represent different aspects of the human experience. Adolescence, rage, alienation from others, loneliness. It was all there to read for us and it made some of us feel a bit better.
Some were born different, such as X-Men’s mutants, and others were suddenly thrust into the limelight through an altercation with a radioactive spider or a Gamma explosion. The stories written had social relevance. X-men once ran with a story paralleling the AIDS epidemic I grew up with where mutants were affected by a mysterious disease much like people at the time believed AIDS was a condition only affecting homosexuals.
Arresting stories with a sci-fi/fantasy twist. That’s what comics were. ‘Fairy tales for adults’ Stan once called them. But they were most important to me when I wasn’t an adult. It was when I was learning to be an adult. Why?
Marvel’s heroes didn’t always get it right. They failed sometimes. They faltered. Wolverine in particular struggled against his internal animal nature but the man in him always won. He did what he believed to be right in the end. It’s a powerful message for a teenager growing up with no real positive male influences.
It’s okay to fail. It’s okay to not get it right. And it’s okay to cry. I remember reading several storylines where a strong, sometimes super-powered male character would cry. Spiderman broke down and clung to Mary-Jane in one powerfully drawn image which remains with me to this day.
Stan Lee created some of the most relatable, flawed but heroic depictions of men I have ever read-including great literary works and dramatic movies. I’m not ashamed to admit I cried when I heard the news of his passing. Or when watching the movie Logan. The reason for the former because I never met him or got to thank him for what he did for me. The latter because it’s the only movie sadder than The Green Mile. I cry watching that to. Every. Damn. Time.
The man himself was heroic, too. Humble, articulate, funny and he genuinely connected with his fans. Money never seemed to be part of his original business model and during interviews he always appeared shocked at the level of interest and popularity his creations had gained since their inception.
Stan’s lasting message from his stories which resonates as strongly now as it ever did was: ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ If only our current world leaders had read more comics when they were young. I think the stories would have stayed with them and we’d be living in a better world right now.
Excelsior, Stan. You made all the best male role models in my life with your imagination. I’ll carry their stories with me and try to help others by example. And I’ll let them know it’s okay to fail, ask for help or struggle sometimes. And that everyone can be a hero.