By this point, I would think, anyone with an affinity for comics and superheroes is aware that Stan Lee died recently at the age of ninety-five. Today, December 28, would have been his ninety-sixth birthday. Sounds like the perfect day to remember and give thanks as we look forward to a new year of challenges and hopes.
Like so many people my life was touched by Stan Lee (1). The day Lee died I received a text from my twelve-year-old daughter which read, “STAN LEE DIED!!!!” I hesitated before answering, stunned not so much by the news as I already knew Lee had died, but of the thread flowing from his work through me and now touching my daughter. At forty-seven I have read the news of numerous celebrities and singers whose deaths gave me moments of pause and reflection, but never one who entrenched themselves in my life on such a fundamental level. Aware that I did not want to project my thoughts into my daughter I carefully responded to her with the following, “I know. I saw that. It’s so sad, but made me think how his characters brought me so much entertainment as a kid and he brought my kids entertainment, too. So, thanks for the gift, Stan Lee.”
So Much More than Entertainment…Even When I Didn’t Know it
After sending the text I instantly thought how it was so much more than entertainment. So much more. Carol Pearson, a teacher and student of archetypal psychology and myth, wrote, “Humans are storytelling creatures…we are sensitive to the tone of narratives lived around us and already (by age two) we have begun collecting thousands of images that resonate emotionally with us in some important way” (2). This was, perhaps, Lee’s greatest contribution. He provided mythic heroes and tales, morality plays and role models, for anyone (but in particular kids) who stepped into the mighty Marvel universe. I didn’t realize it at the time, but many of the “images that resonated with me” came from Marvel Comics.
In high school the book 1984 made more sense to me when I imagined Dr. Doom pulling the strings of Big Brother. Hamlet can’t make up his mind? Are those doubts anything like Peter Parker struggling with the decision to remain Spider-Man or Ben Grimm’s struggle to accept his life as the Thing? The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had nothing on the Hulk. Loyalty – Captain America. Courage – Black Panther! I mean, he has no super powers and yet he charges into combat with powerhouses like Ultron and Michael Korvac (3). Is Odin King Lear? I can’t lift Mjolnir but can I make strong stands like Thor? How do the X-Men keep persevering when people hate them so much? Come to think of it, why do people hate and can it be overcome?
These are not small questions or unimportant character traits to consider. I was given the opportunity to contemplate them at my level as a kid and, as an adult, I am amazed at the issues Stan Lee challenged me to wrestle with – even when I didn’t realize I was in the match! It is sometimes said the best learning is achieved when the student doesn’t see the lesson coming. There is curriculum and then the undercurrent of meaning that cannot be forced. I call them “lesson grenades” as they often “explode” well after a class session is over. At the age of Forty-seven and with twenty-four years of teaching experience I can say I learned more about constructing lessons that have the possibility of leaving a lasting impact from Stan Lee (and Tolkien, and Spielberg, and Lucas, and…) then I ever did from courses on education which were far more business than art. It is any wonder there is a soulless lack of wonder that often permeates schools?
Don’t be Fooled (or should I have said Hasty?)
I can imagine there are people who would read the previous line (…soulless lack of wonder…) and be dismissive of it or find it too cynical for their taste. People tend to dichotomize the world into opposites; either you’re an optimist or pessimist, and never the twain shall meet!
It is this form of splitting the world that prevents growth and community. The middle path is the hardest to walk but also where enduring healing and sustainable progress is found.
I do not see the admittance of a “soulless lack of wonder” as pessimistic or cynical. I think it is far more accurate to view such a proclamation as a sign of cynical hope (or, perhaps, optimistic cynicism). No problem was ever solved by failing to admit its existence! Now, I am not in favor in seeing a problem just for the sake of pointing out flaws and casting blame. Such behavior exists somewhere on a scale between immature and reprehensible. Almost as reprehensible as ignoring problems or making molehills out of actual mountains. You see, mature negativity can only exist with a positive core.
In a previous post (Don’t Say the H-Word) I introduced positive psychology. This school in the world of psychology is far more than merely having positive and healthy thoughts or donning rose colored glasses while spewing Pollyanna while the world is on fire. As Christopher Peterson noted, positive psychology does not “ignore or dismiss the very real problems that people experience” (4).
It does, however, focus on the strengths people possess and, more importantly, how to build those strengths to increase one’s fulfillment while buttressing them to overcome hardships. Positive psychologist “…realizes the value in growing through adversity” (5). Diener (2008) wrote a chapter for the book The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration. His contribution evaluated the positive psychology of Marvel icon Peter Parker/Spider-Man. In his conclusion he praises Spider-Man as “an inspiring example of a person who rises to challenges on a consistent basis, and flourishes because he has the opportunity to use his greatest talents and strengths. He inspires all of us to harness our virtues…” (6).
