By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
Do you know what? When you think about it, our lives are influenced by strangers and you don’t realise it until they die.
With the sad passing of comic genius Stan Lee, this has been brought home to me through a simple question. I was asked to write a tribute to him and my first reaction was that I am not a comic aficionado like many of my peers.
By no means am I an expert on the Marvel universe. However the more I thought about it, the more I realised that Stan Lee had influenced me. I don’t need to be able to rhyme off the history of the Avengers or the Hulk or when Peter Parker was possessed by Doctor Octopus. This tribute is more than that. Just as Stan took us on a journey that will speak to future generations, my path with him began a long time ago.
Fantasy, science fiction and horror have always been part of my D.N.A. for as long as I remember. That was down to my late mother who started me on this journey of time and space and super heroes.
As a young kid growing up in Northern Ireland I lived in a world where it wasn’t cool to be a geek. It was a term of derision and you were seen as a freak. Halfway across the world Stan had been pumping out comics for several years before I came upon his world. As a writer myself, it is not the easiest thing to get your ideas out there and get the world on board with your dreams. But these were more than characters in a comic book. The beauty of Stan was he spoke to his audience through the characters he created.
He never wanted to be a comic book writer. All Stan wanted was to write and he ended up in a position writing for comic books. Initially he thought it would be a venue to gain some writing experience then move on to be a ‘writer.’ As we know now it was his destiny to never leave Marvel and like me he wanted characters that were flawed. The greatest trick of writing is to talk to your audience; to secure your story by speaking to something within them. Stan knew when he was asked to create super heroes they could not be the cardboard ones of old he despised with perfect lives and handsome features.
No, Stan knew if he were to get his readers on board he would have heroes that would speak to them in their own language.
The first time he spoke to me was through a certain webhead. I remember vividly picking up my first Spiderman comic and was immediately mesmerised. I wasn’t just reading fantastical adventures of a super powered kid.
I was Peter Parker.
As a bullied child in school, I identified with the character immediately. From the first instant I learned of Peter Parker I saw myself.
Peter was a geek like me. He was interested in other things that weren’t the norm like me. He didn’t play sport just like me. He wasn’t part of the incrowd nor was he successful with girls. Every day at school he faced bullies and felt alone and dejected. His world was his bedroom where he indulged in his passions of science. I retreated to my bedroom where I travelled the stars and walked in times future and past.
Here was someone else who experienced the same things I did on a daily basis. Stan and I were having a conversation without us even knowing it with the turn of every page. What he did brilliantly was connect with his audience…the geeks. He showed us that despite all the trials of school and growing up, you could still be special and make a difference. But being special was a mantle that you had to have a strength of character to carry with you. The murder of Uncle Ben is his way of telling us that family should be cherished as you never know when they will be taken from you. It is this along with Ben’s words of wisdom about power and responsibility that cements Peter’s mission in life to fight the good fight. He becomes Spiderman because he did the wrong thing at the wrong time resulting in the loss of his family. Regret and guilt spurns him forward to do the right thing making the world right in memory of Uncle Ben. Isn’t that what we do every day? To make the world better by honouring our parents and those that we have lost along the way?
Despite all the bullying and derision Peter faces in life, he does the right thing by people as a force for good. This was telling me that you have to rise above the bullies and be a better person.
I was hooked from that instant. Peter Parker is still my favourite character. His journey was a message to all of us that things will turn out right in the end. Peter is smart, designs his own costume, creates his own weaponry and gets the girl in the shape of Gwen and Mary Jane. He does all this without the false fortune and glory you have being a jock whose lives were ultimately filled with fake friendships and insecurities. Stan showed us that nobody has the perfect life through his characters even if it appears to be so.
I knew life would get better and the bullies would eventually go. I wrote my own stories to match what Stan was doing. To this day, my characters are modelled on his template.
In the Time Warriors, Jacke, Michael, Tyran and Varran all have flaws. Michael is similar to Peter having been bullied but all of them still do the right thing by others. They stop the monsters to let normality reign despite what they have suffered. Their frailties make them better people.
Superman and Batman were super, super heroes. They didn’t really have flaws except to live dual identities. But Stan didn’t do that. His road was much more interesting.
