Reflecting on Stan Lee: A Superhero of Storytelling

Stan Lee (1922-1918) Photo by Gage Skidmore. Earlier this week, the world lost Stan Lee, aged 95. Hailed for his role as the creator of such characters as Spider-Man, Black Panther, and the Fantastic Four, Lee had by the end of his life cemented himself as not just a legend in the world of comic books but also of the long storytelling tradition. While Third Coast Review does not typically write pieces commemorating individual writers, Stan Lee was no ordinary writer. He was a guy who succeeded in doing what many writers strive to do in our work, the kind of work that is rarely rewarded. He wrote earnestly from his heart, he spoke his truth, and he did so in a way that changed the world around him, all while entertaining us. For this reason, so many of us are now feeling the magnitude of his loss. Stan Lee was a larger-than-life figure whose voice was a comfort to me and to countless millions across the globe. He inspired us to hope and to dream and to treat others with love and decency. He was our friend and guiding voice, a constant in a chaotic world that resembles more and more those superhero stakes. Though he began his career in the comic industry back in the late 1930s, it wouldn’t be until the mid-1960s that Stan “The Man” Lee began making a name for himself in the industry through his work with Marvel Comics. Alongside his colleagues, including fellow comic titans Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee set out to take on industry leader, DC Comics and its lineup of heroes, including Superman and Batman. As Lee had attested to in multiple interviews over the years, comic books at the time portrayed its characters as nothing more than the idealized representations of the perfect person. These costumed crusaders could do no wrong and always triumphed over their foes with little to no lasting consequence. But Lee wasn’t convinced. He wasn’t overly sold on the concept or importance of these seemingly invincible heroes. So rather than stick with the mold of what had come before, Lee did the unthinkable at the time. He wrote characters who had the same flaws and concerns as the readers picking up his books. The Fantastic Four, like any family, often butted heads and came into verbal conflict with one another. The X-Men told the story of a team of mutants, individuals with special abilities who were ostracized, cast off from society for their differences despite their pursuit of justice. Spider-Man, perhaps Lee’s most recognized creation, was conceived as just an ordinary kid from Queens, who, despite his tremendous strength and amazing spider-like abilities, still had trouble when it came to paying his rent on time or moving up in his career. The concept of heroes being ultimately flawed and human was unfathomable at the time, lending Lee’s stories a sense of authenticity that only aided the wonder. If an ordinary person can be a hero, why can’t I? Additionally, Lee was one of the first comic creators to utilize the medium to tackle topics like racism and social prejudice in his stories, a lofty endeavor in the era of campy, childish superhero arcs. In a now famous 1968 edition from his popular Stan’s Soapbox, where Lee wrote directly to his readers in the back of his comics, Lee adamantly affirms that despite the contention facing society at the time in the era of Civil Rights and global conflict, ignorance and intolerance to others on the grounds of difference in race, religion, and appearance was among the deadliest threats facing the world. In his message, Lee maintained that the only means of confronting bigotry and racism was to “reveal them for the insidious evils that they are… sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance.” In confronting these topics, Lee made a powerful statement that would resonate with his fans for generations. His words of acceptance showed that regardless of their background or the color of their skin, each and every one of his readers were equal, all the loving recipients of his message. His message was simply to be kind to each other, and to make the world kinder. Stan Lee during one of his many Comic-Con appearances. Photo by Gage Skidmore. Lee and his collaborators' creations only grew more popular as the years went by. They became their own modern mythos, household names outside of the comic readership, thanks in part to fresh contributors and the now unstoppable Marvel Cinematic Universe. This was due in large part to Lee’s treatment of his characters as more than just superheroes. Rather, it was the fact that at their core, these characters were just everyday citizens, facing the realities of the day. Whatever their struggle, whether it was lashing out, a lapse in judgment, or trouble in their personal lives, these characters were still attempting to help the world in whatever way they could. The didn’t give up on the world even though the world often gave up or even vilified them, and that’s the point. These stories have as much relevance today as they did when they were made all those years ago because of their human core. We will continue to be flawed beings, but as Stan Lee’s stories remind us, our flaws are what make our triumphs all the more meaningful. The heroes Lee put on paper reflect what we aspire to be while we tackle the shortcomings of the world around us. Today, the world of Marvel has become a worldwide phenomenon. Thanks to both the continuing publication of its comic books and the popularity of its movie and television franchises, people across the globe continue to follow the epic adventures of Black Panther, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the others with the same fresh excitement they’ve maintained since their creation in the 1960s. Stan Lee has been along for the entire ride. Lee’s likeness can be found in Marvel comics, television shows, and films thanks to his many popular cameo appearances. He never stopped being the heart of the work, even when it grew beyond him. As many notable writers have done since his passing, I can think of no better way of honoring the man than by picking up one of his books and getting lost once again in the world that he left behind for us. So while yes, the prolific, larger than life man himself may be gone, his voice will continue to resonate, ready to show the world what it means to be a true superhero. Nuff said.
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Adam Prestigiacomo