The Lessons to Take Away from Each of Stan Lee’s Co-Creations
Yesterday, comics pioneer and Marvel architect Stan Lee passed away at the age of 95. As a nerd and comic book fan, Lee loomed large, and thanks to his iconic cameos in the hugely popular comic book movies (mostly) based on his co-creations, he loomed even larger. He had a huge part in the current state of the movie industry (whether you think that’s good or bad), but he had already revolutionized the comics industry a million times over. Like most people with such a legacy, Lee’s impact and fame is a little complicated. He often took a little bit more credit than he may have been due, but it’s clear he was good at writing and selling the characters he became known for. And it was also clear that he opposed bigotry and defended weaving “social justice issues” into his work. Sadly, the complaints with such material is still timely, but it only illuminates Lee’s forward thinking. Much has been written about his incredible effect on pop culture, before and after his death, but I’d like to take a time to reflect on his incredible, amazing, fearless, mighty, strange, astonishing, suspenseful, and marvelous body of work.
As the title points out, most of the characters Lee was known for were not solely his. Often created in conjunction with an artist, as I’ve pointed out with Steve Ditko and Spider-Man when that comics luminary passed earlier this year, Lee’s light premise was often fleshed out by his partners. It was clear he had a talent with imbuing that product with meaning and appeal, though, and every one of his major co-creations had something to say at a time of real social upheaval. As a Jewish man making comics during World War II and the fight for civil rights, Lee clearly always had a strong commitment to telling stories that not only entertain, but also educate. That’s how you get these lessons I learned from his work.
Co-creator: Unknown, perhaps Jack Binder or Alex Schomburg
First appearance: MYSTIC COMICS #6 (October 1941)
This little-known adventurer from the Golden Age of Comics was Lee’s first major creation. The Destroyer was a macabre-looking character who was in fictional reality Keen Marlow, an American journalist captured by Germans. Experimented on with a super-soldier serum similar to the one administered to Captain America, the Destroyer escapes and starts to wreak havoc on Germany from the inside. Although the Destroyer moniker has been rebooted a few times, the original Marlow character was created before America entered World War II. As opposed to its competitor, the proto-DC alliance of National Comics and National Periodical Publications, the Marvel predecessor Timely Comics was much more aggressive with its treatment of Hitler and the Nazis, especially before 1942. Ultimately, Jewish talent across the comics industry (including Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster) have been regarded as a major force in the war propaganda movement of the ’40s, and for good reason. Lee’s first major hero, the Destroyer, is a symbol of his part in this resistance against fascism, and an idealized, unrelenting force in ending the machinations of the Nazis.
The Fantastic Four
Co-creator: Jack Kirby
First appearance: THE FANTASTIC FOUR #1 (November 1961)
Perhaps Lee’s most important co-creation, in that it paved the way for a new era of superhero comics (which were quite dormant by the beginning of the ‘60s), the Fantastic Four team has not aged quite as well in popularity as their contemporaries. But they were truly the First Family of Marvel, and their unique blend of powers and relationship dynamics introduced a complexity superhero comics were sorely missing. It’s easy to say the Fantastic Four represent the need for teamwork (and they do), but I think an important facet of the philosophy behind their creation and subsequent stories is this: the magnificent scientific strides humanity can take should not outweigh the value of family and human life. Time and again, Reed Richards’ scientific ambition has introduced his family to a host of threats, including the very one that gave them their powers. His guilt over what he turned Ben Grimm into, especially, is a crux of the series. But his ambition has also saved many lives. As with many of the scientifically/radiation enhanced characters Lee co-created, the Fantastic Four cautions against and celebrates the marvels of the modern age in equal measure.
