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Stan Lee: Mentor of metaphor, morality and mettle

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This past week, the world received the news that Stan Lee, famed Marvel Comics writer and icon, had died at age 95. Much has been on TV and in writing about his passing from the story of his many-years-long career and marriage, to his controversial final years, and to a lesser degree the controversy of his being given (or taking) almost sole credit for so many characters who obviously had artists as co-creators.

Indisputably, however, Stan Lee’s greatest creation was the image of Stan Lee himself who, upon his death, had become not only an icon for the characters he helped breathe life into and Marvel Comics as its ambassador, but really the icon for comics itself.

All that is available online from others. However, what I want to briefly reflect on is what the 10-year-old me might want to say now, having lived four and a half decades since.

First of all, the fact that anyone else would know the name Stan Lee would blow away the mind of that 10-year-old me. I remember the first cameo that I recognized Stan in: Kevin Smith’s 1995 “Mallrats.” Even then, I was shocked that he had the kind of status that anyone else knew who he was. You see, Stan Lee was this guy that a very few of us knew only because we actually read the stuff beyond the stories in our comic books.

He had all kinds of titles attributed to himself. Even at 10, the only one I knew that had to be real was writer and one of the versions of editor. He was the big guy at Marvel. For a while each comic (and I collected every single Marvel book in the early and mid-’70s), had printed on the cover “Stan Lee presents.” Comics had letters pages where fans could write letters of comment. Or if you were really attentive and could catch a continuity error, you might win a No-Prize (I caught one in a Hulk issue with Doc Sampson) and for that and various reasons you would get an actual response in the mail from Marvel with Stan’s signature on it!

And to gel the readers there were organizations like FOOM (Friends Of Ol’ Marvel — I still have the original poster) and all those insider catch phrases from Stan himself, calling the fans “True Believers,” or ending his writing with simply, “’Nuff Said” or his most famous:“Excelsior!” (which in Latin really means something like higher and higher).

But the way 10-year-old me would tell you that Stan and I were tight is because Stan would talk to me and tell me what he believed not just in all those characters and stories, but in a little side-piece he called simply, “Stan’s Soapbox.” In those, Stan would talk about current events (I remember the presidential election where there was a push for Howard the Duck as a candidate), what was going on with him, and I suspect whatever was important just to him. (Hmm, this is starting to sound familiar!)

Ten-year-old me would tell you that the kinds of things Stan talked about all went along with the stories he wrote, went along with what I saw happening on “Star Trek,” went along with what Jesus said in church and went along with the lessons my mother and father tried to teach my brother and me about how to live and treat other people.

And 10-year-old me would probably be amazed not only that anyone else knew about Stan, but also that the lessons that he helped reinforce had actually molded and reinforced the “me” I would become four and a half decades later.

I just ordered a book that collects all of those “Stan’s Soapbox” articles, which I can’t wait to reread. But I found one online that I wanted to partially quote: “Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater — one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately . . . Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God — a God who calls us ALL — His children. Pax et Justitia, Stan.”

Aside from the non-inclusive language (prominent at the time this was written), I was kind of taken aback by this and the few other Soapbox articles I found. In fact, as I implied above, I saw a great deal of similarity in not only style and content but even subjects struck upon between Stan’s Soapbox in the ‘70s and my own various soapboxes I write and speak in these days. This discernment is what inspired my realization now that 10-year-old me could have never known: that among those mentors who have helped to mold me I unequivocally must count Stan “the Man.”

In looking back, his creations continue to be fertile metaphors for talking about the gifts of God (X-Men), the armor of God (Iron Man) and the importance of team and family (Fantastic Four and Avengers) among others. His moral compass that directed each of his heroes as well as himself seems to be hardwired into my own beliefs found in the Bible about equality and advocacy. And as for his mettle, the indefatigable determination to speak out for the Truth persistently pushes me out of my comfort zone.

I doubt old Stan really thought his words would have an effect so many years ago when he started writing “funny books.” Just as I doubt that what I say or write will be remembered by any 10-year-old four and half decades down the road. But perhaps God has different plans for what you say or even what I say.

And if that is the case, maybe we should all make sure to say it right; say it well; and say it often. After all, some 10-year-olds just might be listening whether they know it or not! ‘Nuff Said. Excelsior!

Pastor Zach Harris has been an ordained minister for 27 years and currently serves Ascension Lutheran Church in Wilson. His column, “Through a Lutheran Lens: A Pastor’s Perspective,” appears weekly in The Wilson Times. Previous columns are available at WilsonTimes.com.

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