Remembering Stan Lee's Humanity and Heroism
The death of legendary comics creator Stan Lee last Monday stung the hearts of millions of admirers around the world. Lee contributed to the creation of classic superheroes with collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko including Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Black Panther (notably the first black superhero in American comics), and The Avengers.
Born Stanley Lieber to Romanian Jewish immigrants, he was instrumental in creating and normalizing a diversity of personalities and complex identities for superheroes. Ushering the medium out of its days of one-dimensional bombshells and boy scouts, he unmasked superheroes as scientists, lawyers and teachers just like us. The Fantastic Four were initially designed to fight evil in pedestrian clothes but readers demanded dynamic costumes. His supers had to wrestle with the moral implications of their actions and were always saddled with flaws such as anger issues, family problems, low self esteem or drug abuse.
“Just because you have superpowers, that doesn’t mean your life would be perfect. I just tried to write characters who are human beings who also have superpowers.”
Lee didn’t just want to entertain the masses–he also sought to instill love and empathy in pop culture. Daredevil was blind, Spider-Man was a geek, and Black Panther was (while the king of an uncolonized, prosperous African nation) a black man in America.
The most political examples of his mission lie in the pages describing the escapades of the X-Men starting in 1963. Using the mutant/human conflict to illustrate nuanced perspectives on the civil rights movement of the 60s, Lee fearlessly pioneered the concept of comic books tackling social issues. His characters set the stage for allegories on the nature of prejudice, oppression, genocide, black nationalism, apartheid and integration–all playing out across the mainstream superhero comic book universe.
One of Lee’s most iconic co-creations and Marvel’s flagship character is a teenager from Queens who found courage and purpose by protecting his community as their “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” Lee created a world where readers could see themselves as superheroes; their flaws were shared with their hero, and a bit of heroism was inspired in turn.
“You know, my motto is 'Excelsior.' That's an old word that means 'upward and onward to greater glory.' It's on the seal of the state of New York. Keep moving forward, and if it's time to go, it's time. Nothing lasts forever.”
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