Remembering Stan Lee
Stan Lee, the man who made Marvel, recently passed away at the age of 95. He was bright, bigger than life, and controversial—but above all, he was a legend.
Born Stanley Lieber in Manhattan in 1922, Stan would go on to be one of the most prolific figures in comics history. He joined the industry in 1939, not as a writer, but as an office assistant at Timely Comics, which would eventually evolve into Marvel Comics. Two years later, he made his debut as a fill-in writer for a Captain America story: “Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge.” The same year, he became editor-in-chief.
It wasn’t until the late 1950s, however, that Lee began to change the industry. Sales were sagging, and Lee was given free reign—as cowboys, romances, and war books were on the wane, Lee went back to comics earliest successes: superheroes. Lee and collaborator Jack Kirby (a legend in his own right) launched the Fantastic Four in 1961, a team of offbeat superheroes that would form the foundation of the Marvel universe. Following the Fantastic Four characters came characters like Iron Man, Hulk, X-Men, Black Panther, and countless others. With Steve Ditko, Lee created the psychedelic Doctor Strange and Marvel’s biggest success, Spider-Man.
These characters were a far cry from rival publisher DC’s superhero pantheon. Whereas characters like Superman and Batman were strait-laced do-gooders, the Marvel heroes were flawed and had human problems. The Fantastic Four couldn’t pay rent, Spider-Man was crushed by guilt, and the X-Men were public outcasts. Lee and his collaborators breathed new life into a sagging industry, attracting new, older readers.
Stan Lee and Marvel Comics were synedochial; you couldn’t mention one without the other. “Stan Lee Presents” headlined countless stories. “Stan’s Soapbox,” included in the letters pages of issues, let Lee riff on anything, ranging from the “Distinguished Competition” to political issues of the day that was often punctuated by his trademark “Excelsior!” The man was a master promoter, moving comics en masse, and getting characters like Spider-Man and the Hulk on television.
Stan Lee was a presence—an icon. His contributions to pop culture reverberated worldwide. He’s earned appearances in, well, almost everything. “Smilin’ Stan” reached millions, and the birth of the modern superhero box office craze owes him a debt that can never be paid. He made the modern hero.
Yet, Lee was more than a figurehead and a pitchman: he had a platform and a prerogative to use it. Characters like the X-Men didn’t just fight crime, but they represented the struggle of the oppressed. Black Panther came from a land that had never been conquered by colonialism. It’s no surprise Lee felt strongly about the plight of the disenfranchised; he was a Jewish man and the son of Romanian immigrants. There’s a missive from one of “Stan’s Soapbox” columns that’s just as powerful today as it was in 1968:
Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black men, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’s down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen—people he’s never known—with equal intensity—with equal venom.
Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another. Although, anyone has the right to dislike another individual. Also, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Eventually, if a man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God—a God who calls us ALL—his children.
You’ll be missed, Stan. Excelsior.