“Marvel has always been, and always will be, a reflection of the world right outside our window.” – Stan Lee
When you imagine a superhero, any superhero, odds are it was created by Stan Lee. From Spiderman and Ironman to The Hulk and Black Panther, Stan Lee’s superheroes were as imaginative as they were human. His characters defeated their enemies, but were often defeated themselves. They felt joy, pain, love, jealousy, sadness, and regret. They were superhuman, but, at their core, profoundly human. All this rich characterization and world building was impressive, sure. But Stan Lee’s most impressive contribution was how he used his comics to comment on society itself.
Inspired by the civil rights movement, Stan Lee used his characters as a way to demonstrate the power of courage. In fact, many of his superheroes were actually nods to some of the movement’s most notable figures. To truly understand the man behind the legends, let’s go back in time. Let’s discover Lee’s origins, his environment, and his experiences to see how they influenced his art.
Stan Lee is Born into Diversity
Stan Lee was born Stanley Martin Lieber in New York City in 1922 to Romanian Jewish immigrants. At this time, the city was changing rapidly. As fascism spread throughout Europe, immigrants flocked to Ellis Island. There, they sought refuge and opportunity in the great melting pot of Manhattan. Lee’s parents were part of this exodus. Even before he was born, the fight against discrimination and hatred was already in Lee’s blood.
Growing up in the eclectic and vibrant environment of New York City, Stan Lee was exposed to a wide range of people, ideas, and art. In an interview, Stan Lee reminisced on some of his inspirations from his childhood. When he was ten years old, his favorite movie star was Errol Flynn. “I thought that this guy was the greatest because he always played such heroic roles,” Lee said, “I would imagine I had a little crooked smile on my face the way Errol Flynn did, and an imaginary sword at my side. I’d be looking around for little girls that might be [attacked] by some bullies.” Clearly, fighting evil and defending the vulnerable resonated with Lee from an early age.
Stan Lee Picks up the Pen
Even before he graduated high school, Lee’s writing showed great promise. He won a weekly essay contest organized by the New York Herald Tribune three weeks in a row. In fact, this prompted the newspaper to write him and ask that he let someone else try to win. Someone affiliated with the newspaper encouraged him to write professionally, a moment that Lee said “probably changed my life.”
After high school, Lee became an assistant at Timely Comics. He would fill inkwells for the cartoonists and erase pencil marks from their finished drawings. Eventually, he made his comic debut with Captain America under the pseudonym Stan Lee. Of course, he would eventually change this to be his legal name. In interviews, Lee said he used the pseudonym because comics had such low social status at the time. He didn’t want what he perceived to be such lowly endeavors to hurt his chances at becoming a famous writer and novelist. It was at this point that Lee met the illustrator and writer Jack Kirby. The two would become one of comic’s most legendary duos.
In 1942, Lee enlisted in the Army. He claims his official title was actually “playwright.” There, he created manuals, posters, scripts for films, and the occasional cartoon. He continued to work with Timely Comics while enlisted, corresponding and completing assignments for them by mail. Eventually, Lee wrote stories in a variety of genres, but he felt bored and dissatisfied. He considered changing careers until he got an opportunity that would change everything.
A Marvelous Transition
Until the late 1950’s, superheroes were predictably perfect. They never had problems that lasted more than a single issue. For the most part, they tended to represent American, masculine ideals – strength, independence, and justice. In short, they were boring and cliché.
DC Comics had just revived the superhero archetype with and updated version of The Flash and the Justice League of America. Noticing the success of these stories, Lee’s publisher assigned him to create a new team of superheroes. It was at this moment that Lee got the most important piece of advice he’d ever receive. Noting that Stan had nothing to lose, Lee’s wife suggested he get a little bit experimental with his characters, drawing them up the way he would like to experience superheroes.
Lee & Kirby
Working with Jack Kirby, Lee created superheroes with awesome powers and grounding humanity. They gambled, lied, cheated, and fought among themselves. They went into blind rages and betrayed their friends, but still found time to save the day.
