When news broke that Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee had died, there was a deep collective sigh not only from dedicated comic fans but casual admirers as well. Stan wasn’t just some guy who put out stories of super heroes and villains, he was a creative mastermind who took the rigid lines of good and evil and smeared them into gradients that made characters true to life.
From tight-laced good guys like Captain America to dark and controversial anti-heroes like The Punisher., Stan Lee’s creations did more than just entertain generations of kids and adults, they reflected the times that we live in. What’s unique about Marvel’s universe is that no matter what age you are, there is a character that speaks directly to you.
As a child, I loved Spider-Man, like most kids did. Here was a hero that could climb walls, lift heavy objects and shoot streams of web that would stop criminals in their tracks. What child wouldn’t want to be a hero like that? As I got older and became more aware of society’s more complicated issues like bigotry and discrimination, characters like the X-Men and the Transformers spoke to that.
The mutated humans that made up the X-Men were often shunned by regular humans for being different. Xenophobia was explored via The Autobots and Decepticons in Transformers. Many even compare the struggles between Professor X and Magneto, Optimus Prime and Megatron to the philosophies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Marvel’s characters were multi-dimensional; not always right or wrong. They were people who were flawed but still tasked with making tough decisions on what they felt was right.
In 1966, just before Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Black Panther. At the time, there were no solo, Black heroes in American comics and mind you, the racial tensions in the U.S. were high.
Similar to when Captain Kirk kissed Lt. Uhura on Star Trek in 1968, Black Panther’s creation was a controversial move that would either tank or triumph. Luckily, it was that latter and the door was open for a larger group of Black heroes to enter the fray.
Today we have characters like Storm, Falcon, Luke Cage, Misty Knight and Blade. If you dig deep enough, you’ll also find a Marvel release called The Truth: Red, White and Black which tells the story of Isaiah Bradley. He was a Black man who became the first “Captain America” after rounds of experimentation similar to the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment where Black men with syphilis were left untreated in the name of “research.”
During the civil rights movement in the 60s, Marvel introduced Storm of the X-Men series. This would be another “first Black” moment in Marvel’s contribution to our presence in comics. Before Storm, there were no Black woman superheroes much less one who would become a shot caller for the X-Men.
I have to admit that Storm and Black Panther getting married was pretty predictable but seeing how BP’s sister Shuri got her own comic shows that Marvel put in the effort to get it right. That was Stan Lee’s vision of what a world of endless possibilities would be like.
Fifty years ago, Stan used his platform to speak out against racism. “Let’s lay it right on the line,” Lee said in his column “Stan’s Soapbox.”
“Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” Stan wrote. 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.”
Stan Lee leaves behind a complicated legacy. He brought joy to the world while causing pain to the little guy behind-the-scenes. But if we can take something positive from the life he lived, it’s that he made sure to take a public stand when it might’ve cost him.
December, 1968: pic.twitter.com/9U5TeTtXLc
— Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane) November 12, 2018
As a father, I get to see my son playing out his own adventures as different superheroes the same way I did. Now in addition to growling like the Incredible Hulk, “Wakanda forever!” is part of his go-to list of victorious one-liners. Through Black Panther, my son can fully appreciate the fact that girls can be both physically strong and insanely brilliant.
Kids have a wider range of options when it comes to their fictional heroes thanks to the Lee’s vision for a more inclusive comic book universe. At comic conventions, entire Black families attend dressed as heroes that look like them.
Even white kids are more open to embrace non-white heroes and villains. Black women are able to tune into the complex mind of an Erik Killmonger in addition to his abs. Because of Lee’s character, the dumb, hulking Black male image is on the way out. And at the same time, we see black women not as a sassy, horny sidekick but as warriors, goddesses and queens.
Just like the characters Stan dreamed up, he was flawed and accepted it. His family and business was in chaos but his drive to tell stories and inspire continued as he maintained a connection to his global fanbase.
If Stan was scheduled to appear at a comic convention (even the small ones) there was a good chance he’d show up. There are very few people whose fans would buy a comic signed in a mixture of their blood and ink. Stan Lee was that person and the his love for storytelling and people is the undeniable proof that his tremendous legacy will long outlive him.
HEAD BACK TO THE BLACKAMERICAWEB.COM HOMEPAGE
Larry Hester is a Brooklyn-born writer who’s written for Vibe, BET.com, The Source, Complex and more. He now resides in Newark, New Jersey with his wife and son. He welcomes any parenting advice or encouragement. Check him out on Facebook and Twitter @almostcooldad.