Updated: Jan 14, 2019
I would be hard-pressed to think of an artistic format that is more quintessentially American than comic book superheroes. Dismissed by many as pulp, but there must be something about comic book superheroes for them ensnares our imagination for them to endure so long.
Over the last half century, there’s never been a more identifiable face of superheroes than Stan Lee, who sadly passed away today. Death’s drunken stumble through 2016 may have desensitized me to the shock of celebrity death, so rather than focus on the loss of such an iconic figure, instead I've decided to reflect on how Stan Lee, our generalissimo, has been such an influence to our culture.
Superheroes may very well have died off in the 60s if it weren’t for Stan Lee. When he had to develop a quantity of titles to keep the business flowing, he found himself struggling to impassion himself to produce content. His wife offered a simple solution: to write comic books that he would want to read himself.
It’s such a simple piece of advice, you would think. But when creativity is a job, self-enjoyment can get lost in the mix.
The result of the Fantastic Four’s premiere publication in 1961 was an industry-wide shift in how comic books and superheroes were approached. Whereas the attitude within the industry was to carry on the pattern of shock and awe that had thrived in the censorship-less ‘Golden Age’ of comic books, Stan Lee’s direction for the Fantastic Four was a more personal approach.
Each magazine would contain within itself a story, but scraps of personal history and plot beats would remain on the shelf. Stan Lee’s storytelling was not the sequential tapestries of Detective Comics and Action Comics. Where the whole of any characterization was relegated to Issue No. 1, where you had their tragic and inspiring origin.
Instead, Fantastic Four was a quilt that could be added to and modified. As a rule with Lee’s characters, the super power, and how it was earned, was always secondary to the human being using it. Rather than read to be shocked and awed, fans fostered a more emotional connection to these characters. It anchored the characters to something that was more real than being a crash-landed alien or a fabulously wealthy orphan. And though they did not exist in the real world, they existed in a world that was parallel enough for us to see ourselves in it.
They were permitted to react and interact with modernity — politics, social movements, the changing landscape of musical genres. Characters, with their provided humanity, were free to explore our world as we read them. And in doing so, Lee’s characters, in a way, acted as chroniclers of the twentieth century in such a sophisticated way that hasn’t been done for centuries.
Just as we can gleam elements of Hellenistic society through the trials of Heracles, or how we can extrapolate the values of Viking raiders from Odin’s swindling schemes, or what we can learn of Celtic pagan practices through the journey of Cú Chulainn. Or even something indirect, like how these stories were censored by Christian ultimatum, as indicative in Beowulf.
The authors who first orated these epics and poems had little intention of offering up an explanation of their culture to their predecessors, and much for the sake of prosperity. But they were seeking to seize the imaginations of those who listened. To relate to their audiences, they placed these stories in a world they recognized, one that selected their own daily lives.
This tradition of mythologizing the present became out of fashion in the advent of the Imperialist Age of Europe. We were never without local folklore. But Spring-Heeled Jack, Harlequin, Faust, Dons Juan and Quixote, and especially others based on real people fail to strive towards the greatness of the old Epics.
In the same way, I like to think, comic book superheroes have done this for us and our society. What difference is there? Gods, heroes, and mortal warriors who aspire to join them. We’ve seen Spider Man’s idolization by the same jock who bullies Peter Parker. We’ve seen Captain America unmask a false president as Watergate brought down Nixon. We’ve seen Tony Stark reflect on his actions as a weapons developer as he is captured and tortured in Korea, Viet Nam, and Iraq — anchoring him to the ever-present reality fo American conflicts.
So while everyone was trying to write the Great American Novel, nobody went out of their way to create the American mythos. Our landscape of imagination was sparked out of an afterthought meant to employ some creative types... but maybe it works better that way. The Great American Novel is lovely for us who are alive today, but I do not think there could be a more invaluable gift to future generations of historians than a mythology.
He wasn’t alone in creating these stories, but Stan Lee is deserving of special mention for the heart and spark of humanity he provided to our modern heroes. And if we look to the future, I hope that the future of comic books and their superheroes is to write books that are meant to be read, rather than sold.