Stan Lee... whatever

Like many others in or adjacent to comics who are vocal about it to some degree, I experienced Stan Lee's death through the filter of how I was expected to feel about it by pretty much anybody further on the fringe than me.

I think that's important to keep in mind throughout conversations about his legacy. Because we're not talking about a man, but we ARE talking about a legacy. While the conversation might drift into what type of man he was or whatever, I'm generally uninterested in that kind of thing. The record of his actions and what they represent are far more interesting and are the actual topic of the majority of these discussions. I don't know if he was inherently a scumbag or a racist, but he did some scummy stuff and he did some racist stuff and it's weird to brush that off, particularly when the scummy stuff is at the center of problems that the comic industry to this day has never addressed.

We probably benefit from inspecting just how monolithic and singular the way we talk about Stan Lee is with respect to our runaway performative nerd culture as a whole. It's a fact--I know it, you know it, let's not pretend--that if you take a survey of the people you know, the ones hardest hit by Stan's passing are the people who go to Marvel midnight movie premiers and buy the most Funko Pops.

It may sound like I'm passing or about to pass judgment on these people, but inspect that. Consider why that is. What did Stan represent? What was his role? How does it bridge the comics he actually worked on and his actual contributions to them with the billion dollar movie and toy franchises of today? Where do a sort of alarming number of his coworkers fall economically and existentially in this equation?

My brusquest answer to all of this is that nerd culture has bred a litter of corporate fetishists. You can roll your eyes at this, but I'm not wrong. And the largely hollow adulation of Stan Lee is nothing but an extension of this kind of fetishism. Yes, he's been talked about for decades: but the cameos and the lines to get pictures with him at Bumfuck Comic Convention are very much a modern augmentation of his notoriety driven by social media. It's easy to conceive of Stan as nothing more than a civil rights advocate ahead of his time when you can retweet a thing he said in one paragraph of an editorial 30,000 times on Twitter. It's much harder to get people to grasp the full context of why they know his name and what kind of active role he had at Marvel and in the industry at large in alienating and impoverishing his coworkers.

Anyway, the only good thing I read about Stan Lee's death was by the always excellent Austin English over at TCJ. That was the only thing that offered me any catharsis, and what was left to... catharsizisize I just had to get out here. The best way to confront the ugly parts of Stan's legacy isn't to shit on him: it's to confront the culture that built him into what he is and continues to feed on that and be fed by the same machine that will put another face in front of you before long.

Austin Lanari

About Austin Lanari

Hacker, writer, critic; Democratize Everything