The world just lost one of its greatest cultural icons and America one of its top cultural exports. Today, with his death at age 95, Stan Lee leaves behind a legacy that’s unparalleled not only its contribution to comic books and popular culture, but also in hope, fortitude and humanity.
A lot has been written and will be written today on Stan’s life – from eulogies that focus on his creative contributions, to those that reflect upon his passion for comic books, the sprawling universes he created, his life and his contributions to global popular culture. Most of those eulogies would perhaps be contextually more relevant and from people closer to him than the one you’re reading now – written by an Indy comic book writer/publisher in India.
But in that very fact, perhaps lies Stan’s greatest achievement; that there are people across the globe, from obscure parts of the world, to whom he was a living legend and the shaper of their childhood hopes and dreams. From California to Calcutta, from New York to Nigeria, children and adults recognize in equal measure, the distinct costumes and catchphrases of the superheroes he helped create.
Starting out at the bottom of the comic book publishing pyramid with Timely Comics, Stan Lee made his way up the ranks as it evolved into Marvel Comics. In the 50s, jaded by the existing state of comic books and ready to leave, he took to creating superhero characters that were flawed, entertaining and yet, ultimately human. Character flaws, addictions, teenage issues included – his roster of characters, some of which he created with the legendary Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, included the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, X-Men, Daredevil and Doctor Strange. He is also often credited with the creation of the shared universe format as well – lives, storylines and universes colliding – something that the MCU has perfected in the celluloid format.
In fact, for someone who had not really created a superhero tailored for the Indian market up until this decade, Lee enjoyed wide recognition in India. I suspect his MCU cameos that felt almost like a spotting game for kids and teens in theatres, had a wide role to play in it.
In 2013 he created an Indian Superhero ‘Chakra: The Invincible’ – a mystical Iron Man, Spiderman and Doctor Strange hybrid designed for kids and preteens. Chakra, while not his finest creation, is an entertaining addition in Stan’s long and accomplished career. Speaking to Indian comic book writer/illustrator Sreejita Biswas in an interview, Stan said, on similarities between Chakra and Peter that, “No I would never try to imitate Peter Parker, but I wanted to get a natural background and attitude for our young hero and it just seems like the logical way to do it.”
In fact, Chakra jumped the pages and made it to the screen as an animated film on Cartoon Network in 2013 and was optioned for a big screen production by Phantom Films. Now that Phantom Films is dissolved, and Stan Lee is no more, one can’t help but wonder if we just missed out on Stan’s first Bollywood cameo.
In another universe, who knows?
Marvel Comics’ and by extension Stan’s India connect perhaps goes even further back than Chakra – if one were to count the occasional cameos by gods of the Indian pantheon or even references of eastern mysticism that pepper Doctor Strange. It’s a pity that due to his ailing health, he could never make it as far as our country for some of the Comic Con India shows. Ever enthusiastic to connect with those who loved his work, he did send however across a numerous video messages for his India fans during Comic Cons over the years.
To many, including thousands in urban India, Stan Lee meant much more than the co-creator of iconic characters including Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Daredevil and the X-Men and the grand-daddy of Marvel Comics. He represented the joy of the painted word and the universal connect of the graphic art form. That his life, at least in the public eye, didn’t seem jaded by the ups and downs that come with artistic pursuits is a monumental achievement by itself. He was THE greatest ambassador for comic books and the multi country, multi-billion dollar juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a testament to his relentless push to make comic books a cross-platform pursuit.
Marvel Comics’ and by extension Stan’s India connect perhaps goes even further back than Chakra – if one were to count the occasional cameos by gods of the Indian pantheon or even references of eastern mysticism that pepper Doctor Strange.
However, Stan was, at the end of it, like most of us, human – and that comes with its flaws, imperfections, stories of selfishness and perhaps even of deceit. It is a sad, how towards the end, his life did become a bit of a circus show – with stories of exploitation by his close ones amidst his failing health.
Yet, in death as in life, he remains an inspiration, especially for those of us who chose to pursue the comic book art form as a passion or profession. Stan Lee’s life is a reminder that pursuit of happiness and joy in your work is not relegated only to the realm of motivational books and fictional stories.
Excelsior Stan! We’ll meet again, when the Avengers 4 rolls in and the crowd hoots and cheers at your cameo, like they would for Salman Khan.