The first superheroes that Lee and Kirby created together were The Fantastic Four. They were a huge success that led the duo to create many more titles, including The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and the X-Men. With these new characters, comic books began attracting a much broader audience than just teenage boys.
Lee focused on making readers feel like they were part of a community. He published regular updates in the front pages of comic books that were written in a conversational style. Unlike other publications that published letters to the editor with the title “Dear Editor,” Lee published them as “Dear Stan and Jack.” It was this approachable, human style that turned comic book readers into comic book fanatics who would start reading in their teens and never stop for the rest of their lives.
But the genre’s envelope was just beginning to be pushed. Lee had made his characters more relatable on an individual level, but it wasn’t until the civil rights movement of the 1960’s that Lee began to reflect broader cultural phenomena in his comics. Ultimately, it was this bold choice that made Marvel’s stories so memorable and impactful.
Parallel Fights for Justice
“Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or color of their skin. The only things we don’t have room for are hatred, intolerance, and bigotry.” – Stan Lee
Today, many of us are familiar with Black Panther, which in 2018 was the first superhero movie to ever be nominated for an Oscar for best picture. When Lee and Kirby created The Black Panther in the 1966, he was mainstream comics’ first black superhero. Interestingly, the Black Panther’s name actually predates the October 1966 founding of the Black Panther Party. Lee has said that the political party’s use of the name is a “strange coincidence.”
Prince T’Challa, is the Black Panther, king and protector of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. The idea of an idyllic, protected place for those of African descent resonated greatly with African Americans who were fighting for equality in the civil rights movement, and it continues to resonate today as the fight goes on.
In an inspiring essay, Patrisse Cullors, cofounder of Black Lives Matter, wrote that “Black Panther is a celebration of black life and the global black diaspora, and it centers on a world where black people are in charge of their own destinies. It’s a universe where black people are the most technologically advanced, have developed cures for all illnesses, and honor the brilliance of all Wakandans; a universe that has challenged colonization and has succeeded.”
Introduced in 1963, the X-Men were a team of teenage mutants (neither ninjas nor turtles). Led by Professor Charles Xavier, the team of powerful mutants fought against Magneto and his team of criminals. The interesting thing about the story of the X-men, though, was that humans hated the X-men and saw them as freaks. More than a battle of good versus evil, it was a battle of mutants against mutants against the world. “It not only made them different,” Lee said in an interview, “but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the Civil Rights Movement in the country at that time.”
In fact, the metaphor of the civil rights movement could be seen in the characters too. The X-men represented the contrasts between Martin Luther King (Charles Xavier) and Malcolm X (Magneto). Professors Charles Xavier’s belief in peaceful mutant-human coexistence represented the view of Martin Luther King. On the other hand, Magneto’s strident advocacy for mutants alone represented Malcolm X’s approach to equality.
The X-men have outlasted the civil rights movement and have continued to serve as a voice for marginalized groups. The X-Men explored the struggles of the LGBTQ community when Ice Man came out in a 2015 comic. “Have you tried not being a mutant?” Iceman was asked. The question mirrored one that many from the queer community have fielded from ignorant people. It’s important to note that Northstar of Alpha Flight was actually the first openly gay comic book character, but after he came out in 1992, no mention of his sexual orientation appeared in any subsequent issues. This was understandably controversial. Iceman’s gay identity, on the other hand, is a central theme of the modern X-men saga.
“Let’s lay it right on the line,” Lee wrote in December 1968, “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today… Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if a man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance.”
With Stan Lee’s passing in late 2018, we lost one of comics’ best, if not the best, minds ever to contribute to the art. Of course, Lee’s creations can never die. Although his stories focused on imaginary superheroes, they came from the soul of someone deeply human, who embraced strengths and flaws with the same arms. These characters could fly, read minds, and shoot spider webs out of their wrists, but what made them truly super, was their fight for equality.