Stan Lee, RIP

Stan Lee / Getty

Sad news from TMZ: Stan Lee, the visionary who led Marvel's Silver Age renaissance and changed the comic book game forever, has died. He was 95.

Others will write more exhaustive tributes to the legendary writer, celebrating his decision to grant superheroes everyday problems—Peter Parker the inability to hold down a job (or a girlfriend); the Fantastic Four the inability to get along with each other while taking on Doctor Doom and Galactus—or cataloguing his fights with fellow creators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko over who deserved credit for what. That his later years were mired in dodgy business ventures and disputes with family members and hangers-on over his estate is well known, for now. The controversies will fade, though, as they are ultimately irrelevant to his greatness.

I'll instead take a moment to simply suggest that Stan Lee is one of the most important pop artists of the 20th century, a man whose vision helped turn around an entire industry and whose singular idea—one that might be boiled down to "Superheroes! They're just like us!"—has upended not only the world of comics but also the world of film. Simply put: There's no Marvel Cinematic Universe without Stan Lee, and, for better or worse, no force has been as popular or as influential over the last decade than the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That Stan Lee is probably best known to a generation or two of fans as That Guy Who Shows Up In All The Marvel Movies is, frankly, a fitting tribute to an unstoppable self-promoter. But it also highlights one of the key factors to Lee's success: His constant presence on the back pages of Marvel comics and his preternaturally joyful appearance gave fans the sense that they knew him, that he was a friend. Or, at least, a convivial uncle, one who might sneak them a sip of beer when mom and dad weren't looking.

As I noted last year in an essay for the Weekly Standard, Lee's greatest innovation may not have been the comic book characters he created—the men of Iron and X and Spiders—but the fact that he understood comic book fans sought, needed, craved acceptance. They wanted to feel like they were part of a club, part of a gang:

Perhaps intuitively grasping that a letter writer hopes to have his affections returned, Lee began answering the missives in the comics, building out a whole new regular feature for readers to enjoy. Lee’s "jokey, easygoing interaction with fans," [biographer Bob] Batchelor writes, helped establish him as "the central public persona of not only Marvel, but the comic book industry."

Lee seemed like every reader’s favorite uncle, always willing to share a wisecrack and some insider gossip going on behind the scenes at the company. The play between reader and writer/editor turned many young people into lifelong fans. Readers felt as if they were there in New York City with Stan and his "bullpen" collaborators, whom they imagined they knew based on the colorful nicknames the editor gave them and the way he touted both their skills and quirky personalities.

Comic books no longer need the cool uncle to make them feel welcome; superheroes are now the coin of the realm, and no one who knows Iron Man's real name would be considered a dork, a loser, a nerd. But that wasn't always the case, and no man deserves more credit for mainstreaming the dominant American art form of the last 50 years than Stan Lee. RIP.