By Courtney Suciu
Stan Lee, co-creator of such iconic heroes as Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk and Black Panther, will be remembered for the ways he revolutionized comic book culture – not in the least by also creating his own legendary persona.
Rather than hide behind the scenes, Lee was a public figure with a presence that invited fans to feel like they knew him. For many, this makes his death seem personal. Starting with his early days at Marvel, Lee inspired a community of comic book fans with himself at the center. From his column, “Stan’s Soapbox,” to his many film and television cameos (which were always kind of a wink at viewers in the know), as well as his frequent appearances at comic shows and conventions, Lee celebrated the artists, writers and readers of comic books as much as the superheroes who starred in them.
Even for those of us who have never cracked open a comic book or been to one of the blockbuster Marvel movies, Lee’s profound influence is undeniable. In this blog post, we’ll explore how Lee’s work not only created a new kind of superhero but also a modern mythology that reflects – and perhaps shaped – a more inclusive and socially-conscious American culture.
Lee was asked in a 2002 interview with Bob Simon on TV’s 60 Minutes1 if he had any idea that the characters he was creating would have such a profound cultural impact.
“No, not at all,” he insisted. “I was just trying to make up some new characters so that I would keep my job, keep eating and paying the rent. And I hoped the books would sell. We didn't think we were doing anything revolutionary.”
But, Simon explained, with Spider-Man, Lee had “broken the mold”:
He created something unheard of: an action hero with psychological problems, a slightly neurotic and fragile superhero.
And Spider-Man's alter-ego, Peter Parker, was just a dorky teen-ager, bullied by boys, rejected by girls, and indifferent about his superpowers. Yet he struck a nerve.
Where previously, superheroes were flawless, physically and morally perfect super humans existing in a fictional realm (where dorky teen-agers were relegated to the role of sidekick), Lee helped create superheroes who were more like us – misfits and oddballs often unsure of themselves, living in our world (typically New York City), struggling with our mundane issues (even Spider-Man/Peter Parker had to pay rent), though they had the ability to, say, scale a wall.
In his 2010 dissertation, Anthony R. Mills2 made a fascinating comparison between Lee’s humanization of comic book characters in the ‘60s and evolving ontological ideas from theologians of the era like Trappist monk/social activist Thomas Merton.
“The 20th century brought new opportunities for voices which had been historically silenced,” he wrote, which resulted in both comic books and scholars of religious theory “saying things about what it means to be human in late modern American culture, [and] starting with Lee they were largely saying the same things.”
By highlighting flawed, realistic characters, Mills said that Lee steered comic books away from an image of a perfect (or perfectible), individualistic superhero to “more relational ones” – vulnerable heroes who struggled with, and found strength in, their relationships with themselves, their environment and each other (a shift Mills also observed in ‘60s era philosophical notions of what it means to be human).
This kind of comic book writing became, according to the Mills, an alternative to the “American monomyth” (which concentrates on redemption of an imperiled paradise by a lone, selfless hero swooping in to save the day – like Superman, saving America from communists) which dominated the Golden Age of comics (and, Mills argued, fundamental religious theory).
Mills pointed to Lee’s creations such as the Fantastic Four as an example of a new kind of humanized comic book story where “family bonds are as central as the action.” Even though “the [Fantastic Four] argue, battle, and sometimes harbor bitter feelings, their commitment to each other and mutual love supersede any negative dynamics,” he explained.
Each of these characters – originally Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm – struggled individually with their personality flaws (and superpowers), and the frustration of being outcasts in broader society. But they were also defined in large part by loving and being loved. “Ultimately,” Mills surmised, Lee’s heroes embody our desire “to be part of a family of freaks who have been alienated like we have been.”
And this isn’t only the case for heroes like the Fantastic Four or the X-Men within makeshift misfit family units. “Even the lone heroes find themselves embedded in relationships which define and determine their beings,” Mills continued:
Peter Parker's sense of responsibility and goodness in the face of guilt and suffering stems from his aunt and uncle's moral upbringing. His priorities are determined not only by his superpowers, but by his love for his friends, romantic interests, and Aunt May.
