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Excelsior! Saying goodbye to Stan Lee

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When I was a kid, I wanted to be Spider-Man.

I honestly can’t say when exactly it started, this love affair with everyone’s favorite wall-crawler, but it was as real as anything I experienced in the entirety of my adolescence. From my precocious youth through my awkward teen years, Spider-Man – and by extension the rest of the Marvel Comics family – was there alongside me.

I have Stan Lee to thank for that.

Lee, perhaps the single most influential figure in the history of comic books, passed away this week at the age of 95. His impact on the pop culture zeitgeist was generational; decade after decade, new readers discovered and devoured his multitude of creations. Spider-Man was at the top of the heap for me, but he – alongside numerous artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko – created the Hulk and Thor, Daredevil and Black Panther and Dr. Strange, the X-Men and the Avengers and the Fantastic Four … the list is astonishing.

Comic books – or at least the characters born within their pages – aren’t nearly the fringe interest they were when I first started reading them some three-plus decades ago. Superheroes are as big as business gets these days, with movies based on their exploits grossing in excess of 10 figures regularly. They are a global phenomenon, possessed of rare four-quadrant popularity.

But it wasn’t always like that. When I first encountered Stan Lee’s creations, they were viewed as trifling kid stuff, more silly than serious. But I took them seriously. I was a shy kid, too smart for my own good, who struggled a little to make friends. I wasn’t athletic or outgoing; I just wanted to curl up in my room and read.

And what I wanted to read was comic books.

Yes, I was a Spider-Man guy almost from the beginning. I loved his buoyant nature, his flippant wiseassery as he did battle with some of the baddest baddies the Marvel Universe had to offer. But more than that, I loved Peter Parker. He was a lonely young man, isolated by his social awkwardness and bookish nature – I related to him as much as I ever related to the dramatis personae in so-called great works. To me, Peter Parker was a person.

Stan Lee’s heroes were also human.

I learned lessons from those comic books that have stayed with me to this day, lessons that impacted me more than most of what I took from the classroom. From the Hulk, I gained an understanding of the damage that unchecked anger can do to someone and the people around them. From the X-Men, I gained my first real understanding of what it means when society casts you aside and views you as a dangerous other. From Thor, I learned the power of humility, of placing the needs of others above the needs of one’s ego. From the Avengers, I was shown that being a team isn’t always easy, but when it’s the right one, it’s worth everything.

And of course, there’s Spider-Man. From him, I learned the importance of staying true to yourself no matter what. I learned that no obstacle is truly insurmountable. And I learned that with great power comes great responsibility.

But really, all of these lessons came courtesy of one man.

Young Stanley Lieber had no idea what was coming when he stepped into the offices of Timely Comics back in 1939 at the tender age of 17. From such humble beginnings came a man who was one of the most influential figures in entertainment over the last half-century. Who else has contributed as much to the pop cultural landscape? To the culture in general? I could go on and on about what Stan Lee has meant to me and to so many others like me over the years, but instead, I’ll leave it like The Man would have.

‘Nuff said.

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