November 12, 2019 marked the first anniversary of Stan Lee’s death, and it’s natural for all of his fans to feel a little sadness. Even though he passed away just a few weeks shy of his 96th(!) birthday, it still feels like he was taken too soon. Perhaps its because after a lifetime of promoting the comic book medium and its potential to shape people, young and old, he finally got his due. Yet, in the ten years before his passing, Stan Lee became one of the most recognizable faces in all of cinema. (Yes, Martin Scorsese, cinema.) His cameos in the Marvel films made him a fan-favorite and helped him continue to promulgate his message of how we’re all superheroes, if we want to be.
Like another childhood icon for people of a certain age, Mister Rogers, Stan Lee was ultimately a force for good in the culture. Some comics creators, like Alan Moore, blame Lee for the mistreatment of his fellow artists like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko. Yet, this is unfair. As the unofficial ambassador of comic books for decades, Lee was fighting for ground in the war for the culture’s attention. Remember, comic books were seen as only funny books for kids and “grown male nerd childs” (as comedian Marc Maron said months ago). As comics’ most famous pitchman, Stan Lee made it okay for people to like comic books. Anyone aware of the history of comics knows that Watchmen by rival DC, changed how people looked at the genre.
Yet, Lee maintained the attitude that stories didn’t have to be cynical or dour to still be artful. His many cameos in Marvel films that uphold that ethos is a just reward for standing firm that comic stories are a force for good.
How the Stan Lee Cameo Came to Be
Stan Lee often told the story about how he was ready to quit Marvel Comics because he didn’t like the stories he had to write. On the advice of his late wife, he decided to try at least one book that was the sort of story he wanted to tell. The result of that was Fantastic Four #1. He and his collaborators created a universe full of relatable heroes with real-world problems kids (and teens and adults) could identify with. After he left comic book writing and editing behind, he moved out to Hollywood in order to promote comic book projects to studios. He had some success, specifically with the dozens of cartoons based on Marvel characters. He also helped get the Incredible Hulk TV series off the ground. (The made-for-TV movie The Trial of the Incredible Hulk, co-starring Daredevil, also featured the first live-action Stan Lee cameo!)
When 2000’s X-Men was in production, the filmmakers insisted that Stan Lee make a cameo. He ended up appearing in a scene on a beach, when a newly mutated Senator Kelly emerges from the ocean. Later, producer Avi Arad basically forced Sam Raimi to put Stan Lee in the first Spider-Man film. (Though Raimi chose to put Lee in both sequels). From there, Stan Lee became the good luck charm for Marvel movies. He showed up in the Hulk films, Daredevil, The Fantastic Four, and all the MCU films. Fans who read his stories, his weekly “soapbox,” or heard his cartoon introductions knew Stan Lee. Today, a whole new generation of fans know him from his many cameos in the films. On the first anniversary of Stan Lee’s death, we should remember that, like his characters, the man is now immortal.
The First Anniversary of Stan Lee’s Death Is Not a Time For Mourning, but Celebration
Losing people is always hard, and the grief never really goes away. Sometimes, losing a pop culture hero like Stan Lee can even hurt more than losing people you know. Those quasi-fictional celebrities rarely let you down like real-world humans do. Still, I have to imagine that Stan Lee wouldn’t want his fans to mourn his loss. Rather, he’d want them to celebrate his and his collaborators’ achievements. He would want fans to celebrate the characters and their stories. Finally, he’d want us to spend our energy not feeling sad but putting more joy into the world. Like Mister Rogers and his famous “look for the helpers” quote, Stan Lee left us with words of wisdom. “That person who helps others simply because it should or must be done, and because it is the right thing to do, is indeed without a doubt, a real superhero,” he said, in a quote immortalized in the credits for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
The legacy we need to remember on the first anniversary of Stan Lee’s death is not the universe he helped create. Nor is it the way he championed the comic book medium when so many dismissed it as low art. Rather, we should remember that Stan Lee wanted to bring joy and comfort to people’s lives. He loved hearing about how his work resonated with people, often inspiring them to follow their own passions to create. He was one of the few voices of his generation that said being different isn’t just okay, it’s what makes one extraordinary. We’ll miss Stan now that he’s gone. But so long as what he stood for continues to thrive in the hearts of artists and fans, he’ll live on.
What are you thinking about on the first anniversary of Stan Lee’s death? Share your thoughts, memories, or what he inspired you to create in the comments below. Nuff said, true believers.
Featured image by Gage Skidmore via Flickr
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.