Remembering Stan Lee: superheroes, social protest

Stan Lee (pictured above) passed away on Nov. 12 and was a leading influencer of modern superhero rhetoric and character design. Lee used his superheroes as proponents for social change (Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons).

Stan Lee, a primary creative leader and former editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, passed away at the age of 95 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on Nov. 12. 

Stanley Martin Lieber was born on Dec. 28, 1922 in Manhattan, N.Y. Shortly after graduating high school in 1939, Lieber became an assistant at the pulp-magazine company Timely Comics, which would later be renamed Marvel Comics in 1961. 

Lieber, eventually writing under the pseudonym “Stan Lee,” went to co-create many iconic Marvel superheroes, including the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Captain America, Hulk, Ant-Man, Dr. Strange and Spider-Man, and eventually became Marvel Comic’s editor-in-chief.

Stan Lee’s influence has left a substantial mark on the entertainment history and his name is ubiquitous throughout pop culture. In terms of monetary value, Lee’s characters have been featured in dozens of major blockbusters produced by Fox, Sony and Disney that have made billions of dollars worldwide. 

Lee has had cameos in almost all of Marvel’s films and has been to numerous conventions to promote films, becoming a figurehead in comic book media.

Despite the critical and financial success of these films, Lee’s accomplishments go as far back as 1961 during his rise as a writer for Marvel Comics. Lee revolutionized comic books by being one of the first writers to promote a more naturalistic way of writing comics. 

Lee emphasized the humanity of his characters by presenting them as flawed human beings dealing with problems that many readers could relate to. He also made the worlds surrounding his heroes more realistic by featuring real-world events and serious commentary in his stories. 

This more naturalistic take on the superhero genre appealed to many older audiences and helped forge Marvel as an iconic brand. Lee, however, felt that writing comic books was less about making famous stories and more about addressing important social issues. 

In a monthly column entitled “Stan’s Soapbox,” Lee addressed complaints from readers concerning moralizing that occurred in his comic books, and noted that, “it seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul.” 

Lee sought to show that comics, as well as entertaining media in general, could be used to discuss important issues as well as make social commentary. 

This debate regarding the entertainment industry’s say in social issues has sparked plenty of reactions from entertainers in their projects as well as behind the scenes. 

Today, many celebrities use their status to discuss important issues, such as Leonardo DiCaprio’s inclusion of climate change in his speech following his 2016 Best Actor Oscar Win for The Revenant. Furthermore, plenty of modern films, television shows and books all use entertainment to make audiences think about social issues. 

In addition to promoting more discourse through entertainment media, Lee has used his works to address important topics such as race. It is no secret that Lee’s X-Men comics were based on the oppression of marginalized groups and were essentially a vehicle to bring these issues to light for larger audiences. 

In fact, Lee openly denounced bigotry in several of his “Stan’s Soapbox” columns, noting that, “bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today…the only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they are.” 

Whether you’re reading Lee’s comics or appreciating his characters on the big screen, it’s impossible to deny Lee’s impact on modern culture. His tales have stood the test of time and have been a way to both teach and entertain several generations of people. Thank you, Mr. Lee, and excelsior!