The passing of Stanley “Stan Lee” Lieber marks the end of an epoch in American pop culture history. From 1939 until this week, he was a major personality in a comic book industry that was undeniably defined over the decades by his various roles at Marvel Comics.
As creator of titles such as X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Black Panther, and many more, Lee generated a unique storytelling modus operandi, based around characters who faced oppression, marginalization, and everyday challenges like paying the rent or dealing with infirm elder relatives.
This was deeply contrarian to the conventional wisdom handed down by longtime rival publisher DC Comics, where the pantheon of Justice League heroes never seemed to catch a case of the sniffles, let alone get a divorce. While Superman at DC was loved by all, the X-Men at Marvel were hated by a vicious anti-mutant bigotry that never seemed like a fictional concept.
“Stan Lee deserves the P.T. Barnum space in popular culture, he was unapologetically a Barnum figure of comics,” says Dr. Todd Steven Burroughs, a professor of mass communication and print journalism whose most recent and brilliant book is Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, available from Diasporic Africa Press. “He was a working class Jewish guy with no college education who got a job with his cousin-in-law.”
But he saw, as American mass media began to develop, that these magazines had more cultural power than people had realized. And he realized if he set himself free and he set the artists free, they could create strong popular culture art and entertainment. Stan as a Jewish liberal, with his many cameos in Marvel film and television productions, likes the irony of playing a racist in a Black Panther cartoon because that winking to the audience was what he always did. As he talked to us through his Stan’s Soapbox column that he had in Marvel Comics for many years, he was keen on ‘I have some ideas that I would like to get across to you but I don’t want to do it like your father or your grandfather because you won’t listen to me.
(Dr. Burroughs analyzes Marvel Comics, among other topics, at his website Drums in the Global Village.)
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Lee’s passing merits mention because of the key role he played as the Editor-In-Chief and Publisher who created a wide space where others could flourish. For a certain age demographic born in the 1980s, Lee was a perennial Saturday morning cartoon personality who would introduce the various serial adaptations of Marvel titles that took on major Culture War topics (HIV/AIDS, homosexuality, genocide) with only a skimpy veil of analogy. (Notable here as well is that he was also one of the original subscribers to Counterpunch, when Ken Silverstein started publishing the print newsletter 25 years ago.)
“The X-Men were created in 1963, same year as the March on Washington,” says Dr. Burroughs. “The heroes are integrationists and the villains are nationalists. That was in play from 1963 onward, that has never changed. Magneto tried every single thing a Black nationalist would try and always fails because he ‘doesn’t have the right values.‘ What are the right values? Integration and assimilation.”
It was not until May 1975, when Len Wein, Dave Cockrum, and Peter Iro began their Giant Sized X-Men title, that Marvel began trying to be serious. Now, rather than a group of middle class American teenagers, the X-Men went multinational, including a Black woman and a Native American alongside a Canadian, Soviet and German.
When we talk about the Black Panther, we’re talking about three white working class Jewish men [Lee, Kirby, and Steve Ditko] who were living and working in New York City and who are conscious. They live in a New York City that has seven daily newspapers and the United Nations. They are paying attention to what is going on around them. So the Black Panther comic comes as a result of the Civil Rights movement, looking at the African liberation movement, looking at Lumumba, Nkrumah, people like that who are literally in town at the UN and deciding they needed a superhero to represent that.
The first appearance of the character was between the foundation Lowndes County Freedom Organization and formation of the Black Panther Party.
Stan Lee, R.I.P.