Obituary: Stan Lee - A Lesson in Making Heroes
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“You know, I wish there were a way to explain how to create a superhero.”
During a BBC interview, Marvel co-founder Stan Lee admitted being at a loss when it came to explaining how he had invented so many heroes. Spider-Man, Black Panther, Iron Man… all joint efforts between Lee and his trusted artistic partners. As editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, he took them from being a small publishing company that just about let its staff make a decent wage to one of the richest and most recognisable brands in the world. News of his death on the 12th November is so much more than the latest passing of another entertainment giant. If sparks of creativity exist, several will have fizzled out with Lee’s passing. This is a man who for so many avid readers - the mass audiences, the disenchanted adolescents in need of real heroes, and anyone with the capacity to be amazed - represented the peak of what comic books could be.
How did Lee make his heroes? While the question may have flummoxed him, they all have something in common - imperfections. By the time Lee co-founded Marvel in 1961, transforming it from Timely Publications for whom he had worked previously, comic book heroes were setting unattainable standards. Superman and Wonder Woman possessed deity-like strength, rendered as unbelievably perfect physical specimens and had a machine-like capacity for justice. Batman may not have been superhuman, but he was still trained to physical and mental perfection. He may have been an orphan, but a multi-billionaire who funds his crime fighting by blowing through cash. These characters were not relatable. They were not human.
In 1961, Jack Kirby and Lee created the Fantastic Four, and Marvel came into existence. The rest is history, in its most pleasing and awe-inspiring variety. His unremarkable background, his boredom with two-dimensional characters and clearly drawn lines between good and evil all fed in to his greatest creations, which took comic characters in a whole new direction.
Stan Lee’s genius came from recognising that the world needed heroes that were still ‘super’ but nonetheless were grounded in humanity. That wonderful, flawed state of humanity with its endless capacity to reel readers in and absorb them, even if only for a moment, in the existence of another. Lee was pivotal in bridging the gap between reader and character so they could be, at some level, the same. Heroes appeared with bad hair, misshapen features and family troubles. Spider-Man, like Batman, is an orphan, but comes from nothing. He is picked on at school, is a bit of a nerd and has a crush on a girl that torments him to no end. He is an average teenager. Imagine being a child growing up being able to read that for the first time in 1962 and being able to think “this kid. He’s like me.” The power of such a simple thing cannot be understated.
This emphasis on the relatability of the hero has stayed with Marvel in all their exploits. Tony Stark, as Iron Man, is seen in the likes of Iron Man 3 (2010) as having to deal with crippling anxiety and a tumultuous love affair. Thor has a love-hate relationship with his brother Loki, while Wolverine has to deal with the passing of time and death’s inevitability in Logan (2017). By contrast, Batman and Superman even now tend to come across as aloof, unaffected by such concerns. Lee emphasised the human behind every superhuman, creating characters who intrigue and aspire with their finest details as well as their awe-inspiring abilities.
Lee’s upbringing itself was, like so many of his characters before they received superpowers, unspectacular. He was born in New York City in 1922, the place where so many Marvel characters would call home in later years. His parents, Romanian-born Jewish immigrants, had very little money to their name. After finishing high school Lee got a job at Timely Publications courtesy of an inside connection, and by 18 was an editor. There he started churning out story after story featuring the same plot devices, binary characters, boring tropes… it's no wonder that, by age 40, he was fed up and wanted to quit. His wife Joan however urged him to follow his passion, to work with this powerful inventive streak he had demonstrated even back then. And with great power comes great responsibility…
Stan Lee’s work pushed other boundaries for the comic medium, at a time when such boundaries were scarcely being recognised, let alone challenged. When Black Panther was introduced in 1966 by Lee and long-time collaborator Kirby (who has a cult following in his own right), he was the first superhero of African descent ever seen in comics, crossing a racial threshold that no-one else had thought (or dared) to present to their audiences before. This marked an important landmark in inclusion within what had been until then an industry that did not prioritise diversity, and coincided with the Civil Rights movement of the time. The success of the character’s own film this year underwrites Lee’s socially conscious move towards inclusivity.
Lee’s characters were not always in possession of ‘perfect’ able bodies either. Daredevil has a disability - he is blind. Blindness is something that affected Lee himself in later life, and he talked of the sadness at not being able to read his own comics anymore. Perhaps somewhere, the character of Daredevil was of some comfort to him. He could not see, and yet look at everything he achieved. It is for reasons like this that his characters stand for so many as inspirational and pioneering.
In recent years, Lee has been known for his cameos in Marvel branded movies, most recently at the end of Venom which was released last month. Starting with X-Men (2000), Lee has made appearances in 33 live-action films featuring Marvel characters, and it would be 34 if his filmed cameo in Blade (1998) had made the final cut. So embedded in tradition have his appearances become as Marvel movies, especially the Marvel Cinematic Universe, continue to rake in the money, Lee is technically the highest grossing actor in the world. In 2017, his 39 movie appearances came in films that had made a combined total of $19.6 billion worldwide - and this was before Black Panther or Avengers: Infinity War earlier this year. Samuel L. Jackson was at number two, but with over three times as many films under his name than Lee.
It is only fitting that even until the end, Stan Lee was at the heart of Marvel’s success in comics, cinema and as a powerhouse for the 21st century. Chairman emeritus of Marvel, his reputation and star power built itself upon the shoulders of his brilliant mind. He may have surrounded himself with other incredible names like Kirby, and the likes of Steve Ditko and Larry Lieber (Lee’s younger brother), but then Thanos also surrounded himself with deathly brilliant allies and it did nothing to dispel the impression of who was really the figurehead of affairs. His colleagues were amazing too, but it was Lee who made things happen with a click of his fingers.
Walt Disney chairman Bob Iger called Stan Lee “a superhero in his own right” in response to his death, which lends a clue to answering Lee’s questioning of what makes a superhero in the first place. Superheroes are remarkable individuals, who can come from nothing and end up being everything to so many. They inspire, impress, and have an endless capacity to defy expectations and meet any new challenges laid down before them. They point to something inherently good about being human, and imply the best way for us to better ourselves. Stan Lee was one of these superheroes. As he so aptly puts it in his Spider-Man 3 (2007) cameo, “you know, I guess one person can make a difference.” If anyone wants to know how to make your own superhero, have a close look at this great inspiration that the world has now so sadly lost.
As the man himself would say, ‘nuff said.