Iron Man was an alcoholic with a dodgy heart. Hulk had anger management issues. Captain America was struggling to adjust to a time he was not born into. Indeed Steve Rogers had body issues leading him to take the super serum leaving him a muscled soldier. Vision was a kind of Data character. Hank Pym had insecurities that he wasn’t good enough in the eyes of others forcing him to become Giant Man. That flaw speaks to every person on the planet. At some point all of us have felt inferior to someone else that you believe is better looking or better dressed or have seemingly effortless success with the opposite sex. I most certainly have but Stan showed us that appearances are deceiving.
All his characters had some sort of flaw attached to their personality. Nothing was taboo. Parent issues, drugs, domestic violence, racism, gender, celebrity, self discovery and immigration were just a few of the issues his stories explored. Like all good writers, he took the human condition and spun it against a super hero tapestry that caught me and millions of others like flies.
As a teenager I saw the x Men and the Fantastic 4 as a bunch of misfits each with issues just like the rest of us. As an adult I can see stories about immigration and prejudice with the government fearmongering in the comics.
Stan was way ahead of his time as his stories reflect what is happening in modern day America to those that are different. But the one thing that binds every hero in the Marvel universe is the fact they are misfits trying to fit in. They are looking for a place where they are happy; a place where they are treated like everyone else. Isn’t that what we all want from life no matter who we are?
Nightcrawler looked like a demon yet he was deeply religious. Wolverine was in fact a victim of torture and suffering post traumatic stress and abuse issues. Even the Gods suffered as Thor fought to find his place in his father’s expectations.
Stan and I spoke for years after that first issue right up to the release of the Ant Man and Wasp movie. These movies reflected the themes he had written about for years. Tony Stark’s own worst enemy was himself but movie Tony lived in fear of death from the shrapnel in his heart despite his cockiness.
Although the new Spiderman in Homecoming for me completely undermined the beauty of Peter Parker by letting Tony Stark hand him everything including his suit. However that is a story for another article…
Everyone talks about how Star Trek explores social issues through its writing which it does beautifully but Stan did it long before Gene. He changed the world first to the point where he challenged the policies of the Comic Codes Authority indirectly leading to a change that is still in place today.
Stan was a dreamer. He wanted to write stories that reached the masses. Those stories reflected real people and real issues that we face on a daily basis. For those who were different he shone a light of hope. For those that looked different he told them they were equal to everyone else. He told us that it was society preconceived notions of what is normal was what needed to catch up to accepting us.
All of us that were different were the future.
He told me that life was going to be alright despite the darkness. He showed that imagination had no limits, dreams do come true and never give up on yourself even if the rest of the world dissed you.
So why do I feel his death keenly when I never met him? It’s very simple.
Stan was just like me. He was the dreamer that never grew up. We have had in-depth conversations on what it is to be human and what it is to write a good story. He sat dreaming of worlds and people others couldn’t. It’s a rare gift to create a universe where you can instantly slot yourself into any character.
For years my conversations were limited to the geek community but how my heart explodes with pride today. Kids everywhere openly display their love of super heroes. The tide has turned and it’s weird for a kid not to like this crazy world we have enjoyed for years. It has brought entire families together in their love of the movies and inspired an entire generation to read again. In an ever changing world darkness is fought by the tiniest little boy or girl dressed as a Marvel superhero. They are embracing acceptance of others whether they are green or red or blue. They are seeing the person within no matter what they look like on the outside. They will follow in Stan’s footsteps like I did and write their own stories. They will develop their creative talents whether it is making movies or art and all thanks to a plethora of characters that don’t follow the norm.
I never realised this until I heard the news of Stan’s death. Now I will never meet him to tell him how much he actually helped in writing stories that talk to people rather than preach to them. But if there is an afterlife where superheroes go then I hope he is hearing the crescendo of love and adoration at his loss from young and old alike.
I know there are other kids sitting all around the world echoing his beginnings and dreaming up their own stories and heroes just like I did.
Stan has gone home but somewhere a child is picking up a Marvel comic and witnessing the light of a very special soul. His soul will whisper to generations yet to come that it’s ok to be different and dreams can come true. He will tell them the darkness will fall and to make mistakes is human as long as we learn from them.
Most of all he will tell them what he told me; there is a hero in all of us. In the end we are all stories. Stan Lee’s will stand for eternity.
Thank you Stan. You taught me more than you know.