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Stan Lee called his fans ‘true believers.’ But Stan the Man was the truest believer of all.

Washington Post comic book critic David Betancourt remembers legendary writer and editor Stan Lee and explains how and why he will be remembered. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)
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Stan Lee knew he was on to something.

The godfather of modern superhero comics, Lee, more than perhaps anyone else, knew the impact his library of Marvel heroes could have on the world of entertainment outside of the pages of the comics he printed.

“True believers” is how Stan Lee always referred to the Marvel Comics faithful. But most important was his own belief in his co-creations during decades with Marvel — a genuine, heart-filled faith that would inspire the minds who are producing live-action stories featuring Lee’s heroes on various screens. When Hollywood finally wised up to the possibilities for his characters, it gave him new life in his final years.

That Lee got to live to see the fantasy worlds in which he so believed become a part of the fabric of animation, television, streaming and cinema is perhaps the most super of all the tales he produced over the years.

Hollywood wasn’t always knocking on Marvel’s door. Some might say there were years where Lee was an uninvited guest in Tinseltown, back in the days when comic books were considered mere kids’ stuff. But Lee knew producers were likely blinded by the bright colors, superhero spandex suits and names such as Galactus that they just “didn’t get.” They didn’t seem to realize that Marvel Comics always looked outside their windows in New York and pumped a little bit of the world into their stories.

Stan Lee became one of pop culture’s greatest showmen — by making fans feel like part of the club

The X-Men with their super-powered take on civil rights. Spider-Man not being a billionaire playboy, but a scared teen unsure whether he had what it took to handle the responsibility of his power. When characters of color were mere footnotes and stereotypes, Lee and Jack Kirby gave the world the Black Panther, now a billion-dollar movie franchise and a black-culture icon. It was all there. And Lee always believed. He knew the rest of the world would catch up eventually.

What joy it must have given Stan “The Man” not only to be around when superheroes became big business in Hollywood but also to be a big part of it. A Stan Lee cameo was always an anticipated moment in a Marvel movie. Those cameos were there for a good laugh and a wink to the audience but also out of respect for the man who spent much of his life knowing Marvel had a bolder destiny outside the printing press.

As those cameos became more plentiful, Lee became just as much of star as any other “man” of Marvel, including Robert Downey Jr. and all the Chrises — Evans, Hemsworth and Pratt.

His ventures to duplicate his superhero-creating magic through comics and other media outside of Marvel never amounted to much, and many pondered whether the legendary artists with whom he collaborated at Marvel, such as Kirby and Steve Ditko, were the real magic creators. And because of the many bad Marvel business deals in the 1990s, including selling off characters' movie rights to various studios, Stan didn’t cash in nearly as much as he probably could have once Disney dropped $4 billion on Marvel in 2009. He was never Tony Stark-rich. But there’s no denying the impact he had as a writer, editor and ambassador of the Marvel superhero brand on comic book culture.

You can’t tell the tale of this current era of seemingly endless superhero entertainment without mentioning the man who always knew we’d get here someday. For those of us who love comics and all that they have become, we will always be eternally grateful to Stan Lee. Excelsior.

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