When Stan Lee died on Monday, a surge of cosmic rays must have come with it: My “Facebook memory” was of me holding up two 1984 Spider-Man walkie-talkies, and within 24 hours the battery in my Spider-Man watch had died. On Twitter I wrote “RIP Stan Lee, a genius who opened up entire worlds of imagination and created so many characters you could appreciate when you didn’t quite know how you fit in.”
That was about the best I could put it, and then I saw that ever-thoughtful Chiefs receiver Chris Conley had tweeted “Stan Lee you will be missed. No one was ready for this.” That reminded me of conversations I’d had with him before about comic books and such, so I figured he could help me get at why Lee meant so much to so many — from Asgard to Forest Hills to Wakanda and Charles Xavier’s School for the Gifted and Zenn-La and about everyplace in between.
Not to mention give me an excuse as a sportswriter to get at the magic Lee made.
Lee was 95 years old, so Conley got some trolling to “get over it,” among otherwise likeminded responses. But he reiterated his sentiments Thursday as he considered Lee’s impact.
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“I think his legacy will live on beyond him, and I think with someone who is a game-changer like that … regardless of how old they are, I don’t think you’re ever really (ready to say) goodbye like that,” he said. “And now when we read his works and we see the things that he created, we’ll just interact with him in a different way.”
In the case of Conley, a filmmaker, writer and musician, the interaction began with his father’s two “big, big boxes loaded with comics” that he said probably weighed 200 pounds. He and his siblings devoured them one summer.
It was his introduction to “all these different places and people and heroes and villains,” he said, “(who) taught you so many lessons that your parents could teach you, that life could teach you, but I learned them from comic books. It’s kind of odd.”
Conley can remember being teased about reading comic books in high school and at the University of Georgia and thinking, “Yeah, I do, and they’re great stories.’ And that’s something that I always connected with, that regardless of what’s going on outside of you, you can be yourself and be confident in that. And that’s something that comic books taught me.”
It wasn’t just the action and humor or the imagination Lee’s universe stoked, though. It was the feeling of somehow being understood.
“I think Stan Lee is a guy whose creative abilities and talents are going to be missed in this world. But not only will his creative talents be missed in this world, but he will also be missed as the person that he was,” Conley said. “Stan Lee was a person who might not have been from your background, he might not have experienced the things that you experienced but he understood and had … empathy for other people. In a world that’s filled with apathy.”
As Conley spoke, my feelings about Lee and comics struck me all the more. If you were a kid, say, born in Beirut, Lebanon, and had an unusual name and moved around the country a lot, you might have taken refuge in sports and the constant companionship of comic books while you hoped to find your place.
Of the couple thousand I still have, my first was Spider-Man No. 68, which came out nearly 50 years ago. I have that commemorated with an absolutely horrendous rendition of the cover I drew soon thereafter.
The awkward jams Peter Parker so often found himself in, typically because of the blessings and burden of being Spider-Man, reassured me that other well-intended teenagers felt off-balance and misconstrued, too. (Which is probably why I cried, honest, in the Spider-Man 2 movie when Mary Jane learned Spider-Man and Peter were one and the same.)
Different as my background is from that of Conley, an African-American who grew up in a military family, the same Spider-Sense compelled him.
“I could tell that these characters were being shaped and written from an aspect of ‘Hey, you can be who you want to be, you can make it, you can be special,’” he said. “But not the kind of special where it’s like participation trophies, (more) like, ‘Hey, if you work hard, if you live your life with character, if you love others, you can be a hero.’”
As we spoke about Peter Parker and Spider-Man, who was Conley’s favorite before the Black Panther “became my thing,” I suggested the notion of being understood was particularly appealing.
“Being included,” Conley said. “There’s a lot of people who rise up to do great things but in their actual day-to-day lives they’re not included, whether it’s (by) society, whether it’s in a friend group, maybe they’re misunderstood because of their upbringing.”
In that sense, the Black Panther, who first appeared in a 1966 Fantastic Four issue and a few years later received his own title(s), had special meaning to Conley on multiple levels.
For one thing, Conley appreciated Lee going out of his way to make statements about racism and bigotry and standing up to it and showing how the racist or bigot is the weak person.
Moreover, at the time in media he didn’t often “see a lot of people of color excelling, or people of color being the good guys, or being the main hero without being the sidekick. … Black Panther, it inspired me as a kid to think of myself as more than a sidekick. I could be the hero of my own story. I don’t have to be saved by someone else.”
So, yes, Stan Lee was 95 when he died and will live forever, but this is why Conley and so many others of us mourn him.
“I don’t think there’s really any way to quantify the impact that he had at such a young age,” he said. “I think that children are so malleable at that age, that influences like that can take root deep and they can change the course of someone’s life.
“So who knows how many people have been affected by the stories that he’s written in a positive way, and who’s grown and gone on to do great things just because they were inspired by something as small as a comic book story.”
Because they were actually larger than life, like Lee was.