JAs low as Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and humble Bruce Banner was blinded by gamma rays, so every Stan Lee enthusiast has a story to tell. One moment they are just another puny schoolkid. The next – ka blam! – they have been chosen. They meet a comical glowing radioactive substance on the bottom rack of the newsagent or watch the dentist's waiting room – and from then on their lives have changed. Inside the blankets muscular freaks of nature tackle the biggest problems of the galaxy. And yet, crucially, it always felt like these costumed titans were not so different from the simple school children who loved them.
Or, to put it in a different way, for a generation of British fans who grew up in the seventies and eighties, Marvel was the joy-equivalent of Beatlemania. Marvel cleaned up the cobwebs with the same rebellious power as Twist and Shout or I want to hold your hand. It was the shock of the new, an undiluted explosion of pop culture that changed the Technicolor world. Today, the Marvel universe extends to merchandise, theme parks and a seemingly endless collection of tent-pole Hollywood blockbusters. But then the kingdom was largely limited to a weekly selection of superheroes. That was completely fine. We were raised on Noddy, Blue Peter and the TV test card. Those characters alone were almost too rich for our taste buds.
We knew who was responsible. The man was never someone who praised. Stan Lee became our Willie Wonka, our PT Barnum, our Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. From time to time he would show his grinning face. But mostly he was hard at work, setting up his writers' team of writers and illustrators and his super group of unfriendly cheerful giants and soulful silver aliens in use.
Daredevil, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, the Submariner: there were so many names that you struggled to keep up. So you had to choose your favorites and stay with them through thick and thin. For years I have maintained a subscription for both Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk. My last name was scribbled in pencil at the top of each song and stayed behind the counter every week at the newsagent. These strips are sold with a sales price of 7 p each. Even in childhood, I found this an absurd good value. I once wrote Stan Lee to thank him. I do not think he ever wrote back.
Lee, born as Stanley Lieber with Jewish immigrant parents, started at the bottom of the pulp magazine and filled the ink bottles at Timely Comics in New York. He later became a brand name, a moloch, a one-man industry, with everything that this entails. On the page, for public consumption, he was always "Stan the Man" or "Smilin & Stan," at the same time loving uncle and creative dynamo. But from the backstage stories came about a less edifying alter ego. It was said that Lee was given the honor, stole fortunes, and important employees – such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – relegated to insignificant bit players. Everybody and everything was corn in his factory, first reviving his current reputation as the most influential popular artist of the 20th century and then polishing.
How influential was Lee? Where does one start? You can measure his success in terms of bums on chairs and money on the couch. The films of the Marvel Comics Universe have raised and counted about $ 11 billion. Lee's own net worth was estimated at about $ 80 million. Except that none of this had been possible without the stories themselves – without stories that unfolded with the power and speed of cinematic storyboards and which were tuned in a special way to the tensions of contemporary America (whether it is Vietnam, civil rights or the threat of nuclear destruction)).
Ultimately, of course, it all comes back to the stories. If the west was America's biggest fundamental myth, then Lee's Marvel was the modern legend. Here, in all its glory Day-Glo, we had a fictional universe next to the table of Mount Olympus and King Arthur, full of heroism and fear, courage and self-doubt. Although there had been costumed do-gooders before Lee joined (straight edge Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne with a roaring collar), his characters felt different. As documented in Michael Chabon's novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, these were fantasies invented by outsiders. They were a cerebral Jewish immigrant version of heroism in which resentment, fear and neurosis were just as much part of the package as power and patriotism – and sometimes even more.
There was a darkness and a nuance for the best Marvel characters. The Incredible Hulk, bless him, is a Jungian case study about steroids, who are constantly at war with his shadow. Spider-Man is a kind of armed adolescence that sprays sticky liquid on the four walls, while Ben Grimm (also called The Thing) is made by body dysmorphia, a poetic soul trapped in the shield of a muscle-bound roughneck. These men (the biggest failure of Marvel is that it mainly did men) have the power to turn the world upside down. But they also seem as cursed as blessed.
Of course I kept my Marvel subscription for years, because the price first rose to 8p, and then to double digits. And then, just as naturally, I let it lapse – on the way to music, big books and the storm of adolescence. Except that in the week of Lee's death, I realize that nobody ever really goes further – love first marks you forever. All those years I have at the very most said that the first great adventure story I read was The Lord of the Rings, and the first big teen portrait was The Catcher in the Rye – which is what nonsense now turns out to be. It was the Silver Surfer, Spider-Man and all the others too. Marvel taught me how to read, how to think. Possibly still to this day. Show me a shiny cover of John Buscema and I start drooling.
"If you want to send a message, call Western Union," said Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn, a man who believed that popular entertainment is dying when it becomes a lecture. And yet, looking back from the middle-age perspective, it feels that Marvel is sending a beautiful glorious message to the tiny children who have disappeared into the universe just before the hormones strike. It tells them that they are indeed superior powers. That they can influence the world, that maturity is an adventure. But it also says that, guess what, your life will still be a mess. Your increased speed and strength will bring a whole series of new problems and that obtaining great strength brings a great responsibility.
In that case, the best way to act is to be good and friendly. Fight injustice with every spin. Raising people when you see that they are in need. Listen to the angels of your better nature. That way you can also follow the greatest heroes of Marvel, whether it is Spider-Man, Daredevil or Stan Lee itself.