Stan Lee, co-creator of some of the most famous comicbook characters of all time, died last week in Los Angeles. The 95-year-old Lee, who co-created Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Hulk and Black Panther, among others, lived long enough to see himself becoming synonymous with these iconic characters, helped in no small measure by a string of grandfatherly cameos in Marvel films down the years. As things stand today, the comicbook movie business — namely, the gargantuan MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) — is Lee’s primary legacy, and also the reason why the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Hugh Jackman, Chris Evans and Benedict Cumberbatch have waxed eloquent about the “pioneering force in the superhero universe”, as Jackman put it.
There are, and will continue to be, any number of obituaries (like Jackman’s) that speak warmly of Lee’s larger-than-life persona, his signature blend of high and low culture that overhauled comicbook dialogues forever (“The wonderment begins next week, pilgrims! Excelsior”) and how he had the media eating out of his hands.
This, however, is not one of them.
Stan Lee, Stan Lee, how do I bury thee? Let me count the ways, in reverse chronological order. In January this year, several young female nurses alleged sexual misconduct on Lee’s part. These were nurses employed by the same Los Angeles agency, hired to care for the then-95-year-old. Lee, the complainants say, repeatedly groped these nurses, exposed himself without consent, demanded oral sex and even pulled a Louis CK (he masturbated in front of them). His lawyers, of course, claimed that Lee was innocent, the victim of an elaborate extortion scheme — the Bill Cosby playbook. His fans bizarrely demanded that we cut Lee some slack because he was in his nineties. This was a bit like George H. Bush groping Heather Lind on stage, while seated in his wheelchair all the time — however could a nonagenarian with severely hampered mobility do these things, we were supposed to ask incredulously.
Another thing Lee’s fans are fond of throwing in our faces is his famous 1968 column against racism, wherein he batted for a more inclusive comicbook universe, for fighting racists. “The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.” It’s cute, I have to admit, ’60s Stan Lee talking about exposing insidious evil, for this was the decade where the so-called “Marvel Method” of making comics came to the fore. This was supposed to be a kind of pre-modern creative equivalent of an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game); several different people in highly specialised roles. Story, script, dialogues, letters, inks — this was the time when this formal division of labour became streamlined and Lee was supposed to be a master at steering this Ship of Theseus, greater than the sum of its parts.
Only in practice, as legendary artists like Steve Ditko (co-creator of Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (Captain America) maintained till their respective deaths, this was a different kind of MMORPG for Lee, a Massively Mediocre Old Relic Playing God. As detailed in Sean Howe’s wonderfully researched Marvel: The Untold Story (2012) and another, even more damning book called Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book (2003, by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon), Lee insisted on putting his name on other people’s work, claiming it suited Marvel’s copyright interests to feature him as co-creator on its most famous characters.
In summation, then, Lee represented a typically Hollywood brand of celebrity — a white man whose only real “genius” was an in-your-face brand of self-promotion, a skilled PR operator who thought he could get away with anything, a man who in the last decade of his life, increasingly became a caricature of himself. In Twitter culture, a “stan” refers to a cultish, idolising, uncritical fan, drawing from the Eminem song Stan which talks about an obsessive admirer. Stan Lee’s life reminds us to be mindful of the line between fan and stan.