In his article “Comic Books as the Modern American Mythology,” Polish scholar of American studies Dawid Przywalny explored a similar theme regarding the humanization of comic book heroes and a wider cultural shift that was unfolding in the ‘60s.
“When a society evolves,” he wrote, “it also changes its language structure and its cultural creations…Therefore, if a cultural‑social change happens, it must be accompanied by a mythological reinterpretation. It is so because myths contain a symbolic representation of current problems.”
Lee co-created characters and storylines that became the mythological representation of a new society that was emerging in the ‘60s, Przywalny argued. Because these heroes lived in our world, they were affected by the events and concerns that also affected us. For example, “The genesis of [the Fantastic Four’s] superpowers related to the arms race and the beginning of the space programs,” mirroring real-life anxieties about science and technology.
Another beloved Lee co-creation, the Incredible Hulk, was involved in storylines that mention fears of atomic radiation, and the Hulk’s alter-ego David Banner struggled with the lingering impact of childhood trauma. Additionally, Przywalny pointed out, Lee’s Thor and Tony Stark (Iron Man) were involved with physically precarious and morally complex situations set in Vietnam during the war.
In July 1966, the Fantastic Four included the debut of African chieftain T’Challa, also known as the Black Panther – comics’ first African superhero, which Przywalny noted opened the doors for more superheroes of color. The Captain American series introduced Falcon in September 1969, he wrote, and “DC [the Marvel company’s rival] responded with John Stewart, the first Afro‑American member of the Green Lantern Corps, who shows up in the series at the turn of 1972,” the same year Marvel published Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, featuring the first Black superhero as the protagonist in his own series.
Lee also contributed to a number of female characters in the ‘70s, Przywalny continued, beginning with the 1975 appearance of Red Sonya (clad in a signature armor bikini) on the pages of Conan the Barbarian, and X-Men’s Storm, who was “not only a powerful female mutant,” he observed, “but also the first African female superhero.” They were soon followed by counterparts of existing heroes, such as Spider-Woman and She-Hulk.
In contributing to the creation of characters who represented a more racially and gender diverse universe, Lee also challenged the genre to explore complex stories that were socially relevant, dealing with “[i]ssues such as the immorality of war, feminism, racism, drug abuse, and protests,” Mills wrote, “as Americans began to see that their threats were not only external, but came largely from within, and were perhaps even more dangerous than the Soviets.”
As a result, the mythological universe Lee helped create became a place where we could all see ourselves, regardless of our ethnicity or gender, regardless of our moral uncertainty, or social awkwardness or struggles with mental health issues.
In this universe, we witness how those who have never quite fit in find a place where they do, and how by working together, they defeat villains that seem a lot like the ones we are fighting. By doing so, Lee made us realize it’s up to us – the misfits and oddballs – to save the day.
For further research
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Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels is the first-ever scholarly online collection for researchers and students of adult comic books and graphic novels. This multi-part resource covers the full spectrum of this visual art form, from pre-comics code-era works to modern sequential releases from artists the world over. Now users can experience the full range of this offbeat art form by exploring 200,000 pages of original material alongside interviews, commentary, criticism, and other supporting materials.
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Mueller, C. R. (2017). Ink, Mirrors, and Capes: How Comic Books Mirrored Societal Events in American Culture from 1954 to 1990 (Order No. 10276909).
Raphael, J. (2007). Four Color Marvels: Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and the Development of Comic Book Fandom (Order No. 3283503).
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Woodall,Lowery Anderson, I.,II. (2010). The Secret Identity of Race: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Portrayals in Superhero Comic Books (Order No. 3437913).
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Pustz, M. (Ed.). (2012). Comic Books and American Cultural History: An Anthology
Raphael, J., & Spurgeon, T. (2004). Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu