This Monday, we lost one of the most influential creators in modern media, Stanley “Stan Lee” Lieber. The co-creator of such characters as (with Jack Kirby) the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Thor (and Larry Lieber), Iron Man (and Larry Lieber), X-Men, and Black Panther; Daredevil (with Bill Everett); Doctor Strange and, of course, Spider-Man (with Steve Ditko), it’s hard to overstate how much he and his collaborators changed the face of comics and the cultural landscape.
The Golden Age of comics featured righteous superheroes of immutable and unimpeachable Goodness, mostly untouched by long-term problems, many patriotically sporting red, white, and blue and punching Hitler in the face. (It must be noted that Jerry Siegel and Joseph Shuster, co-creators of Superman, were Jewish, though whether there is any overtly Jewish influence on the character or stories is a contentious point.) These characters remained largely static, likely because they were meant to be moralistic role models for their intended audience, young children. This all changed when Stan Lee entered the fray. Credited with bringing a naturalistic and complex characterization to superhero portrayals, and thus opening the medium to a greater audience, Lee’s experiment with changing the fundamental assumptions in the writing of superheroes can be called nothing less than a resounding success. By showing superheroes wrestling with personal problems, by adding nuance to their characterization, Stan Lee breathed new life into comics.
But of course, characters would be nothing without their stories. While comics have never been apolitical (see: Hitler punching), Stan Lee (and his co-creators) didn’t flinch from reality, addressing issues like prejudice, racism, war, and activism on the page. Stan Lee, born to Jewish parents just prior to the Great Depression, lived through WWI and served in WWII. Though it’s hard to be sure the extent to which his identity and experiences informed his approach to characters and their stories, it’s impossible to dismiss that they would have.
Nowadays it’s hard to imagine a superhero movie without the huge action pieces, without its characters achieving superhuman feats in services of the Greater Good. However, it is doubtful that we’d still be so invested in those movies without the complexity of emotion evoked by them dealing with their oh-so-human problems. And we owe that to Stan Lee.