Ethan Rice | Contributor
On Nov. 12, 2018, Stanley Martin Lieber died at the age of 95. Better known by his pen name, Stan Lee, the comic book pioneer leaves behind an iconic legacy the scope of which can only be matched by a handful of artistic titans.
Junior professional writing major Tucker White noted that despite working in a "niche" medium, at the point of his death Lee was probably the world's most recognizable living writer.
In the 1960s, along with fellow visionaries Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee laid the framework for the Marvel Comics universe, creating an ensemble of heroes including The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Avengers, the X-Men and many more.
He would go on to become the public face for the Marvel Comics brand. As Marvel movies began to dominate the box office, his popular cameos elevated him to an instantly recognized pop culture icon. But to understand how Stan Lee created such a massive legacy of characters, one must understand the creative process that drove his writing.
"If you want an audience to find meaning, they have to understand a character even if they don't share their experience," said theatre technician Terrance Volden.
"The heroes didn't ask for what they were given," senior theatre major Emma Wagoner reflected on the effectiveness of Lee's characterization. "They have to
decide what is the right way and the wrong way to use it. They had struggles in their life before and often their powers made their lives worse. It made Marvel into a real world with real problems, more diverse and more relatable than a lot of what they were competing with."
That commitment to authentic protagonists defined not by their powers and mask, but by the person they were beneath it, revolutionized the comic industry. It almost didn't happen. Forty years old and losing patience with what he viewed as an increasingly stagnant field, Lee was on the verge of leaving the field all together. Seeing he had nothing to lose, his wife Joan encouraged him to simply write the stories he wanted to tell. He took this to heart, and the result was decades of heroes full of flaws, mistakes and self-doubt.
Lee's commitment to telling honest stories even in an outlandish world didn't stop with the heroes. He filled his world with complex antagonists touched on themes and issues pulled straight from the news happening just outside his window. When faced with criticism for the "moralizing" within his company's series, he responded that, "A story without a message is like a man without a soul . . . Just because something is for fun doesn't mean we have to blanket our brains when we read it!"
Late in his life, he recalled that at first he was embarrassed that he was writing comics while his friends built bridges or earned medical degrees. But he would go on to realize the power of entertainment to uplift the human spirit, and it was that belief that powered his career to tell comic stories that were more than the sum of their expectations.
When Stan Lee died, the world lost a genius, but he left it a little more "marvelous" because he was here. His legacy is more than the characters he created, who will keep his name alive long after he is gone. At its purest, he represents the inspiration he has passed down to generations of artists and is sure to do the same for generations to come: That speaking truth through honest storytelling can move an audience to look up to the heavens and aspire towards a better tomorrow.