Stan Lee, a legend in the comics and entertainment industry, passed at the age of 95 on Monday. Even if you aren’t into comics, you’ve definitely heard of Stan Lee, or at the very least some of the comics he brought to the world. Over the course of his career, he co-created superheroes that are synonymous with the genre today. And this has only exploded with the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Captain America, Black Panther, The Incredible Hulk and others in that world wouldn't have become the household names that they are without Lee’s imagination and creativity.
To say that there has been the loss of a legend would be an understatement, but the legacy of his work and career that will no doubt continue on. All his stories feature an element of human complexity that readers love and continue to gravitate towards. Off-page, Lee kept politics and radicalism front and center in his actions—he was part of the comics creators that put their characters at the forefront of the action during World War II (even taking a hiatus to go into the service himself), and challenged the Comics Code Authority when it was pushing to censor the work of comics professionals during the late ‘60s and early 70’s. Lee’s stories play on complex social and cultural themes that translate communities, and that keep the stories so impactful to marginalized readers from all communities.
Here are some of his most important works from throughout this career, and why they should be on your radar, if they're not already:
Contrary to popular belief, Lee’s superhero work came much earlier than some of the big ones we know him for. One of his first comics was The Destroyer, the name of three superheroes with the same name that first appeared during the Golden Age of Comics in the ‘40s.
The Destroyer was actually Lee’s most popular superhero before the Fantastic Four came along. American journalist Keen Marlow is reporting on Nazi Germany when he is captured and placed in a concentration camp, where he gets injected with a super-serum. The powers that Marlow gets from the serum allow him to escape, and he takes on a new identity to fight Nazis. In later years, the Destroyer origin story gets readapted for two new heroes—Brian Falsworth during its second run during the 1970s, and Roger Aubrey in its latest iteration.
The Destroyer has elements in his origin story that connect to later works of Lee, like Captain America. But what makes him interesting is the overt radicalism of fighting against injustice. And with anti-Semitism on the rise today, The Destroyer is an timely hero because of his stance against Nazi rule. And as history moves to repeat itself, this might be a good reminder of how good men will always rise against injustice.
Team groups were doing well in the comics industry at the time, and Lee was tasked by his then-editor to create a superhero team like that for Marvel. The Fantastic Four are Richard Reed, siblings Sue and Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm, who get into a cosmic accident on a mission into space. Because of this, they return to Earth with superpowers: Reed as the stretchy and intelligent Mr. Fantastic, Sue as Invisible Girl/Woman, Johnny as the Human Torch, and Grimm as the monstrous Thing.
The appeal of the Fantastic Four doesn’t come from their superpowers but in their humanity. Gaining superpowers only complicated things amongst them, and as a group that didn’t always get along before, this only intensified after they gained their powers. Readers could identify with something in the foursome, but Grimm was especially important, as he was the first superhero in a mainstream comic that openly hated having powers. That kind of complexity in a hero is incredibly relatable but wasn’t really done at the time. That kind of gamble paid off as the Fantastic Four became one of Lee’s most popular superheroes ever, especially during the time of their debut.
You can’t talk about superhero teams without mentioning the iconic X-Men. In a world where humans can carry the X-gene, some humans have supernatural powers. But what makes the mutants so relatable for readers are the ways they are ostracized and pushed aside in society. Many of the mutants are discriminated against because of how they look and where they come from, and many allegories have been made in connection to other marginalized identities. There have also been countless theories on the ways that two of the most popular X-Men—rivals Charles Xavier and Magneto—reflect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and their impact in the Civil Rights Movement.
Whether you agree with these comparisons or not, the X-Men remain timeless because of their fight against oppression and bigotry. Moreso than any of Lee’s other works, the X-Men are the most direct characters to relate to if you feel like an outsider in any way, and what could be more powerful than that?
“With great power comes great responsibility.” Even if you’ve never picked up a Spider-Man comic in your life, there’s no doubt that you’ve heard that iconic line before. The story of how Spider-Man became the hero that we know him as today is also one that has incredible origins: Peter Parker, a science geek and native New Yorker (Queens!), gets bitten by a radioactive spider during a school field trip. From that bite, he gets superpowers but… doesn’t immediately move to use them to help people. Instead, he goes into show business, using his powers to earn a little extra cash to help out his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who have raised him.
Then through a series of events Uncle Ben dies, and in his last words to Peter, he utters the line that has become iconic beyond Spider-Man mythos. From there, Parker is pushed to use his powers to fight evil across New York City and the world.
It was also in an issue of The Amazing Spider-Man that Lee challenged the standards of the Comics Code Authority. In a special issue, Lee wanted Spider-Man to address the dangers of drug use. In a multi-issue story, Lee had Peter directly addressing drug use as Spider-Man but also as Peter Parker with his friend Harry Osborn (aka the Green Goblin) becoming addicted to pills. This also led to Spider-Man fighting against the Green Goblin, one of his most popular nemesis, and a famed rivalry in comics history. The showdown between the two was so popular that it ultimately led to the Comics Authority siding with Lee and Marvel that storytelling that involved darker elements were not all bad, and lifted the restrictions of the Code to allow darker elements to be included in comics.
What people love most about Peter Parker is that he’s an outsider—a geek that can barely pay his bills, can’t get the attention of the girl of his dreams, and only becomes more of a mess after gaining superpowers. His friends see him as flaky and irresponsible, unaware that he spends his nights fighting crime. He isn’t the biggest or the strongest hero on the block, but Spider-Man remains one of the most popular characters, ever, and the one that holds the Marvel Universe together.
Though Lee’s work remained primarily with American comics, he did have the opportunity to dabble in other forms of the medium. In 2009, Lee worked with major anime production company BONES to create Heroman, a manga that had its own anime run in 2010. Lee called it “a new hero for the 21st century.”
Heroman follows an orphaned American boy named Joey who wants to purchase a Heybo, a robot toy that’s popular in his town, but he doesn’t have enough money. He later finds a broken down Heybo and fixes it, naming it Heroman. After being struck by a bolt of lightning, Heroman transforms into a giant robot. The two become a superhero duo that fight crime and save the Earth from evil aliens.
Heroman’s basic plot is a nice reminder of how the hero narratives can operate within the medium of writing comics. The manga was later adapted into an anime series that was produced by TV Tokyo. Though there were differences between the two adaptations, Heroman worked because it captured themes that are flowing throughout Lee’s work—everyday people with goodness in them that become great heroes when given the opportunity—and brought them to a new audience.
The Incredible Hulk
Radioactive accidents were big back in the day. Scientist Bruce Banner was conducting experiments on radioactivity when a teenager trespasses on government property where the experiments are being held. Banner risks his life to save the teenager as an experiment goes off. This leads to Banner gaining the power to transform into a giant, green Hulk whenever he gets angry.
Just like Parker, Banner proved to be a relatable character for comics fans. Who hasn't felt like their anger turned them into a monster, or maybe even had thee fantasy of a fury-fueled transformation that could destroy those who've pissed you off? It also helps to reclaim the power of anger, even when it’s rooted in something traumatic like abuse (which is the root of Banner’s rage, as it’s revealed that he was the survivor of childhood abuse from his father).
The Incredible Hulk remains a popular character because of his complexity, his wrath, and the constant re-imaginings of his character and similar others that also channel their anger into raw power.
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