On Monday, November 12, 2018, Stan Lee passed away at the age of 95; a respectful stillness swept over the entertainment world and his global fans.
As a first-generation Jewish-American who cultivated himself into a brand ambassador for Marvel Comics, Stan Lee has bestowed an indelible, ageless legacy for Marvel Universe. A master showman and mindful storyteller, he didn’t just create comic books; he created culture.
The recipient of the National Medal of Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) in 2008, Stan Lee was recognized for revolutionizing American comic books by creating and co-creating a gamut of “flawed humans” whose larger-than-life alter egos are endearing, multifaceted, multicultural superheroes. His famed character and story contributions include Spider-Man, Captain America, Black Panther and the X-Men.
Fighting Prejudice with Timely Publishing
In the form of a bright yellow editorial column at the back of Marvel comic books, from 1967 to 1980, Lee used his publishing cache in penning “Stan’s Soapbox,” to expound his open-minded values for curious readers. Beyond his comic book storytelling, the NEA distinguishes how Lee used this column to “speak to the comic book reader about social issues such as discrimination, intolerance and prejudice.”
One of his most famous entries addresses racism in 1968, after the assassinations of JFK and MLK:
“Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater — one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black men, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’s down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen — people he’s never known — with equal intensity — with equal venom… Although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race — to despise an entire nation — to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance.”
The youngest viewers embrace this philosophy. We know from our YouthBeat® syndicated data that:
- 9 out of 10 Non-Hispanic White, African American, and Hispanic youth agree that “It is important to accept people with different racial or ethnic backgrounds.” (Top 2 Box)*
- 9 out of 10 Non-Hispanic White, African American, and Hispanic youth agree that “It is important to accept people with different religious backgrounds.” (Top 2 Box)*
In another sign of the times, Lee also tweeted this timeless Soapbox entry above in response to the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
Move Aside, Hitchcock
Stan Lee was the king of cameos. Lee was famously known for his cameos in live-action and animated Marvel Comics movies and TV projects. He is also revealed to be Fred's wealthy dual-life dad in Disney’s Big Hero 6—a story originally based on a 1998 Marvel comic series that was inspired by Japanese anime.
He was an iconic figure in geek culture, from headliner appearances at comic book conventions to guest appearances on CBS’s “Big Bang Theory.” Stan Lee was a real-life superhero to his many ardent fans.
Notably, the first superhero of African descent in a comic book, Black Panther, debuted in 1966, was co-created by Stan Lee. The character predates the Black Panther Party movement, which was founded later that year. Over 50 years later, Black Panther starred in the box-office hit of the same name, with a predominantly black cast, which turned out to be the ninth highest-grossing film ever.
Stan Lee makes a quick cameo appearance in the film’s casino scene, as he humorously steps into a game of roulette, in which the African king of Wakanda had just won (and left behind his winnings); he nods at the white CIA agent, and coolly relocates the earnings: “You know what? I think I’ll just take these, bring them over here… and hold onto them for safe-keeping.”
In the end, it was always more than just about the comics.
These characters and stories have been forms of escapism for a lot of readers, many of whom were people of color, who felt they lived in a world where they didn’t belong. Yet, in this, Stan Lee knew the importance of weaving in his “moralizing” messages:
“[Some readers and critics feel] comics are supposed to be escapist reading and nothing more. But somehow, I can’t see it that way. It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul. Sure, our tales can be called escapist – but just because something’s for fun, doesn’t mean we have to blanket our brains.”
As the world grows more multicultural, younger generations tend to embrace our diversity and are making efforts to practice tolerance and inclusion. YouthBeat® shows that:
- The Avengers films (all mentions) are highly popular with tweens and teens, surpassed only by Harry Potter and Stars Wars/Star Wars series.*
- Many parents are citing Black Panther as the “best movie” they’ve watched together with their teens and tweens in the past year.*
Watch this message from Stan Lee to his fans, reiterating how these stories have "room for everyone," regardless of their race, gender or color of their skin:
Stan Lee was ahead of his time. His broad-minded approach and proactive propensity for representation in Marvel Universe influenced the diversity that we enjoy and appreciate in the world of comics—from print to film and beyond. His teachings have left an indelible mark on our perceptions of superheroes from all walks of life.
To quote a line from Stan’s Soapbox, as superhero fans, we can trust that each of us has a home in Marvel Universe—and in our global community—a place where “none of us lives in a vacuum.”
*Source: YouthBeat® Jan-June 2018