On November 12th, 2018 Stan Lee, (born Stanley Martin Lieber), the father of so many of Marvel Comics’ iconic superheroes, passed away at the age of 95.
Stan Lee’s work was pioneering in many respects, offering a range of heroes which existed far outside the mold of comic book characters at the time. His stories sought not only to entertain readers, but teach them something important as well. In his editorial column, Stan’s Soapbox, Lee once stated that “a story without a message… is like a man without a soul“.
It’s now clear to see that many of his stories and characters preached equality, fairness and a form of representation which are still often fought for decades later. Stan Lee turned underdogs and outcasts into superheroes while writing bullies and bigots as supervillains.
Perhaps Stan Lee’s great achievement was not to be found within his characters’ superhuman abilities, but the manner in which he used them to inspire and comfort those who often felt powerless.
Lee’s contributions to pop culture and the modern age comic book are irrefutable. Among his most famous creations are Spider-man, Iron Man, Black Panther, Daredevil, the Incredible Hulk, the Avengers, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four. While any or, indeed all of these examples are well known to the general public today, many of them were considered to be big departures from what a superhero was at the time.
Stan Lee seemed to enjoy making his heroes out of concepts that people said couldn’t work. Teenagers were only allowed to be sidekicks before he insisted on making Spider-man not just a teenager, but something of an outsider in his high school.
In fact, the idea of Spider-Man arose because he wanted the challenge of making a hero associated with something people didn’t like. The blind character of Daredevil emerged because Lee reportedly wanted to showcase a disability as the source of a hero’s power rather than a weakness. The Incredible Hulk was a misunderstood monster and Iron Man is a weapons-dealer who sees the light.
Lee’s characters and stories were also incredibly progressive for the times he created them. Black Panther was the first African superhero portrayed in American mainstream comics and the X-Men symbolise just about any persecuted or marginalised group there is, echoing the victims of racism, homophobia, or sexism, as people hated and feared for the way they were born.
In 1971, Lee wrote the story Green Goblin Reborn!, the first Marvel story not to have the symbol of the Comics Code Authority. This issue dealt with Spider-Man’s friend, Harry, overdosing on drugs, condemning drug abuse without vilifying the user. This issue, in fact, led to a revision of the Comics Code Authority, Previously it had forbidden the mention of any illegal substances and Lee’s comic prompted a change to allow depiction of the harmful effects of drug abuse rather than ignoring what was, and is, a significant societal issue.
Through Spider-Man’s alter-ego, Peter Parker, Stan Lee was able to speak directly to his core audience of young teenagers. As a studious young science-enthusiast, Peter dealt with bullies, unpopularity with girls in his school and would regularly contend with the dilemma of choosing between what was easy and what was right.
The depiction of a nerdy high school student might appear a little more clichéd today, but it spoke to audiences.
Peter Parker didn’t lose his attributes when he became Spider-Man. His encounters with school bully Flash Thompson were often echoed as he stood up to more powerful criminals and his love of science often helped him outthink his foes.
Lee’s character often dealt with enemies or situations that at first seemed like far too much to handle. Overcoming these challenges through ingenuity and determination clearly made an impact as his most popular characters are still battling on the screen and on the pages as much as fifty years or more after he created them.
Lee’s most quoted phrase, apart from perhaps his iconic “Excelsior!“, is that “with great power, there must also come great responsibility.” Stan Lee had a great power to comfort, delight, and inspire with his creations. It is clear that he wielded his power with the utmost responsibility, and that he considered it his privilege to do so.
Bullying continues to be a relevant issue at many stages of life and is something that needs to be dealt with, however, it can be a deeply traumatic and challenging experience.
Bullies get their power from making their victims feel powerless, and this is true for both children and adults. The one thing that remains imperative to remember in such situations is that they can be changed; there is always something which can be done, no matter how huge, imposing or difficult it may seem.
Today, so many years after Spider-Man first stood up to his bullies, we have many more resources at our disposal. Online resources such as Stop Bullying offer advice on how best to deal with bullies.
The solution isn’t always to confront a bully head on and it certainly shouldn’t have to come to violence. Reporting bullying to authorities, finding ways to communicate with others about the issue, or learning how to best avoid tormentors are all viable options.
If you, or someone you know, is in a situation such as this, it doesn’t have to continue.
Notice: Keep an eye out for changes in friends and family, especially with regard to social situations such as school, college or work.
Talk: Try to elicit the problem, who is involved, when it started and what is happening.
Document: Try to get some facts down on paper, as they could come in useful if action needs to be taken. If the bullying is online, be sure to get screenshots of any unpleasant, or abusive material which has been sent to the victim.
Report: If the person is being bullied on an online platform, let the administrators know. Most companies are changing their laws regarding cyber bullying and hate speech.
Support: Be there. Let those around you know that they are loved, and that someone has their corner. By building confident, supported groups of friends and communities, individuals will feel more empowered and less likely to feel powerless.
Reach out for help and support, because nobody deserves to be bullied. Stan Lee believed that too.