Influence is a funny thing. It bears an almost amorphous, intangible quality, weaving its way in and out of the lives of ourselves and everyone with whom we meet or interact. Just by reading my articles, even by an infinitesimal amount, I am influencing you to some degree. For all I know, I may change someone’s life just because I wrote an article on diet or fixing shoulder problems. Influence is like a tree whose roots and branches spiral off in many directions, one branch growing out of another, sprouting leaves or fruit or more branches. With every interaction, influence spreads to some degree.
Thought of in the way I detailed above; Stan Lee is one of the most influential people to ever live on this planet. You may think that to be an overstatement, but as I think you will see, his influence is not only immense but quite incalculable.
Before Stan Lee and partner Jack Kirby, comic book heroes were hyper-idealized and overpowered, offering the reader no way to identify with the characters. Silver Age Superman, for example, was notoriously overpowered, being able to quite literally solve any problem just by trying a bit harder and manifesting new skills on a whim. Stan Lee changed all of that, with Marvel and his characters. For the first time, heroes had flaws and were real people. Sure, they were still overpowered relative to us, so they still retained a sort of wish fulfillment and power fantasy aspect, but now they actually dealt with societal problems, such as bullying, racial injustice, and relationships the heroes of old never had to bother with, adding a new layer of complexity to comics.
America in the last 40-50 years has undergone radical changes, not the least of which is the declining in religious identification. Far fewer people today identify with any religion than did 50 years ago, and also, the family structure is far less stable than it used to be. What this means is that children are far less likely to have any sort of paragon role model in their life, such as a father figure or religious icon. For many children, these comic characters became that figure. For these kids, the characters that Stan Lee created and Marvel itself, became a sort of pantheon of gods for kids to worship and look up to. I’m sure my religious readers mourn that fact but think of it this way: how much better of a role model could a kid choose than Captain America, the Black Panther, or Spider-Man? Stan Lee called them True Believers, and these characters and stories meant as much to them as the Biblical stories of years past, filling not only the hero vacuum but the life lesson vacuum as well.
Think of it this way regarding influence in the number of lives touched. How many kids survived bullying or racial injustice because they had Peter Parker to identify with? How many kids who grew up reading Captain America or the Avengers ended up joining the military or public service as a result? How many kids learned discrimination is terrible because of the X-Men? How many learned to beat alcoholism and addiction because Tony Stark showed that it could be beaten? Decades before Barack Obama, T’Challa the Black Panther showed black kids that a black man could be a king. These are just a tiny sample of the lessons taught by these heroes, which is why we can’t ever truly calculate the influence of Stan Lee. Even more profound now is that quite literally billions of people have seen these characters in the movies, with each viewer’s life impacted to some degree. Between the comics, books, tv shows, and films, it is not an overstatement in the least to say that Stan Lee has influenced billions. Then, those people, in turn, influenced others in some measure. Thus, his influence radiates out like a tree with infinite branches spiraling and splitting in every direction.
How many people that have ever existed on the face of the earth can even begin to claim to have positively influenced not only millions but potentially billions of people? I cannot name many, but I can name one: Stan Lee. Bear in mind that hundreds of years from now, when we have all left this world, these characters will endure, extending his influence into a future we cannot as yet comprehend. Like the gods of Olympus before them, they will live forever, albeit wielding more positive influence than even Zeus ever did. Which character of the Stan Lee pantheon is your favorite? Myself. I’d have to go with Hulk. Let me know yours!
Rest in peace, and Excelsior!
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