When Stan Lee died the other day there was an outpouring of respect and honor that was impressive in scope. It seemed that everybody wanted to pay homage to the great, great Stan Lee. And—he was indeed a great American writer, a creator of much of the American cultural landscape, whose influence was etcetera etcetera. All absolutely true.
Here’s the thing that struck me, though—when I was in college, thirty years ago, I’m pretty sure nobody thought about Stan Lee at all, except a handful of comic-book fanatics. If you went around my college, or my high school when I was there a couple of years earlier, and asked people what they thought about Stan Lee, my guess is you’d get a recognition factor of maybe five percent. And if you asked all those teenagers, f’r’ex, to think of something that Marvel did better than DC, or vice versa, few would even know what you were talking about, and fewer would be able to answer the question or would want to. Comics existed, yes, but they were a medium for hardcore fans only, like poetry or orchestral music. Not currently relevant to popular culture.
And of course even within the subculture, while Stan Lee was an important historical figure in 1988, and he was still very much involved in the production of Marvel’s line of comics, he wasn’t writing anything of note, and to the extent that people were interested in the creation of new superheroes, he hadn’t created any of note for a long, long time. His reputation rested on characters created before we were born, and stuff written about them we hadn’t read. I’m not sure you could call him a has-been (quite likely plenty of people did, to the extent that they wrote about him at all) but he wasn’t current. The New York Times mentioned him all of twice during 1988, in two stories about “The Incredible Hulk Returns”, the first of three television Hulk movies over the late 1980s that are not now fondly remembered. A reasonably thorough search came up with one actual interview with him in a newspaper that year, and one other article about how the newly grown-up comics were dealing with Tony Stark’s alcoholism that quoted him from what was obviously a press release. That was it. Lexis-Nexis Searches for 1987 and 1989 were pretty much the same: one or two articles in the Times about some Marvel stunt or other, and another couple articles in local newspapers, mostly passing along press release quotes or mentioning him in passing.
That was thirty years ago.
Stan Lee had been an important and influential figure in the mainstream of popular culture, and then he wasn’t anymore. That sort of thing happens all the time. But then he was again, and his death was above-the-fold news, and that sort of thing doesn’t happen very often at all.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,