Seven Singular Ways Stan Lee Changed the World

The late, great Stan "The Man" Lee.
The late, great Stan "The Man" Lee. Gage Skidmore at Flickr

When Stan Lee died on November 12, 2018, at the age of 95, it wasn't a surprise. Fans had known it was coming: His health had been declining; his beloved wife, Joan, had passed earlier in the year, and he was increasingly beleaguered with legal issues that were unbecoming of his legacy. For it’s an enviable and voluminous legacy that Stan “The Man” Lee leaves behind.

He was, after all, a visionary. To several generations of fans, he didn't just represent comic books and superheroes...that's what he was. His influence extends far beyond the four-color pages of the comic books with which he earned his fame. How, exactly, did Stan Lee change the world? In remembrance of “The Man” and his work, let us count the ways.

7. He Humanized Heroes
When Stan Lee came to Marvel, the company was tiny and struggling, not even yet called Marvel. Stan Lee may not have started Marvel, but he’s definitely responsible — with the help of fellow geniuses Kirby, Simon, et al. —for making Marvel what it is today. And he did it by bringing heroes down to earth. Prior to Stan Lee’s writing, most superheroes were just that: super. They were mythic, without much in the way of human foibles. When Stan Lee added that dimension, it opened up new vistas of readership and gave new readers more ways to connect to those characters. Superman was a monolithic force of good in a fictitious Metropolis; the Fantastic Four were a bickering family in Midtown Manhattan who just happened to have powers. It was the basic humanity of Marvel’s seminal super-team, frailties and failings and all, that drew readers to their adventures. And it didn’t stop there: Spider-man was just a poor orphan from Queens who lived with his elderly aunt. Daredevil was blind. The Hulk was a victim of his own rage, and Captain America was a man stranded in time. It was the human face of the heroes that allowed them to live long past the era that gave them birth. In making them more human, Stan Lee allowed superheroes to remain relevant, generation after generation.

click to enlarge TEAGUE BOHLEN
Teague Bohlen
6. He Used Big Words
There are a few pop-culture places that professional writers credit with extending their vocabularies when they were just kids — The Electric Company on PBS, Dungeons and Dragons, and yes, comic books. Especially Marvel comic books. And that means Stan Lee. Stan wrote pretty highbrow for the kid audience for which he was aiming — in part because he was also working to attract the intelligentsia in the ’60s, both students and educators alike. But Stan was never one to shy away from the big words — he’d include words that his own letterers had to look up. Just check the photo above: On the original page, above the art, they had to write down exactly how to spell the word “soliloquy” in order to use it in a panel caption. That’s Stan Lee’s diction in action; for all the superhuman power his stories showed readers, a strong sense of communication was the greatest power of all. Stan always ended his monthly columns with the sign-off "Excelsior!," which some translate to "ever upward" in Latin. It was certainly his philosophy — and if it meant readers had to run to a dictionary, all the better. 

5. Stan Lee Had a Hand in Every Medium
Kids of the ’70s and ’80s came to know Stan Lee's voice as the narrator of such pop-culture standards as the Marvel LPs that were all the rage, or the much-beloved cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. But those weren't Stan’s first forays outside of comic books and into other media: There were earlier cartoons in the 1960s, roughly animated but still-charming takes on Iron Man and the Fantastic Four, as well as the 1970s “Fireside” books put out by Simon and Schuster that were collections of older comic-book runs and original essays (and charming bombast) by Stan Lee himself. Also in the ’70s came the live-action Spideys, from the silent hero on Electric Company to the so-awful-it's-truly-amazing Spider-Man live-action TV series with Nicholas Hammond shooting rope-like webbing at some admittedly pretty uninspiring villains. Then came the much more successful TV version of The Incredible Hulk, and video-game tie-ins from the Spider-man Atari 2600 cartridge to the much more engrossing Questprobe games. By the ’90s, the mutants took over, with a popular X-Men cartoon, followed by the 2000 release of the X-Men movie in which comic-book storylines were finally being taken seriously by the big screen. That flick led to Spider-Man, which led to the cinematic universe we know now being possible. From comics to the literary world to television, video games and movies — none of it would be the same without Stan.

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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen