I have said many times that superheroes are our modern mythological characters. Their stories are not only relatable and entertaining narratives but also inspire many—myself included—to examine what we believe is “good and just,” and how we can make a positive impact on the world.
This week we lost one of our country’s greatest storytellers, Stanley Martin Lieber, commonly known as Stan Lee. In a way, Stan Lee spent the last eight decades laying out the words for his own obituary in the comic-book lore of our culture. From single exclamations like “Excelsior” to timeless taglines like “With great power, comes great responsibility,” his work was nothing short of memorable. Even before he worked on his first comic book, Captain America Comics #3 in 1941—at age 18—Stan Lee was a dreamer with aspirations of writing the “great American novel.” Seventy-seven years later, his legacy is reflected in dozens of characters we’ve grown to know and love, and in the opportunities his boundary-pushing work made possible.
As a woman who works in the genre and comics fields and contributes to what has become the larger legacy of comics in pop culture, the death of Stan Lee hits me particularly hard. If it weren’t for people like Stan Lee, as well as Jack Kirby, Marie Severin, and Steve Ditko—all of whom are no longer with us today—what I do as a writer, pop-culture journalist, and content creator literally would not be possible. That is not to say that many others didn’t help pave the way for me, but these individuals, as well as others, helped spark the evolution of comics in pop culture.
While Lee was a comic-book writer, editor, producer, publisher, and actor, it would be equally accurate to call him a determined hustler, who like everyone else was just trying to figure it all out. That hustle included writing obituaries for a news service and press releases for the National Tuberculosis Center, delivering sandwiches, working as an office boy, and even selling subscriptions to the New York Herald Tribune. Lee was a true New Yorker.
He eventually would land a job as an assistant at Timely Comics, what we now know as Marvel, in 1939.
That hustle would also be a large part of the story that eventually took Lee from writer to editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, and later its publisher and chairperson, to leading the company’s transition from a small division of a publishing house to a massive multimedia company.
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Like many of our creative heroes, Stan Lee was not perfect. He was beautifully flawed, quirky, and human just like the relatable characters he created. But it was those characters that made many of us believe being a superhero was possible. In 1995, Lee had a cameo in Kevin Smith’s movie Mallrats. Lee, who considered it one of his favorite roles, has shared that he related to many of the film’s characters, their idiosyncrasies and challenges.
In many ways, that human-ness was the secret sauce to what made Lee’s work part of the bedrock of the Marvel we know today. Acting on the advice of his wife, Lee experimented with how he wrote superheroes over the years, leaving behind the idea of a perfect hero and giving his superheroes a flawed persona. Lee did what many others at the time thought was “anti-heroic”; he introduced complex characters with tempers, bouts of depression, jealousy, and often times massively destructive egos.
These heroes were sometimes on the wrong end of arguments, often learned hard lessons, and suffered the consequences of their mistakes. They fought amongst themselves, like the Avengers choosing a new chairperson; they worried about paying bills and impressing girlfriends, like Peter Parker; they got bored and needed to experiment more, like Hank Pym; or in some cases they lost their powers and became physically ill.
Lee found moments to take a stand for what he believed was right and just. Like many writers who use social media platforms today, in the 1960s Lee used comic books to address social justice issues in a monthly column called “Stan’s Soapbox.” In one particular column, he spoke about racism, religious discrimination, and how “it is totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race—to despise an entire nation—to vilify an entire religion.” Born to Jewish immigrant parents and living and working at a time of religious and racial persecution, he wrote:
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.
Lee went on to talk about judging each other on our merits and filling our hearts with tolerance, an act that connected his work in entertainment with the broader narrative of human kindness, equality, and the importance of valuing fellow humans. It was those moments that made me a “true believer.”
In 1969, Lee co-created the Falcon—played by Anthony Mackie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe—the first African American superhero in mainstream comics. For those of us who found it hard to relate to stories or see our experiences reflected in pop culture, creators like Lee gave us characters who were, for the first time, nearly accurate reflections. But, more than that, his work—from co-creating Spider-Man to being part of the teams that brought us so many other Marvel characters, including the X-Men and Black Panther—inspired generations of artists and storytellers.
As a writer, editor, and publisher, Lee helped propel the comic book industry and in turn the entertainment industry forward toward creating a more diverse and representative culture. That included how comic books were structured: He was the first to regularly include a credits panel on the splash page of each story while he was editor, ensuring that not just the names of the writer and penciller were known but also the inker and letterer. While Lee stopped writing monthly comic books around 1972, his legacy lives on.
Along with the dozens of creators he worked with, Lee paved the way for many of my favorite creators to have a platform in comics—including immensely successful writers like Evan Narcisse, Nnedi Okorafor, Roxane Gay, and Mariko Tamaki, and artists like Jen Bartel, Kris Anka, and Javier Garron, who continue to work and reimagine some of the characters that Lee helped create. I say this while understanding that the world needs more women and people of color in the comic book industry. That will take all of us continuing to write, dream, and push for the media we want.
What we lost Monday was more than just one man. It was what that one man stood for: that one person could and can make such an impact. As Lee himself said: “I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then I began to realize: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing.”