Co-creators: Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby
First appearance: TALES TO ASTONISH #27 (January 1962)
Although Hank Pym didn’t appear as Ant-Man until a few issues after his first appearance (in which he was simply a scientist testing out shrinking technology), his stand-alone introduction was emblematic of Lee’s approach to characters. His were often scientists or incredibly smart tortured souls, and Pym fit this theme in stories to come. Although his genius persona was a bit more straightforward at first, Pym eventually came to represent a violent, uncompromising, insecure genius with the ability to do good and also the tendency to completely fuck up…such as with his creation of Ultron. It’s a little bit harder to place the archetype Ant-Man represents, but perhaps it’s that very mutability that defines him. He constantly changes superhero identities and goes in and out of approaching villain behavior. As perhaps befits his powers, Ant-Man is a major character often made minor, contributing to his insecurity. His arc throughout five decades of comics is a bit more cautionary than his contemporaries: irrational feelings of inadequacy can be a poison to a good mind.
Co-creators: Jack Kirby
First appearance: THE INCREDIBLE HULK #1 (May 1962)
People have two sides, and the Hulk is a classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. The relationship between Bruce Banner and Hulk is one of the most fascinating of the Marvel Universe. The sheer hatred and misunderstanding of Banner/Hulk, as a being almost constantly on the run from the authorities, even feels a bit Hitchcockian. The difference, of course, is that Banner/Hulk is not totally innocent, and Banner’s wrestling of his guilt is compelling emotional drama. Confronting the demon inside (and the demonizers outside) is the crux of Hulk’s arc in the Marvel Universe, and it’s something we could all probably do.
Co-creators: Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby
First appearance: JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #83 (August 1962)
Well clearly, as a Norse god that existed long before Marvel Comics got its hands on him, Thor has a lot of lessons to teach outside of his current pop culture context. But in his Marvel incarnation, he represents a fish out of water, an incredibly powerful alien in Midgard. Although initially given a secret and human identity as Donald Blake (retconned away and out of existence as his own being), Thor eventually became simply known as a god among men. His cosmic and out-of-this-world/dimension adventures can obscure the heart of the character, as he stands in the Marvel Universe. But he’s a flawed, somewhat arrogant character that could probably learn a bit more about the feeble humans he often looks down on. In that, he has a lot to do with the themes that run through the original Norse myths.
Co-creator: Steve Ditko
First appearance: AMAZING FANTASY #15 (August 1962)
Spider-Man is my favorite superhero of all time, and so by extension of Lee’s characters. So it’s a bit difficult to articulate all the things I’ve learned from the incredible legacy of Peter Parker. Of course, there’s great power and great responsibility. But the strength of the character is how Peter handles tragedy, never truly giving into the darkness and maintaining a witty, smiling face, however fake, in the face of extreme danger. Growing up, I so desperately wanted to be Spider-Man, and as an adult man, I still feel those pangs of desire. Peter overcomes marginalization, becomes strong after years of bullying for his weakness, and finds love in people he thought had written him off. He’s smart and compassionate and funny. He messes up but he does everything he can to fix his mistakes. Peter’s not a perfect person, but he’s a perfect character in that he represents the vital interplay of happiness and depression. He taught me a lot in that regard. He’s about as compelling a fictional character as I’ve ever found.
Co-creator: Steve Ditko
First appearance: STRANGE TALES #110 (July 1963)
His recent solo film really hammered the point home a little less than subtly, but the central message surrounding Doctor Strange’s character is “don’t let skepticism blind you.” OK sure, maybe it’s still reasonable to not expect magic to heal you and let you become the Sorcerer Supreme, but the fact remains: let go of your narrow-minded ways and you can ascend to a higher plane.
Co-creators: Larry Lieber, Don Heck, Jack Kirby
First appearance: TALES OF SUSPENSE #39 (March 1963)
Tony Stark’s struggle with alcoholism is one of the most revolutionary character traits a comic character had ever had. His rich playboy persona (actually a far cry from Lee’s other characters after decades of these kind of superheroes) is brilliantly contorted by the events of the “Demon in a Bottle” arc. Lee had no part in writing that, but he set it in motion with Stark’s slow turn from a problematic, borderline racist capitalist into a conscientious peddler of weapons of mass destruction. The through line of Tony’s existence in the Marvel Universe is a constant struggle to become a better person. Often, just when he turns a corner, he relapses, and the arrogance brought low and the humbling of Tony (the symbolic flesh and blood in the impervious iron armor) is an important facet of the Lee archetype collage.