Spider-Man is an apt exemplar for such an evaluation for almost no hero fails and rises quite so much as Spider-Man. Granted, you and I cannot lift cars, stick to walls, or utilize spider-sense but Diener is not asking us to. He states, quite rightly, that we can “harness our virtues” like our fictional heroes. It is these virtues that enable Spider-Man to endure hardships.
Perhaps the best example of Spider-Man failing (7) is when (in the iconic Amazing Spider-Man #122) his girlfriend Gwen Stacey is killed despite his efforts to save her. This scene was brought to the big screen thirty-one years later in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014). Super powers did not avail Peter in these scenes, but his humanity enabled him to endure the dark night and, eventually, rise to fight another day. It is what our humanity is supposed to do for us as well, even without Spider powers.
The Greatest of Super Powers
Two of the character strengths identified by positive psychology are hope and perseverance, traits Spider-Man has in abundance. In the long term they helped Spider-Man come to grips with the death of Gwen. Sometimes, however, life demands powerful bursts of energy that find their fuel in these twin traits.
One of Spider-Man’s earliest story arcs, found in Amazing Spider-Man #31-33 (1965-66) and written by Stan Lee, finds him desperately seeking a serum to save his beloved and ailing Aunt May. Naturally, a villain (Dr. Octopus) also has his eyes on the serum. After a battle with Octopus, Spider-Man finds himself pinned and seemingly helpless under a mountain of rubble, the serum mere feet away from him as his enemy has fled the collapsing building. After initially despairing over his predicament, “I’ll never make it—I can’t–!”, Spidey digs in deep. Giving himself a pep-talk he declares, “Anyone can win a fight—when the odds — are easy! It’s when the going’s tough—when there seems to be no chance—that’s when—it counts!” With a final surge of energy Spider-Man throws off the rubble, accentuated by Lee’s exposition, “…from out of the pain — from out of the anguish — comes triumph!”
This scene, which has been homaged in Spider-Man comics through the years, was brought to the big screen in the MCU’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). While I was not alive when the moment was first rendered in 1966 I was well aware of it as I sat, and relished, watching it play out (with my kids) in the movie theater.
There is another trait at work in this scene. In the original story from 1966 Spider-Man notes the presence of love that is driving his efforts, proclaiming, “I’ll do it, Aunt May! I won’t fail you!” Homages to the scene have him pinpointing his wife (Mary Jane), his unborn children, and the memory of his Uncle Ben as the source of his drive (8). Of course, they all have one thing in common – love. Love drives Spider-Man to his greatest victories. Without it he would not be the hero he is. Perhaps his greatest super power is ours as well.
Back to the Beginning
If it seems we have gotten a little away for Stan Lee with this foray into positive psychology and Spider-Man you can rest assured we have not. He’s been with us all along. One of the driving forces of my teaching is the Buddhist adage, “Remember the lesson, forget the teacher.” I’ve been told by truly valued colleagues that this is likely impossible as students, even over time, tend to remember the teachers who taught them memorable lessons. This is likely true but it does not change the fact that I strive to teach lessons that are so much bigger than me. So much more important.
Spider-Man, and the power of love and hope, is but one of Stan Lee’s lessons so when we discuss Spidey, we are discussing Mr. Lee. He’s there, in his creation. Offering inspiration and guidance. So allow me to say, “Thanks, Stan. You’re the best teacher I ever had.”
This story, thankfully, does not end with me. My daughter responded to the my text with the following message. “Yeah. I didn’t grow up with the comics but without the comics we wouldn’t have marvel movies. And the movies have had a big impact on my life. So thanks for the gift Stan Lee.”
See you next time, true believers!
- I think necessary to note that almost every word I wrote in this essay could be applicable to the great Jack Kirby, who collaborates with Stan Lee for years as they combined their creative powers to build Marvel Comics. Kirby died in 1994, well before I had this website or, frankly, any real insight. So, even though the title of this essay thanks Stan, Jack Kirby’s presence is a prevalent force throughout.
- Pearson, C and Marr, H. “Introduction to Archetypes: A Companion for Understanding and Using the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator Instrument” (2002). Center for Applications of Psychological Types, Inc.
- So, any dedicated comic geeks reading this who remember the “Korvac Saga” from the late 1970’s?
- Rosenberg, R and Canzoneri, J (Editors), The Psychology of Superheroes: An Unauthorized Exploration (2008). p 73
- ibid. p 74
- Okay…fine…second best. Sorry Uncle Ben.
- As noted, in the first version of this scene Aunt May was the source of inspiration. The homages and their sources of inspiration are as follows: MJ as inspiration in Spectacular Spider-Man 168 and Peter Parker: Spider-Man. Kids as inspiration in Spectacular Spider-Man 229. Uncle Ben as inspiration in Amazing Spider-Man 365.