As most people seem to know, Stan Lee recently died. While that’s definitely been a bummer, in an odd way, it’s given me hope. But that might need some explaining.
I always thought it would be a lonely day when the man who created Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Avengers, and so many other parts of my childhood died. I used to have to point out those cameos Stan Lee has become famous for, often explaining that the distinct old man with sunglasses was actually the mind behind whichever comic character’s movie we were watching. That hasn’t been necessary for the past few years though. Stan has become a well know icon as Marvel movies have continued to be massive successes. While Stan’s death would have been sad no matter what, I doubt that ten years ago his passing would have been so impactful outside the brotherhood of nerds (or “True Believers” as Stan used to call his fans).
To my surprise, I’ve seen so many people pay tribute to Stan. They’ve expressed how he impacted their lives. I’ve read about the way his work entertained and inspired them. It’s reminded me that there’s a certain unity in grief; very few things can bring people together like loss. Amidst the sadness of death, there has also been the undercurrent of hope. I think that’s exactly what Stan would have wanted.
Stan had something at the end of his comics called “Stan’s Soapbox,” a column where he usually wrote whatever he had on his mind, directly addressing the reader as he did. He always concluded these with the phrase “Excelsior” followed by an enthusiastic exclamation mark. I never knew what that meant but I thought it sounded neat. My brother, cousins, and myself soon adopted the saying and used it as a common sign off. A few years ago I wondered exactly what that catchphrase meant. As is the case with most cool sounding words I don’t know the meaning of, it has a Latin origin.
The definition of excelsior is “ever upward.” I thought that over and spent some time asking myself what Stan had meant by it. Eventually I realized that Stan had been sending subliminal messages to myself and other fellow true believers over the years. Every time I read one of Stan’s stories, he was reminding me that I should always be moving upward. No matter where I was in life or what was going on, there was a consistent ideal I could strive for. It seemed to be the aim of his life’s work to remind people that there is hope to be found even in the darkest of circumstances, something that many stories, superhero or otherwise, fail to achieve.
What’s so interesting about Stan’s work is the way he illustrated that message. For the most part superheroes had existed as godlike figures for the first half of the twentieth century. They were usually larger than life and removed from reality. Someone like Superman had a pretty good job and personal life. He had nothing to worry about outside the occasional piece of kryptonite.
Then Stan started to create superheroes. He made characters like The X-Men, young people who were persecuted and shunned by the world due to their genetic mutations. Tony Stark, the invincible Iron Man, faced death on a daily basis not only from the villains he fought but because the shrapnel lodged in his heart could kill him at any time. Guilt and death played a crucial role in Spider-Man’s origin and he quickly became one of my favorite characters as a kid.
Spider-Man was a fascinating superhero with a cool costume and powers, but more importantly he was also Peter Parker. When he wasn’t wearing a mask, he was just a guy. He struggled with the death of a father figure at a young age just as I had. He felt things common to the human experience like guilt and sorrow. His career as a superhero was continually plagued by tragedy. Those things didn’t have to happen for him to be a hero, but he still made the most of them. Spider-Man, like most Stan’s characters, proved that bad things happening didn’t mean you had to give up hope.
I think that brings up a deeper truth about hope. Stan’s characters didn’t exist in make-believe realms or fake circumstances. They knew sorrow and loss and heartache just like real people. Yet despite that they would continually choose to rise above their circumstances, never give up, and cling to hope. So often I’ve found that hope tends to deny reality. It pretends that the tragic circumstances of life simply do not exist and believes for something better. This is often seen as the strength of hope, but I think hope can be dangerous when used this way. While hope that doesn’t confront the harsh truths of life works as a theory or an abstract concept, it doesn’t do much in real life. Hope that denies reality is no hope at all; it’s empty.
Growing up in a Christian household, I was taught to see God working in all circumstances, good and bad. There have definitely been times where I’ve been able to see the positive side of tragic events or how good can come from them. I’ve been able to connect with others who have experienced loss and encourage them by sharing what I’ve learned. Those have been powerful moments.
There have been other times in my life though, times where I can’t see the point in why my dad and sister are both dead. Some days it seems like those things happened for no reason at all. I understand how those experiences can completely rob someone of hope. When those things occur, or when you just consider the state of the world, it can make you wonder if hope can ever actually be genuine.
Taken at face value, planet earth is a pretty disappointing place to live. I think the secret to a meaningful life is finding a way to live in a disappointing world without being a product of disappointment. The Bible talks about how a person should be in the world but not of the world. In a lot of ways, that was the case with Stan’s heroes. They faced great personal loss, acknowledging their suffering and attempting to work through it, but that didn’t make them cynical. They continued to believe in something better and pressed on, even when they didn’t have all the answers or when every part of them wanted to give up.
Ultimately I’ve realized the harsh truth is that there are some things in life I won’t have the answers to. No matter what, there will be days where the reasons I’ve come up with to explain certain tragedy won’t be enough. There might be times where I wonder what’s the point of it all. That doesn’t have to be the end of the story though. It might sound silly, but I’ve been encouraged time and time again to not give up by words printed on colorful pages. No matter how bad things were, I was continually reminded of the direction I needed to keep moving in. I’m still reminded of that every time the Marvel logo appears on the big screen.
It’s sad that Stan Lee is dead. He wasn’t just a great comic writer; I would put his name down alongside the literary greats. He created fantastical worlds that someone could escape to, but he also prompted us to look inward and learn more about each other. I can’t help but think of the world as a darker place without him. But Stan left behind a message that said so much to so many people on what it means to live with genuine hope. He taught me that lesson through his life and the characters he created, but I’m reminded of its great impact once again in his death. I’m comforted to see so many people have had that same experience I did with Stan’s work. He taught us all that though the world can be a dark, lonely, and confusing place, and that while we may stumble or lose sight of life’s meaning as we make our way through it, we should always be pressing in one direction. There’s a common trajectory mankind should aspire to: ever upward.
I think that’s what excelsior means. And it only took me all these years to figure out. Thanks, Stan.