Excelsior (n.) – Used to indicate superior quality.
There’s not much our little site can contribute to the memory of Stan “The Man” Lee, who passed away today at age 95. Stan Lee was a hero to everyone who works here. He had a hand in creating the entire Marvel universe, an achievement which would go on to reshape the landscape of popular entertainment forever. His list of creations is only rivaled by those of Walt Disney or Jim Henson.
Because of his achievements, eulogizing him seems as frivolous as building a memorial to Thor. A noble but foolhardy effort. Partially because there’s nothing we could say that would do the man justice. And somewhat because, deep down, I’m still pretty sure he’ll be resurrected sometime in the next six issues.
By now, Stan’s origin is as well known as Spider-Man’s. He was working at Timely Comics, watching the industry collapse around him. The Comics Code Authority was dismantling companies who were unable to overcome draconian restrictions on monsters, criminals, or violence. Encouraged by his wife to write a book he would enjoy, Stan penned a script about a family of astronauts who are endowed with spectacular powers. With the help of Jack Kirby, The Fantastic Four was born.
Stan spent the next few decades leaving a permanent mark on the zeitgeist. If you’ve heard of a superhero or villain and they weren’t in Justice League, chances are they’re a Stan Lee original. It’s impossible to say precisely what pop culture today would be like without Stan Lee’s impact. But it would certainly be of much lower quality.
The hallmark of all Stan’s heroes was their flaws. Marvel Comics never dealt in the ideal version of heroes. They dominated the Silver Age of Comics by creating characters people could sympathize with. Stan created flesh and blood heroes who had incredible powers and an incredible responsibility. Readers might not know how it feels to fly through the air fighting criminals, but they know how it feels to forget plans with a friend. That simple innovation was enough to leave millions of comics fans demanding “Make mine Marvel.”
Decades after he had reshaped entertainment forever, I had the opportunity to meet Stan at Baltimore Comic-Con in 2012. I stood in line for what felt like an eternity. Just before I got to the front, my brother helpfully pointed out that I was wearing a Justice League t-shirt. I pulled my sweatshirt on and zipped it as high as I could. I couldn’t entirely cover up Superman’s face.
My brothers and I silently crept into the room where Stan was patiently waiting to meet his hoard of fans, one at a time. He looked exactly the way you’d imagine him, sunglasses and all. Then, as now, I felt like I had nothing useful to say. What could I possibly say that would have any impact at all on the man who’d thought of The Incredible Hulk?
It’s mortifying to admit, but my solution was to say nothing. For a moment, standing so close to Stan felt like standing in the New York City library. Asking him “What’s up?” would be almost irreverent. Helpfully, a woman in the room offered to take our picture. Silently, we lined up on either side of him. The flash went off, and we went to leave.
Just as I was passing through the door to leave, reality came rushing back to me. This wasn’t John Milton or William Shakespeare. It was Stan Lee. The Man! He does cameos in the Marvel movies. He’s fun! I quickly turned back to see him watching us leave.
“Hey Stan,” I yelled, compensating for my hitherto silence. “Excelsior.”
Behind his sunglasses, he smiled. And he yelled back, in perfect Stan fashion “Excelsior, True Believer.”
Stan Lee left the world a better place than he found it. He created heroes that everyone could look up to. But he gave those heroes flaws, so they never seemed like impossible role models. Most critically, he greeted everyone he met, no matter how silent or creepy, as a friend.
He was a hero of the most superior quality. And he will be missed.