When I discovered comic books in the late 1970s, I was immediately taken with DC titles. The reason might be quite simple: my favorite of my first three comics when recovering from a bad broken arm in hospital was Batman Family #19, probably because it was the thickest, offered more stories and featured more colorful characters than the other two (one of which was an issue of Amazing Spider-Man). I was squarely in the DC camp, and it would be a few years before a friend initiated me into Marvel and the House of Ideas.
Once I started reading Marvel titles, I immediately became aware of Stan Lee, even as a kid. He was unavoidable, permeating page after page. I remember his voice from Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends on TV. What struck me the most about the man — or how he and others presented him in various media — was hyperbole. His exaggeration and enthusiasm were his hallmarks, and he was definitely memorable as a result.
As the years passed, my perspective on Lee was that above all, he was a huckster (a term I use with respect in this context). He may have been a storyteller years before my birth, but by the time I was into comics, he was all about selling them, about promoting the brand. Marvel Comics was the circus, and Lee was the ringmaster. Ultimately, he reinvented himself, rebranded himself as an ambassador — for Marvel Comics/Entertainment, yes, but beyond that, for the medium of comics.
I never met the man, and honestly, I didn’t have any secret desire or drive to do so. Stan Lee, in my mind, was as much a character from the Marvel Universe as Peter Parker, Ben Grimm and Matt Murdock. His public persona was part of the fiction, part of the fantasy.
I read with interest, sadness and empathy over the past 16 months since the death of Joan, his wife of seven decades, how Mr. Lee’s life started to unravel. It quickly became clear just how integral a presence his wife was in his life. It was obvious that figures had entered his life looking to capitalize on his fame and wealth, to use him, to plunder his world. We saw cracks in the wonder and the fantasy, as his all-too-real tragedy was unfolding in the news. I couldn’t help but perceive a sort of parallel in my own family.
My father died last fall, just six months after my mother. Losing Mom was a blow, a development so unexpected that it left everyone around her reeling. Dad’s passing, as clichéd as it is to say, was a blessing. He was lost without her. When he learned of the cancer and was fighting it, he said he’d either have some more time with the kids, or he’d be reunited with Mom. It was what he wanted, and he was at peace at the end.
Given the travails in Lee’s life over the past year, I can’t help but see it as how his story was meant to end. Still revered, still respected and relieved to be reunited with one of the few people he loved more than his fans.