Superhero fans around the world were saddened by the death of comic book legend Stan Lee last Monday. Lee was best known for his work with Marvel Comics, where he co-created many of the company’s most iconic characters, including Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, and Black Panther. He initially worked as a writer, and later became the face of the company as Marvel’s publisher.
Lee grew up in Manhattan in a working-class Jewish family. A distant cousin gave him a small position at Timely Comics (which eventually became Marvel), where he wrote his first comic book, “Captain America #3.” Lee wrote stories in the most popular genres of the time, including cowboy, horror, and comedy comics. He wasn’t particularly fulfilled by these genres, so he was thrilled when his editor asked him to create a response to DC’s “Justice League” superheroes that gained popularity in the 1950s.
Lee’s primary goal was to inject the superhero genre with unprecedented humanity. The first superheroes he co-created with artist Jack Kirby were the Fantastic Four, a group he dubbed “Marvel’s first family” because of the emphasis on the characters’ strong, realistic relationships with one another. The Fantastic Four’s success prompted Marvel to request more new superheroes. Lee co-created many more iconic characters for Marvel, and made sure to keep them accessible, relatable, and flawed. Lee told Entertainment Weekly that “the most important thing is to make the reader care and sympathize with a character…the more unhappy and troubled he is, it makes that person seem human.”
It cannot be overstated how revolutionary this approach was: Superman was an indestructible boy-scout, Wonder Woman was a literal goddess, and most other existing heroes were similarly flawless. By including weaknesses, Lee and his co-creators gave superheroes a new humanity, which brought them initial success in the 1960s comic books, and remains their greatest strength today, as they dominate the box office in billion-dollar movies. The Hulk adds depth to a traditionally one-note archetype: the monster. Iron Man is an alcoholic former prisoner-of-war. And Spider-Man, the crown jewel of Lee’s Marvel empire, is the definitive everyman superhero. He’s just a normal, down-on-his-luck, working-class teenager that happens to have superpowers.
Lee also strongly believed in the power of representation in entertainment, and was deeply concerned with social issues. He created the first black superhero, Black Panther, and the first African-American superhero, the Falcon, with the intent of providing readers with a more diverse group of heroes. Additionally, the X-Men were created as an allegory for the Civil Rights movement, with Professor Xavier and Magneto mirroring Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
Although Lee stopped officially working for Marvel in the 1990s, his face and voice are still familiar to modern-day moviegoers because of his prolific career as a cameo actor. Lee made brief appearances in over 40 films based on his characters like “The Avengers” and “Black Panther.” Marvel’s film producers stated that Lee had already shot many of his cameos for upcoming Marvel movies before his death, which means audiences will still get to see him in future films like “Captain Marvel” and “Avengers 4.” Eventually, though, the cameos must come to an end.
Westmont students had immense praise and gratitude for Lee and his work. Junior Will Furnberg told the Horizon, “Stan Lee was an inspiration, not just for me, but for a lot of people. His compelling stories and realistic characters will impact my life forever.” Meanwhile, senior John Kleinberg said, “He had the imagination of a celestial…a comic god.” Sophomore Patty Kerman perfectly summed up Lee’s legacy: “He made us believe that there’s a hero in all of us.”