Monday, 12 November 2018

Stan Lee

A blank page is one of the most exciting things I can think of. An empty space that can be filled with anything you can imagine. Pictures or words. A combination of both.

A blank page is terrifying, too, because it requires a first step. Blank pages are beginnings and we're terrified of beginnings, and we can be terrified of change, or terrified of exposing something as intimate as our thoughts and feelings to the world.

And a blank page can be sad, because it means whoever was going to write on it isn't here to write any more.


The thing about art is that it means people we don't know, people we've never met, people we don't know anything about, can influence the course of our lives, and I don't know how we're meant to deal with it when they die.

I remember feeling numb when George Harrison died. Not sadness or grief, just an emptiness knowing that a man who'd been a large part of my life just didn't exist anymore.

I was distraught when Terry Pratchett died, because no-one had done more to shape how I think about the world.

And it's strange, no doubt, existing as a human being, this strange species of creature experiencing a distant echo of bereavement for people they didn't know, and didn't know them, because empathy is the key to humanity and that's just how empathy works.


The superhero couldn't exist without empathy. From the very beginning, when two young Jewish men dealt with their pain by putting it down on the page and giving us the Superman, empathy was the engine room of a genre. Without it why would we care enough to need to see people saved? Why else would we care about justice or fairness?

And if the initial fate of the superhero was to be raised above mortals, to become distant examples we had to look up to, then Stan Lee changed everything by making them our equals once more, by letting us look at them eye-to-eye without having to crane our necks, by showing us that even when broken, and flawed, and fighting our own demons, we can still make a difference, that we can still do some good.


By any fair reckoning, Stan was a flawed man. He didn't always treat his colleagues justly, and there was some ugliness in his latter days that hasn't been adequately explained, and will probably never be clear. He made some bad decisions, and it seems he didn't always surround himself with good people. Does his legacy outweigh these things? I can't answer that and I wouldn't know where to start. All I can account for is what his work meant to me, because ultimately all these memorials-from-a-distance really do is tell you more about the writer than the subject.


I look around the room where I'm writing this, and Stan is everywhere. His books are on the shelves, his characters on the desk, on the screen in front of me. They're in boxes in my daughter's room, they're on my son's t-shirt, and one of them inspired the name we gave him.

They are everywhere in my life and right now I don't know what I do with that.


I have a mistrust of taking too many life lessons from superheroes. That might seem odd coming from me, because I love them so much. But it's too easy to take the wrong lessons from them, too easy to conclude that problems can always be solved with fists, that you could model your ethical outlook on how fictional characters deal with simplified situations. Life is messy and a lot of the greatest superhero stories aren't.

But as allegories they have power, and I believe absolutely and totally without a single atom of doubt that comic book heroes have saved lives. Maybe they've even saved mine, and if they haven't then they've definitely made it a happier life. And there's no single page, no frame of animation, no second of film since the 1950s that deals with these superheroes that hasn't been influenced in some way by Stan Lee.


I think one of the greatest things anybody can do is help other people to do a little bit of good. I think Stan Lee helped a lot of people figure out how they could do it.

I'm sad that the page is blank today. I hope the people who come after use it to do as much good as Stan Lee did.

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