Co-creator: Jack Kirby
First appearance: THE AVENGERS #1 (September 1963)
There had been superhero teams before, and ones comprised of characters who had their own solo series, but the Avengers drew the concept to new heights. The rotating membership of the group is a point of interesting organization within the superhero community, and the idea of a bunch of characters (who you presumably already like) working together is pure fun. The importance of the team, philosophically however, is its leadership by Captain America. Lee did not create Captain America; that distinction goes to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. But with the Avengers and the revival of the character in the ’60s, he redefined the character as a moral paragon while simultaneously placing him into a difficult situation. This man from the past is an icon, sure, but he struggles with that status and a new world. The awe-inspiring respect he gains from his teammates is indicative of the cultural weight we feel for people who fought in World War II. Cap is a veteran, and he’s honored as such by his teammates.
Co-creator: Jack Kirby
First appearance: THE X-MEN #1 (September 1963)
Truly the greatest superhero team in comics, the X-Men actually kind of transcend the “team” classification. Often and fittingly described as a metaphor for non-white people in America, the X-Men were nevertheless made up entirely of white people when they were first introduced. Still, the treatment of these mutants for something they cannot control is shown to be appalling from the get go. Even Magneto, a radical mutant who lashes out at regular humans, is portrayed as a complex and understandable character. The go-to example for people wanting to point to the social commentary comics were making in the ’60s, the X-Men’s example for opposing bigotry in America is still valuable today, especially as the mutant ranks have diversified.
Co-creator: Bill Everett
First appearance: DAREDEVIL #1 (April 1964)
A blind character defined not by what he can’t do but what he does without fear, Daredevil is completed by his civilian identity. Matt Murdock is a lawyer and a good one at that. His choice in his “normal” career is indicative of the character’s strong sense of justice, and while I’ve never felt as attached to the character, I appreciate how Daredevil, like Spider-Man, faces tragedy after tragedy and sticks to his convictions.
Co-creators: Don Rico, Don Heck
First appearance: TALES OF SUSPENSE #52 (April 1964)
The Russian villainess who sees the light of the Western world is a bit of a stretch, but Natasha Romanova is a great character born from a stereotypical femme fatale. The story at the heart of her development is an attempt to break free from her psychological conditioning and tortured past. We all may not have been KGB agents, but I think we can all relate to that to some degree.
Co-creator: Don Heck
First appearance: TALES OF SUSPENSE #57 (September 1964)
Hawkeye is proof that a silly concept can eventually make for a cool character.
Co-creator: Jack Kirby
First appearance: FANTASTIC FOUR #52 (July 1966)
The impact and importance of Black Panther has reached an incredible fever pitch with the release of his own movie. And even in 1966, T’Challa made a splash as the first mainstream black superhero. It sounds simple and a little reductive, but the fact this black man (and African man, to boot) was welcomed into the Marvel Universe with a cool backstory and a name that would eventually carry much more cultural weight (and controversy) was radical. He perfectly represents Lee’s dedication to telling stories that mattered, and the importance of bringing diverse characters into popular culture.
Co-creator: John Buscema
First appearance: SAVAGE SHE-HULK #1 (February 1980)
Her name and relationship as cousin to Bruce Banner ties her to an already existing male character, but Jennifer Walters flourished into a great character with a ton of personality imbued into the green and tall framework of her famous cousin’s counterpart. Any courtroom scene with Walters is a gem, a highly entertaining facet to the typical comic book action with which She-Hulk engages. She-Hulk is a strong, principled character, and her current place in the Marvel Universe is indicative, actually, of how others were able to take Lee’s characters into new, deeper directions.
Stan Lee created many other supporting characters and villains with lessons of their own to impart, but his greatest heroes represent a principled pantheon we can all learn a bit from. They may be idealized, yes, but believe it or not, comic books aren’t just throw away entertainment.