In an alternate universe* where comic books do not exist, or are banned under a runaway application of the Comics Code, Stan Lee would be the greatest carnival barker of all time. He’d draw gigantic crowds to even the lamest attraction, calling for all true believers to step right up and see the fearless red devil, or the four fantastic voyagers, or the man with the powers of a spider. He’d bullshit with the best of them, and you would love him for it.
*No doubt, if this alternate universe existed, Stan Lee would have named it, numbered it, fit it into mainstream Marvel continuity, and had a crossover event where he meets Wolverine.
It’s probably not entirely accurate to call what Lee does “bullshit”. There is an element of the huckster to him, the slick and smooth-talking salesman with a handcart full of miracle cures, but what separates Lee is this: he unreservedly believes every single word he utters in praise of what he’s created. Listen to him tell Kevin Smith about Spider-man in this one-on-one interview. You don’t need to convince Kevin Smith that Spider-man is awesome -- the man is (and I mean this in the best way possible) king of the nerds -- but Stan Lee thinks Spider-man is AWESOME. He’s a superhero! He’s got the powers of a spider! He’s got danger-sense and a smoking hot redhead girlfriend! But he’s got flaws! He’s just a teenager! His aunt makes him wear galoshes! Spider-man is great, and Stan Lee would be his biggest fan if he wasn’t so fixated on making you his biggest fan.
It’s often believed that commercial viability and artistic integrity have to exist at two ends of a spectrum, but Stan Lee is a counter to that way of thinking. Look: he admits that he, along with artists Jack Kirby (whose date of death should be a national holiday) and Steve Ditko, came up with new characters primarily to fit with cooler and ever-more-ridiculous powers (this guy can fly! This guy can teleport!). This is an approach that, in the hands of a lesser writer, would be nothing more than a tool for marketing. It certainly was that in Lee’s glory days at Marvel, but I’m amazed at the sheer imagination it must have taken to come up with even one of the following characters:
Galactus! A star-faring alien in the form of a gigantic man in a purple outfit with a ridiculous helmet, Galactus consumes worlds. His is the Power Cosmic. He is not evil, but he’ll eat your world -- unless you posses the Ultimate Nullifier! (Pow!)
Iron Man! A technological knight and supergenius, who Lee created to see if he could make hippies and nerds love a capitalist and arms dealer whose primary power (aside from his brain) was oodles and oodles of cash. Did he succeed? You may have noticed that Robert Downey Jr. is no longer in rehab.
Doctor Doom! A sorcorer and dictator who hides behind a metal mask and nurses a seething hatred for Reed Richards -- not necessarily because Richards spoils his plans, but because he cannot abide the thought that Richards may be smarter than he is. Has a bitchin’ castle. Creates identical robot clones of himself from time to time.
The Scarlet Witch! Some heroes have super-strength. Others can control fire. Wanda Maximoff warps the very fabric of reality itself.
...and these are just four, out of hundreds. Sure, they’re marketable -- why do you think Captain America (another Lee creation) came back from the dead just recently -- but odds are, if you read comic books as a kid, these characters were practically gods to you. That’s why Lee thinks they’re so great, because in a way, they’re gods to him as well. They sprung from his head like four-color Athenae, made him famous, and in all likelihood will exist for as long as Western Civilization. Can you imagine a world without Spider-man? Heck, I can’t imagine a world without Ant-Man, and he sucks.
Lee loved every one of his characters (even Ant-Man) fiercely and unironically. Every time he signed off on a column with an “excelsior!” or answered a fan’s letter with the air of an avuncular old sage, he gave made it just a little bit easier for real people to care just as deeply as he did about their fiction. Stan Lee, almost a cartoon character himself, legitimized fandom in its best fashion -- an all-caps, exclamation-filled, declaration of pure love.
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.