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Commentary Culture

Marvel's Stan Lee dies: Remembering the godfather of geeks and my former boss

CNET's Bonnie Burton remembers Lee not just as the co-creator of beloved superheroes, but as an enthusiastic fan of comic book fans themselves.

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Bonnie Burton takes a selfie with Stan Lee on one of the many comic book convention panels promoting his World of Heroes YouTube channel.

Bonnie Burton/CNET

There are some entertainment legends we all like to think of as immortal gods, and superhero creator Lee, who died at 95 in Los Angeles, was one of them.

"My father loved all of his fans. He was the greatest, most decent man," his daughter, J.C., told TMZ of his passing. Kirk Schenck, an attorney for Lee's daughter, confirmed his death to the Associated Press, but the cause has not yet been announced. 

The homemade Stan Lee spoon puppet I made on Geek DIY for his World of Heroes YouTube network.

Bonnie Burton/CNET

Writer, editor and publisher of Marvel Comics, Lee had recently suffered multiple illnesses, including a bout of pneumonia earlier this year, which he revealed during during a press conference in February. He said poor health had caused him to cancel several appearances.

"I want you all to know I'm thinking of you, of course I always think of the fans, and I hope you're all doing well, and I miss you all," Lee said at the time.

Sure, he was in his nineties -- an age many people (let alone celebrities) never reach -- but Lee was more than just a celebrity. The Generalissimo, as he dubbed himself and was affectionately referred to by fans, seemed to transcend mortal rules.

Lee was best known as the man bringing Marvel's superheroes -- including Spider-Man, Thor, X-Men and the Avengers -- to life in comics, movies and TV shows. On his own and with artist-writers Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, he made Marvel the top publisher of comic books and a media powerhouse. Lee collaborated with Kirby on the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, Silver Surfer and X-Men. With Ditko he created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. 

"I always wrote for myself," Lee told the Hollywood Reporter two years ago. "I figured I'm not that different from other people. If there's a story I like a lot, there's got to be others with similar tastes."

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The National Endowment for the Arts awarded Lee a National Medal of Arts in 2008. 

Lee created hundreds of colorful characters in the 95 years he spent on this planet, so many it can be hard to pick a favorite (we did anyway.) 

"Stan Lee was as extraordinary as the characters he created," Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO of the The Walt Disney Company, said in a statement Monday. "A superhero in his own right to Marvel fans around the world, Stan had the power to inspire, to entertain, and to connect. The scale of his imagination was only exceeded by the size of his heart."

Shane Duffy, CEO of Stan Lee's POW Entertainment, on Monday called the comics legend "the father of pop culture."   

Lee loved investing in new ways to entertain the masses, including scripted online shows. He also had fun as the face of Marvel, with cameo appearances in nearly every Marvel film (rewatch some of the best ones here). 

Lee was briefly my boss when I created and hosted a web series called Geek DIY for his YouTube network World of Heroes. I was so excited to have Lee as an employer I dedicated an entire episode to how to make a puppet of him, which he found very amusing.

Whenever I had the honor to be in his presence, mostly at comic book conventions, Lee was full of excitement. He always seemed like a kid in a candy store and loved seeing fans cosplay his creations.

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Lee got a special kick out of little kids who'd ask him questions during his many appearances on panels. I remember one convention Q&A session where an excited young Spider-Man fan asked Lee if he could name a cat after him. Lee laughed and jokingly responded that it was fine -- as long as he got paid a commission.

Lee was always smiling and energetic, even when the rest of us were worn out from a jam-packed convention schedule.

When I was on a press tour with Lee and other web series creators to promote the World of Heroes network, he happily posed with us for photos and listened when we giddily told him how excited we were to be working with him.

He always asked about how our shows were progressing and what we were creating when we saw him at press junkets or while waiting in green rooms. There was a mutual sense of respect, which was crazy to think considering Lee was a legend and we were all just basking in his greatness.

This is what it looks like when you're on a panel with actor America Young, reality TV star Adrianne Curry and a very happy Stan Lee.

Bonnie Burton/CNET

One of my most cherished memories of Lee happened one year at San Diego Comic-Con. I was on a panel with him, Mark Hamill, reality star Adrianne Curry and America Young -- who all had various shows on his network.

Our panel was in one of the largest rooms at Comic-Con, and I was a bit anxious to be talking in front of a room full of comic book fans thrilled to be breathing the same air as Lee and Hamill.

As fate would have it, it was also my 40th birthday that day, and when I told Lee he gave me a huge hug and urged me not to be nervous. We took the stage, and sat down. Then Lee winked at me and told the crowd to sing "Happy Birthday" to me. I'll never forget that.

Lee had a special effect on the people in his orbit. He could make you feel like anything was possible, that it was perfectly normal to admire superheroes -- because he did too. He was as big a fan of his superheroes as we all were.

He was like a granddad who told the best stories about the kind of heroes we all wish were real.

Lee was a magnet for creative people who would bend over backward to impress him. But the funny thing was, Lee already believed in his fans. He loved them like family, and we loved him back. We'll miss you, Generalissimo.

First published Nov. 12, 10:54 a.m. PT.
Update, 12:17 p.m. PT: Added background on Stan Lee, including where he died, his awards from the National Endowment for the Arts and a statement from Disney CEO Bob Iger.