Why Stan Lee was our superhero
As movie fans mourn the passing of comic book legend Stan Lee, Linda Stewart talks to four NI people about the huge impact Marvel's creations have had on their lives
‘It is an incredible legacy for Stan to have left behind him’
Niamh Lennon (25), from Bangor, works as a hotel receptionist. She studied special and visual effects at the University of Bolton
Niamh has been a Marvel fan since childhood and is a regular cosplayer at Belfast's sci-fi conventions, dressing up as many comic book characters.
"Every year I would go dressed up - sometimes it's as anime or gaming characters and sometimes it's Marvel characters," she says. "You're walking around the place running into all sorts of people dressed up as Captain America or Iron Man, and it's really fun."
A self-confessed member of the Harry Potter generation, it was a quick leap in fandom to the X-Men with its school for young mutants.
"I've been watching them from no age - and then the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) movies came out with Captain America and Thor and Iron Man," she explains.
Such was her love for fantasy and sci-fi that Niamh decided to study special and visual effects at the University of Bolton.
"You could choose to do CGI, but I went down the road of physical effects such as sculpture, costume and character design, because I wanted to go on and work in the movies.
Marvel was a big part of that. It would be my dream job one day to work on the Marvel movies," she says.
But when Niamh first went to university she found a distinct dearth of student societies - so she ended up founding her own, the Geek Culture Society.
"Our first event was a Marvel vs DC Comics bar crawl, and it was so successful that the society went on to become the biggest student society in the university - it still is, years after I've graduated," she explains.
"I've always been really drawn to Spider-Man, and my favourite character is Gwen Stacy. She was Spider-Man's first girlfriend in a lot of the comics - she's really intelligent and goes on to become a scientist in a lot of the comics, but she gets accidentally killed.
"I also love X-Men - I love the idea of a mutant school and all the children with superpowers having to go to school and learn how to use them.
"Everybody has a character that they connect with and feel inspired by. It's something a lot of people need - they need somebody to feel inspired by.
"I couldn't believe it when I saw that Stan Lee had passed. He was 95 years old and had led such a life.
"We are going to miss seeing his cameos in all the films. Marvel is an incredible legacy to have left behind."
'Fellow Marvel fans I've met in Belfast have become my tribe'
Keith Millar (40) from Coleraine studied for a science PhD but is now the regional manager for Help Musicians, the UK's largest independent musicians' charity. He also joins Alan Taylor in the Coffee and Heroes podcast discussing new superhero movies.
I don't remember ever not being a fan of comic books and superheroes. Spider-Man specifically has always been my favourite," Keith says.
"I remember watching Spider-Man cartoons back in the early 1980s when I was three or four - Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends - and it was actually narrated by Stan Lee with his New York drawl."
But it wasn't easy getting hold of American comics in the 1980s in Northern Ireland and more often than not fans ended up with one single edition from a continuing story.
"They used to do British reprints of American comics and they reprinted a story called Secret Wars which was a massive Marvel crossover event with all the heroes - the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and so on together. This spurred my interest in comics," he says.
When he was about 11, he discovered comic book shop Talisman in Belfast's Winetavern Street.
"It was the first time I'd ever seen a shop that specially existed to sell comics - and you were able to get the whole story. From then on, I was getting my comic books from Talisman by post - and that was it for me. I've been a collector ever since," he says.
"It's funny, I guess the reason I got into science in the first place, maybe subconsciously, was because Peter Parker (Spider-Man) was a scientist.
"It's funny how something you're into impacts on your development, the way you spend your cash, the friends you make.
"There are things like Spider-Man's motto 'With great power comes great responsibility' - and what that's saying is if you have the power to do something you probably should do it.
"So if you have the power to protect people around you, whether physically or in a mental health crisis, you probably should be doing it.
"The X-Men motto is 'Fighting for a world that hates and fears them'. So just because some people have different looks, different sexual preferences or are a different colour, it doesn't mean they should be hated and feared.
"The Incredible Hulk is all about controlling anger and the effects of anger."
