In the wake of his death, a look at how Stan Lee changed the way we look at comics, the superhero, and his impact on our modern cultural landscape.
Stan Lee saved comics. I’m sure that sounds a bit hyperbolic, but I think that Stan “The Man” Lee—no stranger to hyperbole himself—would appreciate it. I hope so. Then again, when you look back on the time in which he lived, before he rose to pop culture stardom as the father of Marvel, when he was just Stanley Martin Lieber, a mere disgruntled writer for what was then called Atlas Comics, is saying that he saved comics that much of stretch?
We forget that once upon a time, comic books, especially superhero comic books, were regarded as little more than trash. Thanks to Dr. Fredic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent and a U.S. Congressional investigation, the belief throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s was that comics had a corrupting influence on the youth of America, as if the four-color adventures of costumed crime-fighters were really just thinly disguised pornography. Under the Comics Code Authority, comics had to follow certain guidelines deemed appropriate by a censorship body. And, like anything done out of the best but misguided intentions, comics became over-sanitized.
Yes, superheroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were popular enough to survive. DC Comics’ Julius Schwartz also begun the effort to revitalize the genre with his re-imagining of The Flash. Nevertheless, superheroes in the 1950’s just didn’t have the same appeal as they once did. Science fiction, romance, westerns, and giant monsters dominated the market. Stan Lee wrote all of those genres, and, as he often said, he was getting sick of it to the point he considered quitting.
Two things stopped him, and in doing so, changed pop culture history. The first was his boss, Martin Goodman, who wanted him to write a superhero team book like DC’s Justice League. The second was Stan Lee’s wife, Joan, who convinced him to write the kind of superhero comic he wanted to write. Thus, along with artist Jack Kirby, Stan Lee created the blueprint for the modern superhero: The Fantastic Four.
In looking over those early issues, it’s remarkable just how ahead of its time The Fantastic Four really was. Instead of just a series of monthly adventures, his comics were serialized like soap operas, with characters who grew and developed over time. The team was a literal family as opposed to just a group of like-minded vigilantes, who would often bicker like actual families do. It even had a character, Ben Grimm, a.k.a. The Thing, who looked like an actual monster instead of the square-jawed, muscular strongmen other heroes resembled. It was a radical departure from any other comics published at that time, and it flew off the shelves.
The innovations wouldn’t stop there, as Stan Lee would go on to create other memorable, iconic heroes like The Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, the Avengers, Daredevil, the Black Panther and more. Instead of being celebrated, many of Stan Lee’s creations were misfits and outcasts, seen by those who they tried to save as dangerous as the very villains they sought to stop. Some of them were racial minorities or had physical handicaps, showing that heroes could come from all walks of life. Many of them, at times, were plagued by self-doubt, yet still persisted in spite of the challenges thrown in their path. In short, Stan Lee’s heroes were human beings.
No where was this more clear than what is perhaps Stan Lee’s greatest creation, Spider-Man. Not only was this wall-crawling, web-slinging hero misunderstood, but as Peter Parker, he was no older than his own readers. He wasn’t rich or famous, and he didn’t always get the girl at the end of the story. He went to school, lived with his Aunt, tried to earn a living, and desperately tried to land a date, all while trying to save New York City. Even the characters he interacted with everyday were just as important, if not more so, than the villains he fought. Little wonder then Stan Lee often described Spidey as “the hero who could be you.”
Before long, his characters would break out of their comic book confinement and into television, movies, cartoons, video games, toys, clothing, and amusement parks. Like Frankenstein’s Monster, Sherlock Holmes, Ebenezer Scrooge, or Tarzan, Stan Lee’s fictional creations would take on
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lives of their own. Phrases like “It’s Clobberin’ Time”, “Hulk Smash”, “Avengers Assemble”, and “With great Power comes great responsibility” have become part of our lexicon.
Not only did Stan Lee make radical departures from the norm when it came to superheroes, so did the stories he penned. As part of the genre, superheroes often told tales of crime and corruption. But until Stan Lee, very few of them ever dared tackle the subject of racism or drug abuse. In fact, it was because he was willing to write a story about the dangers of drugs that resulted in one of his comics (Amazing Spider-Man No. 96) not being approved by the Comics Code. Moreover, because he set his stories in the real world, they also touched on the hot-button issues of the day such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps this is why it wasn’t just kids who gravitated towards Stan Lee’s heroes; so did teenagers and adults.
In response to the newly crowned Marvel Comics, DC Comics would also make attempts at humanizing their own superheroes. Sure, it was done so more out of competition, but in doing so, Marvel and DC elevated comics into a recognized and acceptable art form. What’s more, Stan Lee’s comic would go on to influence a variety of creators, particularly filmmakers like Sam Raimi and Joss Whedon, and even Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, Michael Chabon. Also, if you think about it, the concept of a shared cinematic universe of movies shouldn’t have come as any surprise; after all, Stan Lee was already forging a shared universe in his comics for years.
Plus, by showing that comics could appeal to all ages and demographics, Stan Lee also paved the way for other innovative comic book creators. Without Stan Lee, the pathway for the likes of John Romita Sr., Steve Ditko, Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, Peter David, Gerry Conway, Marv Wolfman, Neil Adams, Jim Shooter, Tom DeFalco, Joe Quesada, Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, or Robert Kirkman would not have been made. One could even argue that without Stan Lee, we may not have even had the likes of Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, or Grant Morrison. Certainly, there would not have been a Kevin Feige.
Yet, of all of his creations, it was Stan Lee himself was the most colorful. Like Walt Disney, he would make cameo appearances in his own stories, a trend which would continue with almost every Marvel film. Instead of kindly grandfather, he was the original cool uncle, the one who spun all kinds of tall tales and outlandish stories with a wink and a smile. When you read his comics, listened to him speak, or read the “Merry Marvel Bullpen,” it was as if he was talking specifically to you. He gave the creator behind the comic a face, one who wouldn’t talk down to you, was always encouraging, and who seemed incapable of talking without a laugh or a smile.
Stan Lee, like all writers, once had dreams of writing the Great American Novel. In the end, he created something better. He showed that heroes didn’t always have to fly or be demigods. A hero could be the person sitting next to you, worried about their bills, trying to make time for their loved ones, just living out their days much like you. Under the right circumstances, you could be just like them, and, just maybe, you need special powers to do what they did. What better way than teaching someone through story the value of goodness, compassion, and justice than that?
Yes, Stan Lee didn’t just save comics. His comics also saved us.