Face front, true believers. Last week the world lost one of the few household names among the ranks of comic book creators: Stan Lee, prolific Marvel Comics writer and co-creator of the Amazing Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the Uncanny X-Men, and even some adjectiveless heroes like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, and Daredevil.
Lee’s career in comics spanned almost seven decades. In the 1960s he made major innovations in the comic book medium that propelled Marvel to astounding success. Eventually he transcended comics to become a beloved figure in popular culture broadly. His distinctive style of good-natured bombast—a sort of winking carnival-barker persona—was honed in comics captions and letters pages until every Marvel reader had a voice of Stan Lee in his or her head. And then, thanks to television, film, and the internet, we all got to hear that voice and see Lee’s signature sunglasses, mustache, and grin. Why always sunglasses? Lee was once asked. He replied by saying he’d always felt the need for a flourish of some sort. “When I was very young and just starting off as a writer, I always lit a pipe and held it in my teeth as I wrote. I hated smoking a pipe, but I felt it made me look older and like a writer. I was 18. Sunglasses are better for your health.” But the jubilant smile was perhaps his most distinctive trait. “Can you think of a when you’ve ever seen Stan Lee not look excited?” asked Fr. Jonathan Mitchican of God and Comics.
It was impossible not to look up to Stan Lee if you were a nerdy kid (like me) interested in creating fantastical universes (like me). Books like How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way interspersed comics-drawing tutorials with color commentary from Stan Lee. I got one of those books in a Christmas stocking when I was maybe ten and traced the figures in it to generate my very first superheroes. His personality was so strong that I thought of basically every Marvel hero, or story, or image as his creation. Only later did I come to understand that Lee was a writer, not an artist. In the visual medium of comics, he had to have collaborators. More on them in a moment.
With multiple Marvel blockbusters a year (none complete without a cameo from Smilin’ Stan), it can sometimes feel like we’re living in the universe Stan dreamed up—he is notable in comics not simply as the creator of a superhero universe, but of the concept of superhero universes. Whereas the older publisher, DC comics, kept its heroes siloed in different cities (Superman in Metropolis, Batman in Gotham, and so on), Lee spearheaded the creation of Marvel Comics’ extra-crowded New York City, home to Spider-Man, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, and many more. The riotous fecundity of the mainstream superhero genre, with its splash pages stuffed with a panoply of costumed crimefighters, owes much to Lee’s embrace of the shared superhero universe. In the face of Marvel’s success, DC Comics followed suit.
That’s not the only Marvel innovation that redefined the genre. Stan Lee’s superhero creations are notable for their combination of spectacular escapades and down-to-earth issues. Spider-Man starts out as a teenager entering the world of adult responsibilities and often falling short, torn between crime-fighting and his obligations to his work, school, and family. Lee liked to heap further burdens on Spider-Man (This week, Spider-Man’s worried about impressing a girl! This week, he’s got the flu!) to get readers rooting for this star-crossed everyman hero. The Fantastic Four, meanwhile, are superhero celebrities but also a family dealing with their own tensions and squabbles. They love each other, craggy orange exteriors and all, but that doesn’t mean they always get along. The classic DC superheroes—most prominently, Superman—had a sense of iconic untouchability. By contrast, Marvel took superheroes in a naturalistic direction. The comics sold like gangbusters, and soon DC emulated the rival company’s approach (to such an extent that, I’d argue, DC has gone overboard in some recent cinematic offerings and given us unlikeable and unheroic versions of Batman and Superman).
It’s this aspect of Lee’s work, the humanized superhero, that is most of interest to religious believers. The Christian tradition thinks of heroism primarily in terms of the heroic virtue displayed by the saints, those men and women who have cooperated with God’s grace so as to be conformed to Christ. But—to ask an impish question—are the saints more like DC superheroes or Marvel superheroes? I think both traditions can be relevant. The invincible decency of the best versions of Superman can help make vivid the uprightness of a St. Joseph. But there are saints whose stories read more like Marvel Comics. St. Jerome, for example, has the cantankerous tendencies of The Thing, rocky-hided muscle of the Fantastic Four—though both figures ultimately demonstrate a purity of heart and purpose. Most saints are not born perfectly Christ-like; if we peek into their lives as we peek into Spider-Man’s, we’ll see them as works-in-progress. And there are saints who, in their God-given charism, seem as foolhardy and self-destructive as Daredevil. Witness Damien of Molokai, the Apostle of the Lepers. Marvel parallels help draw out the holy vulnerability of the saints, their bodies and hearts broken by loving Christ to the end in a world that hates and fears.
I never tire of quoting C. S. Lewis’s observation: “How monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been: how gloriously different are the saints.” The profusion of vastly varying superhero characters co-created by Lee helps me imagine this multitude of heavenly heroes.
Lee had his own feet of clay. Some of his collaborators over the years, brilliant superhero creators in their own right, argued that he shortchanged them, hogged the spotlight. The inimitable artist Jack Kirby, co-creator of The Fantastic Four, left Marvel in a storm of dissatisfaction. Landing at DC Comics, Kirby created a parody of Lee, the unscrupulous huckster Funky Flashman. Lee’s relationship with Steve Ditko, artist and co-creator of Spider-Man, became so strained that for some of their run together on Spider-Man they collaborated while not being on speaking terms. Ditko would turn in comics pages and, as was the “Marvel Method,” Lee would add dialogue to them, all without the men talking to each other. And yet, despite these circumstances, the two managed to create the genuinely inspiring sequence that epitomizes Spider-Man’s hard-luck heroics, as Spider-Man draws on the crucial lesson, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and frees himself from a massive pile of broken machinery when his aunt desperately needs his help. Lee’s over-the-top prose and Ditko’s expressive art crystallize a moment of high emotion: “And then—as the agonizing ache in his limbs seems unendurable—as his superbly muscled body suffers the torment of a virtually indescribable ordeal—from out of the pain—from out of the agony—comes triumph!”
Rest in peace, Stan Lee. You helped give us some of the most inspiring superheroes the world has ever seen. You wrote heroes at a human scale whom we could relate to very directly, whose triumphs we could cheer—and, hopefully, emulate. Excelsior.
Alexi Sargeant is a theater director and cultural critic who writes from New York City.