Stan Lee, the legendary comic book creator at the helm of Marvel Comics, passed away on the morning of Nov. 12 at age 95.
Alongside artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee was well-known for creating many of the most iconic characters in the Marvel universe, including but not limited to Spider-Man, the Hulk, Thor and Iron Man.
With Lee’s help, superheroes surged from the pages of relative obscurity into the collective consciousness of the masses, a mainstay in the modern cultural landscape. The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to reign supreme at the box office, and children’s backpacks worldwide are donned with the familiar colors and designs of his creations.
It’s safe to say that Lee’s legacy will endure. Through his timeless stories and quirky cameos, Lee has — and will continue to — touch the hearts of many for generations to come, be it in print or on the silver screen. Above and beyond this, however, will be his legacy as a person — a genuinely kind soul who used his creative influence as a platform to promote tolerance and diversity.
As comic book heroes have become increasingly entrenched in the wider popular culture, so have the calls for increased representation — and Lee was never afraid to answer those calls. Here was a man who dove head first into important social issues, starting with the X-Men in the 1960s; a man who took a stand against racism and bigotry; a man who understood the importance of his platform and who strived to use it to create characters that children of all races and genders could not only grow up inspired by but see themselves as. As Uncle Ben said, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and Stan Lee took his responsibility very seriously.
Although he claimed to have never been in the business of writing political stories, political undertones and commentary nevertheless infused themselves with his works. Take the X-Men: created in the 60s during a time of huge social upheaval, the stories of two groups of persecuted “mutants” (or humans possessing superhuman powers) led, on one side, by the pacifist Professor X and, on the other, by the militant Magneto drew a very clear allegory to the Civil Rights Movement and the opposing ideologies of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
When Lee became a publisher in 1967, he used his editorial section, “Stan’s Soapbox,” to talk to readers about social justice issues.
“Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” he wrote in 1968, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. “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.”
“Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill out hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God — a God who calls us ALL — His children.”
Lee was awarded a National Medal of Arts in 2008, and was commended for creating “new stories [that] provided a medium for social commentary.”
At a time when superheroes were overwhelmingly White and male, Lee, along with Jack Kirby, created the first comic book character of African descent in 1966: none other than Wakanda’s own Black Panther.
“At that point I felt we really needed a black superhero,” Lee was reported as saying by the Huffington Post. “And I wanted to get away from a common perception. So what I did, I made I made him almost like like [Fantastic Four’s] Reed Richards. He’s a brilliant scientist and he lives in an area that, under the ground, is very modern and scientific and nobody suspects it because on the surface it’s just thatched huts with ordinary ‘natives.’ And he’s not letting the world know what’s really going on or how brilliant they really are.”
The world got to see just how brilliant the Wakandans were in 2018. And while Asian Americans and other minorities are still eagerly awaiting their Black Panther moment on the big screen, Lee was already slowly shifting the gears behind the scenes at Marvel Comics.
In recent years, Lee has been spearheading a push for diversity at Marvel Comics. Spider-Man, traditionally a White man named Peter Parker, now shares the cowl with a half-Black, half-Latino teen called Miles Morales, who operates as the friendly neighborhood web-slinger in an alternate (but nevertheless canon) universe in the comics. Ms. Marvel is now a Muslim Pakistani-American teen named Kamala Khan. Iceman, a founding member of the X-Men, was revealed to be gay. Thor and Wolverine have female incarnations, and Korean-American Amadeus Cho (created by Greg Pak and Takeshi Miyazawa) has assumed the mantle of the Hulk alongside Bruce Banner.
“If kids of all types can identify with our heroes, it’s the most gratifying thing I can think of,” Lee said.
But rather than simply change pre-existing characters, Lee went out of his way to create new ones. In 2011, Lee, alongside Indian animation CEO Sharad Devarajan, debuted “Chakra The Invincible,” a genius teen from Mumbai who unwittingly unlocks a super-suit that allows him to harness his inner “chakra,” or energy centers. The child-oriented style of the comics and adaptations made the goal of this character very clear: to give a new generation of Indian youth their own superhero to identify with.
What’s more, in 2013, it was announced that Lee had created a Chinese character known as “The Annihilator,” whose alter-ego is a man named Ming who undergoes a dangerous procedure that gives him superpowers. We reckon the only thing that screams “Wolverine” more than that origin story is the concept art, seen below. Although Taiwanese superstar Wang Leehom was cast to play the titular character, as reported by Variety, little has been heard about the film’s development since.
And finally, just months before his passing, Lee announced what would be his last superhero: a female Chinese character tentatively named Jewel, based off of Chinese pop singer Gloria Tang Tsz-kei (better known by her stage name, G.E.M.).
According to GBTimes, Lee had been inspired to create the hero after meeting the star and hearing her sing during a trip to Hong Kong in 2017.
In Marvel’s tribute to Lee, VP of Content and Character Development Sana Amanat offered that Lee had “built American mythology, because stories are what really stay with us.” In doing so, he was acutely aware that the mythos of America was going to need to incorporate everyone; in many ways, he was ahead of the curve.
“The concept of diversity and equality and conversations about social politics… all these things he had been doing for years and now it’s at the forefront of everything we talk about,” Amanat said.
Speaking on his decision to create the first black superhero, Lee recalled, “It wasn’t a huge deal to me. It was a very normal natural thing. A good many of our people here in America are not white. You’ve got to recognize that and you’ve got to include them in whatever you do.”
And Lee has done just that. Perhaps, even as early as 1966, he knew just how much his creations would permeate society and culture. Perhaps he predicted the mythological level of status his characters would one day hold, and how important it would one day be for a child to be able to dress up on Halloween as a badass superhero who looked just like him. Through his dedication to humanizing and representing diversity through his work — as a writer, columnist and editor-in-chief — Lee did his bit to make the world just a little bit better.
Acknowledging the bigotry that still exists in the world, Lee said, “If my books and my stories can change that, can make people realize that everybody should be equal, and treated that way, then I think it would be a better world.”
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