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What Stan Lee's Death Means to Me as Someone With Depression

“I love the X-Men, and one of the reasons I came up with the X-Men was to, in some subtle way, let the readers know that there’s no such thing as somebody who’s bad just because he or she is different.” — Stan Lee, Denver Comic-Con, 2016.

When the news report first popped up on my computer screen on the afternoon of November 12th, I found no reason to believe it was true. There had been hoax reports prior to this one claiming the same thing — that the legendary Stan Lee of Marvel Comics had passed away. This, I was certain, had to be the same familiar mix-up, some sort of occurrence of misinformation passed through the grapevine. After all, the news outlets reporting the story were unfamiliar to me. I wasn’t going to trust random blogs on the internet with a story like this.

Thing is, the story became a little harder to deny when the New York Times came through with their own story: Stan Lee Is Dead at 95; Superhero of Marvel Comics.

I allowed myself a moment to breathe, surprised at how the news had hit me so quickly, so deeply and so personally. Turning to my colleagues, I quietly excused myself to visit the restroom in an attempt to collect myself. It was true, then. Someone I had appreciated so much and someone who, though he had never met me himself, had unknowingly and unintentionally taken care of me for years was gone.

Utterly crushed, I leaned against the bathroom wall and took a deep breath. My first thought — a question, really — was one of panic:

What was I going to do now?

Falling in love with the world of comic books was never my intention. But when a friend invited me to see the latest X-Men film at the age of 16, I begrudgingly agreed. I had absolutely no interest, but at least I’d get popcorn out of it.

It was a reluctant introduction to X-Men. It was also, I’d soon discover, a serendipitous one. Around the very same time, upon entering my adolescence, I met my mental illness for the first time.

I had always been an extroverted child — inquisitive, talkative, curious and constantly addicted to the possibility and the thrill of meeting someone new. But once I entered my teenage years, I became someone new seemingly overnight, someone I didn’t recognize. I didn’t like this new person. She was timid, quiet and paranoid. Voices lived in her head, voices that whispered to her she was disgusting and embarrassing and useless. She was worth nothing, the voice would say.

And I began to agree. When you lock yourself away and that voice is your only companion, it becomes harder and harder to argue.

Back to X-Men. I entered the movie theater with no faith and certainly with no hope that this movie would change anything about my life. And yet, “X-Men: The Last Stand” introduced me to characters I understood all too well without ever having met them before. They were different. They were ostracized. They were unloved. They were feared.

They embodied everything I had felt, everything I’d been too scared to voice out loud.

Rogue, one of the youngest members of the X-Men team, stood out to me above the others. She was a reflection of myself I hadn’t yet seen in the media. She was young and scared, her abilities new and foreign to her. Rogue, much like me, wasn’t sure of herself, nor did she know how to handle this new life of hers. She even had a head of brown hair with an unusual white streak, just like me and my own birthmark. It was almost as though Stan Lee knew me personally and turned me into the superhero I always had the potential to be.

I had been so filled with an isolated sense of self-hatred and hopelessness. And yet, before me, I saw a group of characters who were different, who were misunderstood and still able to use their unique abilities for good. They didn’t have to be feared. They didn’t have to hide from the world.

Maybe that meant I didn’t have to hide either.

My friends, at the conclusion of the film, bounced with excitement and asked what I thought. I shrugged indifferently. “It was OK.”

But it was more than OK. It was everything I needed without even knowing. Someone out there got me. And through this one simple action movie, I felt understood. Through this one film, I suddenly knew I wasn’t alone.

Stan Lee became a familiar face in my life. I recognized each and every Stan Lee cameo through Marvel film history. I read his comic books. I attended midnight movie premieres, something I never before would’ve done for fear of being surrounded by strangers, and found myself cheering along with unfamiliar fans and gasping at every twist and turn. The Marvel universe became my hideaway, my safe place where I could hang out for a moment. Just the weight of the comic books comforted me, like a security blanket draped across my lap.

Though he wasn’t a character Stan Lee created, it was Captain America whom I loved most, and it was because of Stan Lee that I knew him at all. It took me a few years to notice that whenever I was at the lowest moments in my life, I found myself in a comic book store. With decades upon decades of Captain America comics, I was never without reading material. And so I’d pluck a new comic off the shelf, sit for a moment and distract myself with the adventures of Steve Rogers.

Before becoming a 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound super-soldier, Steve Rogers was small, weak and believed to be unfit for the army duty he so wished to serve. Others would look at him in pity, possessing little faith he’d make it out of any situation alive. And yet, he always managed to do just that. He didn’t have much — no money, no family, no physical strength — but he had faith in himself. More than that, he had faith in humanity and did whatever he could to protect it. If Captain America could defy the odds, why couldn’t I? If Captain America could spend one moment believing in himself, why couldn’t I? If Captain America knew me, wouldn’t he believe in me too?

Wouldn’t Stan Lee?

He may not have created Captain America but he did offer one of my favorite contributions to the character: It was because of Stan Lee that Captain America’s shield was round. The shield was previously triangular, but it was because of Stan Lee that Captain America’s shield was weaponized, made circular so he could protect himself when the shield was thrown.

Stan Lee did the same for all of his fans, offering a shield to us all with his library of comic books. Because of these heroes, we aren’t alone. Because of what Stan Lee created, we have an entire universe looking out for us. And all we have to do is choose a comic from the shelf.

After a long moment of sitting with my sadness that day, I finally reminded myself of a joke shared between me and my friends: “Relax. No one ever dies in the Marvel universe. They always come back.”

Stan Lee is gone. And yet, I don’t feel abandoned. Stan Lee dedicated his life to giving us a family of superheroes as strange and beautiful as we are. He may physically be gone but his legacy lives on, supported by decades of work and an entire universe of beloved characters. And the best part about that is that it’s available whenever we need it.

I came home the night of November 12th, a little emotional, a little uncertain, and found my favorite Marvel movie in my collection. And the moment I saw the infamous Marvel logo flicker across the screen, I sighed with relief. My security blanket isn’t gone. So long as I have a shelf, the books and movies of Stan Lee will have a place with me, offering comfort as they have all my life.

Image via Stan Lee Facebook Page

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