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How Stan Lee helped create modern fandom

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Dec 28, 2018, 10:00 AM EST

This article was originally published on November 12, 2018, the day Stan Lee died at the age of 95. We thought we'd bring it back to the front lines in honor of Lee's birthday on December 28. Excelsior!

Stan Lee is gone, and it feels surreal to even type those words. The Marvel Comics legend has left us at the age of 95, and even as we mourn the loss of one of pop culture's greatest luminaries, it's hard to see The Man as anything but immortal. 

That means we will be spending the foreseeable future discussing Lee's legacy as a writer, editor, film icon, and public ambassador for superhero comics. We'll be talking about the many decades-long intricacies of his public life, his work with various collaborators and how much of the material actually came from him, his complicated time both in and out of the spotlight, and much more. Stan Lee's contributions to our culture are impossible to overstate, but that won't stop us from trying to parse them. 

Many of these contributions come from the stories themselves, from "The Coming of Galactus!" to "The Final Chapter" to the return of Captain America. But it is more than just text. At least, not directly. Instead, it stems from Lee's lifelong contributions as a promoter, ambassador, and professional enthusiast.

Fandom as we know it would not exist without Stan Lee. 

To many members of the general public who are perhaps unacquainted (or only vaguely acquainted) with the history of superhero comics, Lee was the man who created Marvel. All of those great characters and stories and locales and dramatic, last-minute victories came, in their eyes, from Stan's marvelous brain as he sat behind a typewriter composing dozens of detailed scripts per month.

In reality, that's far from what happened, as comics fans and historians well know. Lee, as editor, was the company's most prominent figure in those early days, but co-creators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko deserve as much credit as Lee does for those stories, and often they arguably deserve more. In that way, Lee was one very important, world-changing voice among several. 

But Marvel Comics as a brand? Marvel Comics as the "House of Ideas" where "True Believers" came to read the works of the "Greater Than The Greatest" creators? Well, that was Stan, and that changed everything.

It's easy to forget this now, at a time when we often think of superheroes as the product of two movie studios vying for box office glory, but that whole "Marvel vs. DC" thing is not just something fans invented in the age of the mega-franchise. Stan started stoking those fires in the letters pages of Marvel Comics back in the 1960s, because the salesman in him knew he had to set his products apart from the Distinguished Competition.

Superheroes were not new in 1961 when Fantastic Four #1 hit the stands. The creators over at "Brand Ecch" had been working with them since 1938, and they'd hit upon formulas that worked, even if they had grown a bit stale in the intervening years. Lee and Kirby shook things up with Marvel's First Family in a huge way, introducing a more realistic, even angsty approach to superheroics that readers almost instantly latched onto. In those days, when Superman was fending off supervillains and their schemes with ease in the pages of Action Comics, seeing heroes with relatable problems and uncanny abilities felt like a revelation, but Stan knew that selling books was about more than just the stories.

So, we got "Bullpen Bulletins" and "Stan's Soapbox," and the Lee we most easily recognize throughout pop culture — bombastic, grinning, playfully combative, and even progressive — was born in those pages. That version of Stan was also born in the credits of this new wave of comics, where he would unabashedly praise himself and his cohorts as legends in their own time (while poking fun at good ol' Artie Simek) and grant everyone some kind of grandiose nickname.

On his watch, Marvel's creators became recognizable names that kids all over America grew to love and idolize (longtime Marvel creator Brian Michael Bendis gave this practice credit for jumpstarting his comics ambitions), and many of them became and remain larger than life icons. Actual tangible credit for comics creators is still an issue we wrestle with now, but from the perspective of fandom, that was huge.

Then there was the overall tone of the letters pages themselves. Stan didn't just want his readers to think his comics were good. He wanted them to think they were the best and only comics worth picking up, and "Make Mine Marvel" was born as a rallying cry. Yes, it was a shrewd marketing tactic designed to make money, but it also jumpstarted a sense of real direction and identity for Marvel readers, who in those early days became members of The Merry Marvel Marching Society. It was no longer just about picking up a comic on the stands because it looked neat. It was about who you were as a fan, what you cared about and why that really mattered. It started as something playful, but we can still the ripple effects of that kind of thinking now, and it didn't exist in superhero fandom in that form until Stan framed it that way.

Now we have t-shirts that let everyone know who our favorite heroes are and which stories we prioritize. We go to conventions in costume. We get books signed by the people who drew them, when decades earlier we would have had a tough time even figuring out who those people were. We have playful and stimulating (when they're good; if you're hostile and abusive about these things, please take a seat) debates about which universe works better, and watch as the pendulum swings back and forth depending on the stories.

Most importantly, we are passionate. We think about our favorite characters and stories in ways that are as lofty and enthusiastic and invigorating as the stories themselves. We are, in the best of times when all the cynical commodification and branding falls away and it just becomes about the stories and the enthusiasm, True Believers.

Stan Lee's contributions to that way of thinking, which we now call fandom, changed the face of pop culture in ways that even his most stunning superhero creations never could have.