“Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee has died today at the age of ninety five…”
The announcement hit the internet Monday morning like a wave, leaving long-time fans of the Marvel icon devastated - including myself. Like so many others, I spent the rest of the day reflecting on my childhood and every single run-in I had with Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe.
It’s hard to put into words just how impactful Marvel has been on my life. Until this week, I don’t even know if I was completely cognizant of how big a role Stan Lee played in my childhood and adolescence; how much he contributed to my sense of self-worth as an adult.
I was raised an immigrant, only child in an incredibly sheltered home and felt very alone most of my life. Outside of school and church, I didn't have anyone with whom I could talk and no one understood anything that I was experiencing as an immigrant kid growing up without a father. I relied on my wild imagination to get me through long weekend and summer days by myself while my night nurse mother slept trying to catch up on rest. One of my favorite things to do on Saturdays spent alone was to watch X-Men the cartoon on television. I would sing the theme song out loud and then jump around the house pretending to be some made-up mutant who went to Professor X's School for the Gifted.
In high school, my two best friends and I created mutant alter egos for ourselves and drew up sketches for what our costumes would look like. I was Cidney Spaz Girl - a young mutant with the ability to exhaust my enemies into submission using my super loud volume and hyper energy. Also, I could move things with my mind. I created a poll in which I would ask random students, "If you could have any two superhuman powers, what would you choose and why?" I made meticulous notes and created a handwritten spreadsheet tracking everyone’s choice of powers and the reasons why they were chosen. I found it interesting that most people said they either wanted to fly or be invisible and was shocked that more people did not want to be telekinetic; I decided this was due to the fact that most normal humans lacked imagination. In reality, I was determining who amongst the student body truly had powers and selecting which of my peers I wanted on my mutant team should the war between us and non-gifted humans break out.
I remember finding out that the first X-Men movie was finally in production. I was fifteen years old and waiting for my mother to complete her transaction with a teller at our bank. Sitting in the waiting area, I opened up a random magazine and there on the side was a barely noticeable sidebar reporting that Halle Barry and Patrick Stewart had been cast in the upcoming film based on the popular comic series. I was livid - how dare they cast this movie before I had a chance to pursue my own career as a successful actor! I marched up to my mother at the teller window, magazine in hand, showed her the article and, in the most serious tone my fifteen year old self could muster - because this was very serious - exclaimed, "MOM! LOOK AT THIS! They're making X-Men into a movie!... WITHOUT ME!!!!"
This obsession with mutants and superhuman powers never really went away. I still secretly dream that one day I’ll wake up and discover that I have the ability to manipulate matter with my mind. I realize now that, deep down, this fantasy is the result of extreme loneliness and isolation I felt as the only immigrant child at church, in my class at school, at soccer practice - everywhere. Anywhere I existed, even a room full of people, I existed alone. I was "other" and it just seemed so incredible to hope that maybe one day I would find a group of underground, superhuman outcasts who understood my struggles and accepted me for me.
I see how that hope has shaped every choice I've made as an adult - how it lead me to choose the man I eventually married, how it’s encouraged me to create the friendships I value most. This extreme feeling of alone-ness and the rage that grew within me as a result even empowered me to co-found the Baltimore Asian Pasifika Arts Collective with a group of likeminded “Others” who are just as determined as I am to give young immigrants and Third Culture Kids opportunities to commune with one another; opportunities most of us never really had as children. As an adult, I spend an inexplicable amount of time trying to figure out how I can adjust my mentality so that my character flaws morph into my superhuman strengths. I make an effort to spend just as much time helping others do the same.
When I heard that Stan Lee died, I spent the rest of my day reminiscing about some of the most painful moments of my past. It never occurred to me until this week how much Stan Lee’s work informed my own. To grow up watching superheroes who doubled as outcasts - "Others" - and struggled to accept themselves despite being gifted with amazing abilities was empowering. These characters and their fantastic stories infiltrated every ounce of my being and psyche. I see how Stan Lee’s world emboldened me as an "Other" - as a child, as an immigrant, as a woman, as a person of color. His characters became my guides who showed me how to morph my pain and sadness into strength and determination.
I still get giddy when I hear the X-Men cartoon theme song and will tell you any day that Gambit will always be my bae. Every time I watch another Marvel movie, I am transported back to my childhood - jumping on furniture, mom screaming at me to be quiet so she can sleep. When I was cast in Daredevil this year, the little girl in me leaped for joy knowing that, for a moment, I'd get to be a part of a world that I fantasized about my whole life.
It's crazy to think that a bunch of cartoons could help shape your perspective of the world and your own being. But Stan Lee’s X-Men did. And for that, I will always be grateful.
Rest Easy, Stan Lee. Thank you for empowering millions of "Others" just like me. ‘Nuff said.