Keith moved to Belfast two years ago and was in Smithfield Market when he spotted Coffee and Heroes, a coffee shop and comic book store located near where Talisman had been.
"I went in for a coffee and spoke to the guy behind the counter and we just realised that we got on really well and have the same attitudes to a lot of things," he says.
Now he describes Alan Taylor and his fiancee Vicky as his 'Belfast family'. "All the guys and girls who come into the shop - he's building a community and a safe space for people. They're the people I go for pints with, go to the cinema with, hang out together - they are my tribe now."
Keith says he never got to meet Stan Lee.
"It's amazing to think about the impact a man you've never met and doesn't know you exist can have on your life and your development growing up, the friends you make and how you view the world. That guy for me is Stan Lee," he says.
"I've always thought I would get a chance to meet him and say thanks, but now I'll be reading the comics and learning the lessons."
'His stories were suitable for all ages ... they created joy'
Alan Taylor (35), from north Belfast, owns comic book store Coffee and Heroes in Winetavern Street, Belfast, with his fiancee, Vicky (32).
For me, it began when I was a kid and watching Saturday morning cartoons. You had things like the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons and there was a Batman animated series as well," Alan (below right) says.
"Then I discovered an old store in Belfast called Talisman. We like to think in a strange sort of way we are a spiritual successor to it - we're an independent store, run by fans, and we want to imbue it with a sense of community.
"We are a coffee shop as well as a comic store, and people come and hang out and talk about comics and the latest storylines. It's a safe space where you can talk about it."
As for his favourite Marvel character, "you can't look past Spider-Man", he says. "What's great about Stan Lee is that in creating the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man (below) they are characters set in the real world. The Fantastic Four are a family that fight, X-Men were the outsiders. Spider-Man is a 15-year-old who is still learning how to grow up and gets all this responsibility and is learning how to deal with it.
"It appeals to a six-year-old just the same as a 30-year-old - it's universal. They're things that people could get on board with - they're real-world characters dealt with in a fantastical way."
In a sense, Stan Lee will live for ever thanks to his vast legacy, dating back more than 60 years, Alan says.
"I saw this journalist cartoon of Stan Lee standing at the pearly gates and the voice of God saying 'You're not so bad at creating universes yourself', and I thought that was perfect," he adds.
"He's known through his movies as well - he has done all the cameos and has filmed a couple in advance so there will be more.
"There are people discovering stories going right back to the Fifties and there's still that same sense of joy and wonder. All of Stan Lee's stories were suitable for all ages - the messages were universal and they create joy. The man was a consummate storyteller right to the end."
'Lots of my childhood memories are of watching his cartoons'
Simon Bamford (28) from Lisburn is married to Jessica (29). His love of Marvel was a major influence when he was creating video games and he now runs a concession in a Tesco store.
Simon says he first became aware of Marvel at six or seven, watching the Spider-Man cartoon with his brother every week.
"There was an X Men cartoon and an Incredible Hulk one on as well. Some of my childhood memories are of those shows and really enjoying them, too," he says.
"At the time I liked seeing characters who had special abilities - it was fun seeing all the bright and colourful characters. Spider-Man had all the different superheroes in the show at some point. I don't know what it was - I had to watch it every week."
When the movies began to come out, Simon would be pestering his family to go and see them in the cinema.
"Having real people in those cartoons was something I'd never experienced before and I had to see them," he says.
He was also a huge video game fan: "There were so many Spider-Man games I had to get and when I got older I decided that was the sort of career I wanted to try and do." At university Simon met a couple of like-minded friends and they set up their own video game company called Digipop Games - although eventually it proved difficult to make any money out of making games. One of the games was a prototype superhero game.
"I was influenced by Spider-Man, who is also Peter Parker, just as much as the superhero character," he says.
Simon says the first time he ever saw Stan Lee in one of his renowned cameos was in Kevin Smith's Nineties romcom Mallrats.
"Any time he popped up in one of the movies, you almost let out a cheer," he says.
"He created such a vast world of characters, relatable characters that you could see yourself in. I think he was brilliant at what he did and the energy and passion he showed up until the end was brilliant. His legacy is just incredible."