As a child, I had never really been exposed to comic books, having been born after their initial hayday, I grew up in the 90s when television and video games cemented themselves as the central sources of my childhood entertainment. I lived a life oblivious to the expansive, imaginative, and magnificent worlds that Stan Lee and others at Marvel had painstakingly brought to life on paper, until 2008 when those worlds broke through onto the big screen. In theaters, I witnessed the character of Tony Stark brought to life by Robert Downey Jr., and I discovered my favorite superhero.
When I began writing this entry a few weeks ago, Stan Lee was still alive. This post was just another chapter in the small but growing catalog of my artistic and literary work. Then, November 12th, days before my scheduled date to post this to my website, Stan, a pillar of not only comic books, but of modern storytelling, passed away. This sent me back to the drawing board, as this piece became more than just an individual chapter in my own narrative, but instead my tribute to an artist and a man who has greatly inspired me. When Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Leiber), began work in the comics industry, the occupation was so looked down upon by society, that all his writing was done under the pseudonym Stan Lee (later adopted as his legal name). His vision, passion, and creativity showed the world the good work that could be done through art and story, as his creations became cultural cornerstones that transcended the comic book industry.
It was more than just the action-packed badass nature of the film that drew me in, though: it was something deeper. Now don’t get me wrong, I was fascinated by the action packed sequences; I was inspired by a hero who used intelligence and science to construct fantastic weapons and technology; I was enamored by the grit of a person with their back against the wall triumphing against the odds and thwarting the bad guys. However, what truly captivated me, and caused me to stick to Iron Man while other narratives with similar elements fell by the wayside, was the poignant redemption arc.
To begin the film, Tony Stark was not a hero. He was selfish arrogant narcissist. He was a womanizer, a war profiteer, and an all-american prick displaying some of the worst aspects of humanity. Time and time again he displayed complete disdain for the well-being of anyone not named Tony Stark, as he led a life that not only disregarded the well-being of others in favor of himself, but actively took part in destroying that well-being to advance his own security, his own significance, and his own satisfaction. Despite these numerous character flaws, he is given opportunity to change. By experiencing a taste of the pain, suffering, and injustice he has caused in the lives of millions of people, and being brought face to face with the humanity of those victimized by his actions, he finds redemption.
This message resonated with my 15 year old self. While I’ve since learned that this drastic transformation cannot be done simply through the individual grit or the personal intelligence displayed by Tony Stark, the tale of selfish schmuck undeservedly turned spectacular hero has nevertheless continued to captivate me as it takes on new meaning. In high school, this motivated me to depict Stan Lee’s creation with my own hand, full of large messy brush strokes and abstracted forms. Today, Stan Lee’s vision inspires me to make more than just cheap imitations, but to make my own original creations, and to carry on Stan’s catchphrase: “Excelsior!” – Ever upward!