Editor's note: This weekend's "Avengers: Endgame" will include the latest posthumous cameo from Stan Lee in a Marvel movie, five months after his death at 95. Playwright and Marvel fans Lissa Brennan wrote this memory for Legacy.
As a young punk in the years 80, trying to understand my future, I was destroyed.
The theater, my first love, has kept me fascinated by comedy, tragedy, music and dance since I was a child. But a new thrill beckoned: political activism, which punk bands like the Clash and X showed me could go beyond the cliché of adolescent rebellion to conscious, thoughtful and deliberate dissent.
Certainly I didn't need Stan Lee to teach me about art or politics.
But I needed him to teach me that I didn't have to choose between the two.
"Bigotry and racism are among the most lethal social ills that afflict the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they cannot be stopped with a punch in the snoot or a zap by a ray gun ".
I read those words as a high school student, decades after Stan Lee wrote and published on a Marvel Comics editorial page. They were true then, and they are true now. The difference is that, at the time, I thought that the only people free to pronounce such words were those whose identities were defined by the struggle for the cause.
In my head, I screamed with every word, syllable and hiccup of the Crass band's diatribes against sexism, toxic masculinity, submission to the government – anything. At the same time, I was also ready to intervene for any main character or choir member, if someone had launched an impromptu production of "Grease" right in front of the Orange Julius shelter at the mall.
And I didn't feel good about this. Which person was I?
"Do both" didn't seem like an option in those days. Participation in one thing seemed to diminish the other. You had to choose. And as a teenager, they make you believe that your choices are irreversible. Once you have chosen your path and walked on it, there is no way to go back, your bridges burn behind you even when you cross them. I was sure I had to choose. I didn't know how.
"The only way to destroy them is to expose them – to reveal them for the insidious evils that they really are."
And then I saw these words: the words of an activist, the words of a partisan, a champion. Written by a man who made comic books. And who has continued to create comics. And his activism was not minimized by his creative work. And his art has not been underestimated by his activism. And now it looks like such a simple idea. But it wasn't then.
Mr. Lee's belief system was part of him. It was significant, important, honest and pure. And being so, it always has been, whether it was the part of him currently engaged or not. Whether it was visible in your work at any time or not.
And sometimes it was. Sometimes. He allowed it to climb to the crest and crash in waves when he could do it effectively without becoming didactic or bullying. It allowed him to swim beneath the surface, undergoing the currents when his greatest power could be found in subtlety. And a lot of time, he let it go to the depths, sleeping on the sandy bottom because at that particular moment, that was his place.
He showed me that you could be an artist and you could be an activist, and if you were these things, you were always these things, no matter how much they were on the move or at rest. He showed me that there could and should be an intersection between them when it was what worked, but it is not necessary to force it when it was not. And that the choice not to push an agenda in every single second didn't have to mean compromise – which for me was similar to submission – but could instead mean a balance. A bright sun grows invisible against a fiery sky, but it is radiant in contrast to the darkness.
"Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other for our merits."
Well, it looks like it will be later. And it seems that the plagues I protested when I thought they were as bad as they could be, during my first round of awareness, are back and worse than ever. And the thoughts I thought I had forgotten that I needed to dedicate myself to activism and activism are back.
Those who are already doing something to fight the evils of the world are the most agonized ones that we are not doing enough. We don't see how we can go to work, go to school, eat in restaurants, read books, watch movies, live and laugh and love when there's so much to do.
But the last thing each of us has to do is be so overwhelmed by the fires that ignite us in the action that we are completely consumed by them. And I am reminded of the lesson I was taught many years ago, but apparently I needed to learn again.