Stan Lee passes away: Marvel Comics legend's influence on pop culture is second only to Walt Disney

Gautam Chintamani

Nov 13, 2018 19:03:35 IST

Every time someone influential passes on, the obituaries and odes wax eloquent about some era coming to end. In Stan Lee’s case, such an analogy is not only true but also richly deserved. Besides being one of the most prolific comic book writers of all time, Lee was also instrumental in transforming a nondescript wing of a publishing house into one of the world’s most recognised media brands. As a cultural icon, Lee’s influence could perhaps be second to Walt Disney but the former’s contribution in shaping the consciousness of generations of readers and viewers far surpasses the latter. With Lee’s death, the world has lost one of the last few artists who could connect with the grandparents and the teenager in the cinema hall with the same gusto.

Stan Lee passes away: Marvel Comics legends influence on pop culture is second only to Walt Disney

File image of Stan Lee. AP Photo/Matt Sayles

Before Lee, there were largely two kinds of superheroes — the one blessed with powers beyond what was possible in this realm such as Superman and the one who stood up for justice like the Lone Ranger. What Lee did was to combine all these elements and then add layers of human flaw, shades of grey to make them complex and organic. One couldn’t imagine Superman having a bad day, or the Lone Ranger ever missing his mark but in Lee’s cosmos heroes failed, showed vulnerability and had issues with anger management. They knew the right thing to do but some of them took their time coming around, even questioned the need to be good and even when they ultimately did deliver, it was with some caveat.

Lee took a lot from the world around him and this included both the real world and the imagined universe of artists. There is a sense of realism thanks to the historical events as the Civil Rights Movement that inspired Marvel to come up with Black Panther (co-created with Jack Kirby) or the many alleged covert experiments attributed to the United States military and government which could have inspired elements of the X-Men. Similarly, it wouldn’t be completely incorrect to imagine had DC’s Justice League not been such a success, Lee might not have been inspired to come up with the Fantastic Four and later assemble The Avengers.

Sometimes, how one tells a story ends up becoming far more intriguing than the story itself. Perhaps this is what made Lee stand apart. He may not have been the “creator” in the traditional sense of the word but the manner in which he made things come together gave the readers something far greater in value. He made ordinary humans possess extraordinary powers to tell the readers that fitting in was not the thing, he made mortals such as Tony Stark/Iron Man stand shoulder to shoulder with gods such as Thor and with X-Men. Lee introduced an entire retinue of heroes for whom their power was a ‘normal’ thing that needed to be ‘curbed.’

Stan Lee might have laid the foundation of the present-day blockbuster superhero movies but he fell short as well. For one, under him, Marvel hardly focused on the women characters on their roster. In 1961, Lee created Sue Storm as a part of the Fantastic Four and intriguingly gave her the power of ‘invisibility.’ One of the first female superheroes in the Marvel pantheon, Sue Storm was a founding member of the Fantastic Four but unlike Wonder Woman, Sue Storm was never developed to her full potential. Even the women in DC comics who did not possess any superpowers such as Lois Lane appeared to be better etched than Sue Storm.

Is this why Marvel got to a standalone Black Widow film after exhausting nearly every single male superhero in its universe? In the times of experimentation and rebooting franchise, Lee was asked in 2015 about the chances of a black Spider-Man and he replied, "I wouldn’t mind, if Peter Parker had originally been black, a Latino, an Indian or anything else, that he stay that way. But we originally made him white. I don’t see any reason to change that.”

Many of Lee’s own flaws, for the lack of a better term, were attached to his creations. The controversial side of Lee across the length of his career whereby even though he was a co-creator he went on to become the face of Marvel, and made millions while others such as Jack Kirby were treated as hired staff, might have rubbed off on the interpersonal relationship between some of his characters (Captain America vs Iron Man) but his stature remained intact.

For a lifetime dedicated to works that today rank as some of the greatest creations in comic book history, one of Stan Lee’s greatest achievements is not even connected to him directly. His entire lifetime of work, if looked closely, stands as an inspiration for the reinterpretation of Batman first in the mid-1960s and later by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns series. In fact, there are traces of the Stan Lee-esque superhero in Christopher Nolan’s interpretation of Batman. Without Lee, our superheroes might still have been as great but maybe without humanity.

Updated Date: Nov 13, 2018 19:03:35 IST

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