Stan Lee wrote just for me.
At least, that’s the way it felt.
I was a kid in the 1960s, a child born in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration to parents striving to move from working class to middle class.
That was Stan’s heyday.
We called him Stan even though we’d never met him – that was part of his appeal, part of his genius. He made us feel that we did know him, that we were pals.
He called us Fellow True Believers. It made us feel good.
Stan helped an upstart comic company, Marvel, revolutionize the way “funny books” – older folks’ derisive term back then – told stories.
It’s hard for people who weren’t young then to understand what it meant for a young boy to be a Marvel fan as opposed to a DC fan in the ’60s. It involved more than a personal preference. It was a fledgling cultural statement, a stripling credo about understanding how the world worked.
DC was the big fish – the shark, the whale – in the comic book ocean. DC’s heroes – Superman, Batman, the Flash, the Green Arrow – all were square-jawed, chiseled, unconflicted noble men. They never knew doubt. In their worlds, the public adored them. Women swooned over them. Doing the right thing never seemed to cost them anything.
Marvel’s heroes were different.
Their lives were much more confused and complicated.
Just like our own.
Perhaps the best example was Spider-Man, the character who captivated my friends and me.
Peter Parker, the face behind the spider mask, was a teenager. He was bright, but insecure and socially awkward.
Just like millions of American boys trying to negotiate the twisting road by which childhood traveled into adolescence and then manhood.
Just like us.
No wonder Stan called us Fellow True Believers.
Spider-Man came to be, Stan explained, because he thought young people would enjoy reading about someone they could relate to, someone like them. Until that radioactive spider bit Peter Parker, teenagers always were the sidekick, never the hero.
Stan was more right than perhaps even he knew.
Unlike DC’s heroes, Peter Parker struggled. He wasn’t always sure he knew the right thing to do. He strove to balance responsibilities, did his best and still often disappointed people. He could beat the bad guy but, in the battle, forget to do his homework and bomb a test. He could discover he liked a girl and then he would wonder – no, agonize – over whether she liked him, too.
No wonder we Fellow True Believers could relate.
Stan, at times, could be dismissive of his contributions – calling them entertainments or just stories about people wearing long underwear. He shouldn’t have been modest. The man was a born teacher and his lessons mattered.
Again, Spider-Man is a great example.
At its essence, Peter Parker’s tale is a story about a young person coming to terms with his capacity to do good or harm – “with great power comes great responsibility,” Stan wrote.
That’s about as succinct a statement about what it means to grow into adulthood as you’ll find.
We all, as we leave childhood and adolescence behind, must come to terms with our capacities and our duties to ourselves, to our family, to our friends, to our community and to the larger world.
That’s what makes us grownups.
Stan helped with that.
He pushed us to ponder difficult things. He wrote about race. He wrote about drugs. He wrote about the environment. He wrote about equality and inequality. He wrote about what it meant to be a moral human being.
But he never condescended to us. He didn’t lecture us. He just told us these were tough questions, things with which we would have to wrestle all our lives.
Stan Lee died a few days ago. He was 95.
To later generations, he’s the guy who made all the funny cameos in the massive Marvel movie hits, sort of a kindly old uncle with a mustache, glasses and crinkly eyes.
For millions of people my age, though, he’s something else, a guy who made a difference, a man who helped us grow up.
A Fellow True Believer.
May he rest in peace.
JOHN KRULL is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism.