It’s a bad day for true believers: Marvel Comics honcho Stan Lee has died, at the ripe old age of 95. What can I say that someone else hasn’t already said? He was one of those larger-than-life creative personalities who made his face synonymous with his product he gave us a universe of misfit heroes with internal struggles at least as profound as their battles with the forces of evil, and he inspired more people than he’d ever know.
Without the man born as Stanley Martin Lieber, we wouldn’t have Spider-Man, or the Incredible Hulk, or the Fantastic Four, or the Black Panther, or Iron Man, or the X-Men, or the Avengers, or any of dozens of other heroes and villains that have become the dominant form of entertainment in the 21st century. Lee’s Marvel Comics launched all of them, setting itself up as a scrappy alternative to the shinier, less neurotic DC Comics.
Lee didn’t do it alone, creating his comic-book empire on the work of brilliant artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. But by associating his name (and, more and more frequently, his likeness) with Marvel’s output, interacting with readers on the letters pages and even writing a monthly Marvel bulletin within the comics, he made himself an inextricable part of the mythology, always signing off with a hearty “Excelsior!” – a nonsensical word he claimed meant “onward and upward to greater glory.”
Of course, Lee’s talent for self-promotion would have been meaningless if people didn’t love his work. Not that there was anything specifically wrong with Superman, Batman and their pals over at DC, but they’d settled into something of a rut in the late 50s, fighting the same villains and occasionally worrying if someone would figure out their secret identities. Lee changed the game with Marvel’s very first characters, the Fantastic Four – a super-powered family who were ambivalent about their powers and argued with one another constantly, but always had each other’s backs when it mattered. They didn’t have secret identities – they were the same people in and out of costume.
For all the stretching and flaming and disappearing and clobbering, they were very human characters – and that quality ran throughout every Marvel book. Masked or not, Lee’s characters were neurotic, idiosyncratic, driven by guilt (with great power comes great responsibility) or rage (Hulk smash!) or ego (hey there, Tony Stark).
The X-Men were mutants with an extra helping of teenage angst and self-loathing, their struggle to be accepted by homo sapiens a parallel to the civil-rights movement raging in America at the time. (It’s a testament to the primal nature of Lee’s outsider metaphor that four decades later, the X-Men movies could rework the subtext for LGBTQ youth without changing a single aspect of the mythology.)
The only outlier there was Captain America, a character Lee didn’t create – though he’d worked on Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Timely Comics book back in the 40s – but with whom he clearly felt an affinity, what with the idealism and the Nazi-fighting. (Lee had been a member of the Signal Corps during World War Two, serving from 1942 to 1945.)
Oh, and maybe the Black Panther, a character whose biggest flaw was perhaps an overabundance of pride. In his first appearance, he just wanted to best the Fantastic Four in friendly combat, to show them the technology of his native Wakanda was equal to their own. Not the worst motivation, and eventually he got into the whole helping-people thing.
Lee created relatable characters and placed them in a (mostly) recognizable New York City: the FF operated in Manhattan, Spidey had Queens, Daredevil worked Hell’s Kitchen. (The X-Men were just upstate.) This meant they ran into each other on a semi-regular basis, allowing casual crossovers that strengthened each book and built a complex, inter-operating universe – which inspired Marvel Studios’s approach to movies when it launched in the 2000s. And now Lee’s characters headline an average of three blockbuster movies a year, half a dozen TV projects and any number of comic books. It’s an empire, and he spent his final couple of decades as its benevolent governor general, appearing at countless conventions and making cameos in every Marvel production, continuity be damned.
Actually, I came up with a theory to explain how Lee could show up in every Marvel movie, even the ones set in the past or on other planets: his face must be the default human disguise for the shape-shifting alien Skrulls*, because who would ever suspect that sweet old wisecracker of anything nefarious?
A lot of this superhero stuff is nonsense, sure. Lee knew it, but he also knew how to sneak in some meaning here and there. The world is a lot better for having him knock around in it. Excelsior, buddy.
* What’s a Skrull? You’ll find out next March, when the Captain Marvel movie brings them into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Stan Lee will be there too the guy never missed a chance to be on the big screen.
Superhero Nonsense is NOW’s weekly column delving into all things superheroic. Check out previous columns here.