You couldn’t open your social media accounts on 13 November without news of Stan Lee’s death flooding your feed. The man who invented and reinvented an entire genre of popular culture passed away at the age of 95 after (wholesomely) tickling the imaginations of billions of young boys.
I was one of those billions.
It was the 1970s. My parents had just ripped us out of our sheltered and privileged life in Manila and teleported us to the heart of liberal middle class American suburbia in Sacramento, California. There were no maids, no chauffeur-driven cars to take me to school, no one to clean my room, or wash my dishes, and no one outside of our house who spoke Tagalog. My neighbourhood had white kids, black kids, Hispanic kids, and a sprinkling of Japanese kids, but my brother and I were the only Filipinos in our neighbourhood. I was miserable.
One day while I was walking home from school, I was accosted by these two kids who consequently beat me up in the street. They didn’t take my money or steal my lunchbox; they just wanted to pick on me. After the beating, I resumed my walk home and passed by the neighbourhood 7-11 to buy a Band-Aid to cover my wounds.
As I made my way to the cash register, I saw the comic book. It was an issue of The Mighty Thor. On the cover, Thor was standing in a city street swinging his hammer at some space creature. I bought it, took it home and read it. The next day, I went back to 7-11 and picked up an issue of Daredevil, about an angsty blind lawyer who puts on a costume and beats up bad guys. Oh, I could so relate!
After that came Spider-Man, The Avengers, the X-Men and all the other titles in the Marvel universe. Marvel was compelling because its characters had super abilities they used to fight bad guys and aliens—but they also dealt with everyday problems that kids and adults could relate to. Peter Parker was a geek who was ignored by the girls in school even after he was bitten by a radioactive spider and saved the universe. Stephen Strange may have been the most powerful sorcerer on Earth, but that didn’t stop his girlfriend from travelling back in time and having a one night stand with Benjamin Franklin.
And that was the innovation of Stan Lee that saved the comic book industry in the 1960s. He took the old formula of these flawless, one dimensional, super-powered, pun-spewing beings saving the universe and gave them personalities that readers could relate to. He made them deal with issues that were happening in real life.
When Lee did that, he took a genre that he helped create in the 1940s and rescued it from oblivion.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, superheroes were booming. Fueled by the rise of fascism in Europe and World War II, democracies sought refuge from grim reality by fantasizing about super heroes who could rise above the mundane and solve their problems within the space of a single issue. This was embodied in a famous 1940s issue of Captain America written by Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby that has Cap on the cover beating the shit out of Adolf Hitler (in a wholesome 1940s way). It was during these years that a handful of creators like Lee, Kirby, Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Joe Schuster, and Jerry Siegel invented superhero comics and gave a weary world a temporary escape.
But by the 1960s, that simplistic formula had grown tired and boring. The mood in America had changed. The postwar prosperity and moral certainty of the 1950s had given way to economic slowdown, political and social unrest, and moral ambiguity. Communism was challenging democracy in the third world and young John Kennedy had his ass handed to him by Nikita Krhushcev in Vienna. Black people were getting lynched for trying to get an education and were demanding to be treated like human beings. The world was changing and comics were stuck in the 1950s with Superman still fighting big-headed green aliens, and Batman and Robin still not having addressed the elephant in the room: what was the true nature of their relationship? People simply stopped reading comic books and sales plunged to a fraction of their 1940s peak. Captain America’s comic was even cancelled.
In the midst of this, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby released the first issue of The Fantastic Four. Four astronauts who didn’t always get along—Reed Richards, Susan Storm, Ben Grimm, and Johnny Storm—rocket into space and are accidentally exposed to cosmic rays that give them fantastic powers….but at a price. Ben becomes a super strong but grotesquely misshapen creature. Johnny gets into all kinds of rebel-without-a-cause trouble, and Reed, blaming himself for all the trouble he’s caused tirelessly tries to find a cure for Ben, who is seething with resentment, not just because he was turned into the Thing, but also because he’s jealous that Sue has fallen in love with Reed and not him. They followed this up with the Hulk, a Jekyll-and-Hyde-like tortured soul, Spider-Man, a kid who acquires super-spider abilities after getting bitten by a radioactive spider, and Iron Man, a billionaire industrialist hero who secretly had to live with a potentially fatal heart condition. But the personification of this new wave of comics has got to be the X-Men. Led by Professor Charles Xavier, a group of young mutants use their super powers to help humanity, often coming into conflict with another group of mutants led by Magneto, who alternately try to form their own separate society or destroy a human race the despises them just because they’re different.
Click on the image below for slideshow
Stan Lee speaking at a convention circa 1980. Larry D. Moore on Wiki Media Commons
Tobey Maguire and Stan Lee in Spider-Man 3 (2007) IMDb
Stan Lee in 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) IMDb
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Stan Lee, and Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange (2016) IMDb
Stan Lee and Joan Lee in X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) IMDb
Stan Lee in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) IMDb
Stan’s official US Army title during WW2 was ‘Playwright.’ @therealstanlee on Twitter
Lured by this edgy realism, the comic book audience who abandoned the genre in the 50s came back in droves. And a new, younger audience came aboard as well. To make a long story short, as the audience grew, the stories transcended the printed page and moved into the silver screen and onto your broadband enabled device. And our most beloved comic books, from Watchmen, to Dark Knight, to Civil War, owe a nod to Fantastic Four #1.
Stan Lee helped invent superheroes. And like his creations, he rescued them from the brink of annihilation and enabled their evolution into the multi-billion dollar franchise spawning a pop culture phenomenon that has touched almost everyone alive today.