Yesterday we saw the passing of comics giant Stan Lee. With the possible exception of George Lucas, Lee’s influence on American pop culture was arguably unrivaled–and you’d need a damn good argument against it. You can’t open a web browser, turn on the TV, or walk down the street without seeing at least one of Lee’s creations.
Like George Lucas, Stan Lee lost control of the multimedia empire he founded. Unlike Lucas, he was never bitter about it. Lee remained publicly upbeat until the end. Such unflagging hope should recommend him for sainthood, considering the state of the industry he left behind.
It’s a crowning irony that comic book properties have reached the height of their popularity as comic books themselves sink to their lowest depths. The American comics industry as we know it was conceived in New York by a bunch of nice, hard-working Jewish boys in the prewar years.
The country was on the road to recovery from the Great Depression. We had a global menace to unite behind. Lee’s early work embodied the scrappy determination of the time. Sure, the chips were down, and the deck was stacked against us, but we’d win despite the odds because we had to.
What Lee and his fellow creators couldn’t have anticipated was said best by a now A list character from rival DC Comics: “Victory has defeated you.”
After decades of parents dismissing their sons’ four-color funny books as silly wastes of time, the manifest and pervasive silliness of the world beyond the fourth wall makes the campiest 1970s Spider-Man story seem like Crime and Punishment.
Just look at the comics industry itself. Creators with Lee’s plucky exuberance and wholesome vision are nowhere to be found. Say what you want about Stan Lee–actually, don’t, because it’s unmanly to attack those who can’t defend themselves–his characters exemplified virtue in a way we simply don’t see anymore; not in comics, not in the movies they spawned, and sadly, not in our neighborhoods.
“With great power comes great responsibility” has become “Power is an end in itself.”
These many years, comic books have been a wasteland of propagandists masquerading as artists and lesser imitators deconstructing the work of craftsmen like Lee. They kept breaking down the superhero, ostensibly to find out what made him tick, but then out of pure spite. Now only empty capes remain to be filled by this month’s casting couch favorite.
Stan Lee, the father of modern comics, is dead. He suffered the cruelest fate the world can visit upon a parent: outliving what he conceived.
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