The news of Stan Lee’s passing hit us hard. You would think that given his age – 95 years young – we would have seen it coming, but – plot twist – we did not. Much like one of the characters in the universe he helped create, he seemed invincible. Ever since the Marvel franchise started to really gain traction ten years ago, I’ve been bringing my kids to see their relentless stream of blockbusters, annoying them with a sharp elbow whenever Lee’s cameo happened, whispering ‘that’s Stan Lee’ at them as though they ought to know who he is.
But as the years went by and the boys became more and more interested in superhero movies, soon they were the ones turning to me to point out Lee, as I was usually taking the opportunity to doze off despite 100 decibels of surround-sound mayhem.
But it’s not the frequency of the Marvel films that is so striking, rather that they were so consistently good. Lee was the Steve Jobs of comics, as they shared an uncanny ability for surrounding themselves with incredibly talented people. So it was that Stan Lee became a symbol of the shared love my sons and I share. For many fathers, it is sport, but for us, it is a fictional universe filled with strange creatures and relentless chaotic struggles for power. So kind of like sport, but mainly just FIFA.
Marvel for us has become myth – a series of allegories that help me explain the world to them. All the great lessons are there – Tony Stark shows us that money doesn’t buy happiness, Magneto teaches us that magnetic people are often terribly damaged, Wolverine shows that anger whilst occasionally useful generally leaves you poor and alone. Even for my ten year old, showing the first signs of the series of unfortunate biological events that make up puberty, can see that Peter Parker’s transformation into Spider-Man is more about becoming a young man, and how to manage that, than about a kid who is half spider. You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to get the subtext of a teenage boy being able to shoot sticky webs with a flick of his wrist.
I’ve used comics to explain many things to my kids, even the differences between the two main political parties in Ireland – one is like Marvel; populist, massively overbudgeted blockbusters that offer us brief periods of escapism before we return to the grim reality of our lives with a belly full of overpriced Jelly Babies, while the other is more like the DC comic universe; unpopular with the masses, filled with noirish intrigue, difficult choices, and pervading sense of gloom. But my mid-level nerdiness about comics is probably more of an affliction on my kids, than gifting them with any real life skills. I know that my nerdiness has a lot to do with being an introvert and, if I’m honest, a bit of a loner – a part of myself that I’m not especially keen to pass on. I have tried to get them into sports that I have no interest in, attempted to be enthusiastic about hauling out to training so I can awkwardly attempt to chat to other dads about sporting events I haven’t seen, but in the end I realise that the reason my kids and I like comics isn’t some genetic predisposition, but rather that they are just little versions of me – slightly awkward introverts who find greater value in being able to identify the graphic artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz than in being able to spot an offside.
A sure sign that I have infected them with my nerdy tendencies was the recent discovery that my eldest son has started drawing comic books at the back of his school copies. So far it’s mostly just scenes based on video games, but no doubt it will soon move on to poorly drawn women in metal bikinis, then reasonably well-drawn women in metal bikinis, then on to strangely homoerotic robots, and after that who knows – but thanks to Stan Lee, there actually might be a career in it for him. Excelsior!