Reconciling the legacy of Marvel’s Stan Lee

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Viewpoint by Austin P. Taylor

Stan Lee worked in comics for 70 years.

His resume included co-creating hundreds of comic book characters and pushing the superhero genre into the mainstream.

Lee was a force of positive creative energy. After his death, two of his letters from his monthly editorial column “Stan’s Soapbox” have made the rounds across social media.

In one of the columns, Lee discusses the evils of racism and declares that bigotry and hate have no place in his stories.

“Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” Lee said.

In the second column, when discussing the importance of having a moral message in his stories, Lee said, “A story without a message is like a man without a soul.”

He understood that Marvel Comic’s stories needed to have a message to connect with their audience and form a voice all their own.

And he worked his voice into every comic he wrote dialogue for, which for a time was every comic Marvel produced.

Lee’s stories were about more than doing the right thing. They were about fundamentally flawed people struggling to do the right thing well.

They were about heroes who understood that meaningful change — the change superhero stories that came before never illustrated — must start with the community a hero claims to serve.

Spider-Man, the creation of Steve Ditko and Lee, didn’t become one of the most beloved icons in pop culture because he was a super cool and well-adjusted dude.

Readers latch onto Peter Parker because his struggles and his responses to the world around him are relatable.

FILE – In this April 16, 2002, file photo, Stan Lee, 79, creator of comic-book franchises such as “Spider-Man,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “X-Men,” smiles during a photo session in his office in Santa Monica, Calif. Comic book genius Lee, the architect of the contemporary comic book, has died. He was 95. AccuNet/AP

But we can’t talk about Lee’s legacy without discussing how he failed his co-creators.

For better or worse, Lee brought the “Marvel Method” of comic book production into existence.

Lee’s method was to create a rough concept of the character and story he wanted the artist to pen, not a full script of the story. The artist would then create the comic with little to go on in terms of narrative and script.

After finishing pages, the artist would then send them back to Lee for approval. After approving, Lee would write the dialogue for the finished product.

This method forced artists like Ditko and Jack Kirby to do most of the work involved in the creation of a comic.

Then there’s the question of credit, if Lee deserved the fame. Now Lee is not Bob Kane, who took sole credit for the creation of Batman until 2015 when DC comics finally gave credit to Bill Finger. Finger had written and drawn most, if not all, of the initial Batman comics.

Lee was a talented salesman. At least he seemed delighted to talk about his work to a crowd.

And why wouldn’t he be? He’d been working in comics during (at least) two periods when it seemed like the industry was going to collapse.

His charismatic nature and “fun dad” aesthetic helped him quickly win the hearts of the public and become the defacto voice of Marvel Comics.

Ditko had no real interest in being a mouthpiece for Marvel and Kirby never had the opportunity.

Kirby died Feb. 6, 1994, several years before Marvel became the entertainment giant we know today.

I don’t write this with the intention of discrediting Lee’s legacy. I’m sorry if it does.

He and Kirby were two Jewish Americans who were shaping the American comic book industry in the 1940s when fascism was at the height of its popularity in Germany and Italy.

Lee helped keep the industry healthy after the publication of “Seduction of the Innocent” by Fredric Wertham caused publishers in 1954 to set up the Comics Code Authority to self-censor comics and avoid government regulation.

Lee used his platform to speak out against racism and spread compassion through his narratives and dialogue.

And sure he put his name on characters like Stripperella, the heroine of a 2003 adult animated series on Spike TV, but anyone can go mad with power eventually.

Lee wasn’t perfect, but he did more for the medium of comics, even as a face, than most could ever hope to. There’s no reason he can’t be criticized and celebrated.


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