Stan Lee's 8 greatest characters: From Black Panther to Doctor Doom, they were a product of troubled times
On 13 November, legendary comic writer, editor and producer Stan Lee passed away at the age of 95. The godfather of the Marvel Comics universe, Lee created or co-created some of the world’s most beloved comic book characters in history and can probably be counted among the most influential and admired icons in pop-culture.
So, on a day like this, I thought it would be a fitting tribute to this titan of the industry to take a look back at some of the best characters that Lee helped bring to life over a career that spanned almost eight decades.
The Fantastic Four
I know I’m cheating a bit by starting with a group rather than individual characters, but The First Family of Marvel Comics, the Fantastic Four’s debut in 1961 marked a number of important firsts for both Lee and Marvel, where he was editor-in-chief at the time.
The Fantastic Four would be the first series that was co-created by Stan Lee and noted artist Jack Kirby. Despite their personal differences, the duo would enjoy a long and successful partnership which resulted in the creation of many other iconic characters (some of whom are on this list). The debut of this new group of super-powered crime-fighters would also mark the beginning of the Marvel comic-book universe, where most of the publications heroes and villains existed in the same universe and could potentially meet to clash or cooperate across various team-ups and crossovers.
The Fantastic Four also introduced comic-readers to the concept of Event storylines, which were multi-issue narrative arcs that often involved many characters and had major stakes or far-reaching implications. ‘The coming of Galactus’ storyline which threatened the very existence of Earth is widely considered to be the original ‘crisis event’.
While the Fantastic Four have struggled a bit to maintain relevance in the current landscape thanks to a few lackluster movies and a feud between comic publisher Marvel and movie rights IP holder Fox, Disney’s acquisition of Fox has brought the Fantastic Four back to their creators and could perhaps mark a rebirth for the former flagship series.
The Herald of Galactus, the Silver Surfer is a major character in the Fantastic Four comic series. Often touted by Stan Lee as his favourite creation, the Silver Surfer is an interesting and somewhat unusual character. Despite wielding, cosmic powers, the Silver Surfer is essentially a pacifist character with a rather tragic backstory.
The result is that the Silver Surfer’s comics tend to be heavy on dialogue and much lighter on action and violence than you might have expected. The fact that this character spends a far greater amount of time on philosophical introspection and dialogue could, in part, explain why he is a favourite of Lee, who was after all the writer of the surfer’s early storylines.
A genius, a villain, and a King. Victor Von Doom was not always the arch-nemesis of the Fantastic Four, but his cold-menace and ability to outwit even Reed Richards quickly made the dreaded Doctor Doom one of the deadliest threats the team had ever faced.
While heroes always tend to have a rogues’ gallery of villains, most ‘bad guys’ usually only have one or two heroes to contend with. Doom however, proved to be such a successful villain that he has been elevated over the years to become a key antagonist to other heroes like the Avengers and has even occasionally served as an anti-hero when helping Marvel’s heroes contend with galactic-level threats.
Another immensely successful result of Stan Lee’s partnership with Jack Kirby were the X-men. They were introduced in 1963 were a revelation to comic-book audiences. The X-Men depicted a world where people with super-human abilities were, far from being seen as heroes, were often the target of distrust, fear and even open hostility. All this despite the fact that their abilities were derived natural genetic mutations that those people, essentially victims themselves, had no control over.
Parallels between the mutants’ struggle for equality and the civil rights movement that was reaching its height at the time of the X-Men’s debut are both obvious and plentiful. Even the relationship between the leader of the X-Men, Charles Xavier (Professor X), and Max Eisenhardt (Magneto), who heads the brotherhood of mutants, mirrors the differences of Martin Luther King Junior’s pacifist ideology and the more militant views promoted by a few others within the African American community, such as Malcolm X.
Over its publication history, the struggle between mutants and non-mutants has been compared to many forms of real-world discrimination and persecution against minority groups, including anti-Semitism, atheists, communists and the LGBTQ community.
While we’re talking about the civil rights movements, another collaboration between Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in the mid ‘60s was the creation of The Black Panther. T’Challa’s stories would rarely touch upon the kind of controversial topics that the X-Men regularly dealt with. Instead the Black Panther’s plots often revolved around the concept of challenging the status quo and choosing between the honoring tradition and balancing it against the need for changes and reforms necessary to advance humanity as a whole.
The Black Panther is also notable for being the first superhero of African descent from a major comic publisher.
Despite popular beliefs, the naming of the character and his first appearance in July 1966 actually predates the formation of the Black Panthers Party by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in October 1966. Lee has gone on record that the similarity between the two was unintentional and a complete coincidence.
Another classic Silver-age comic book hero, the Incredible Hulk was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby back in 1962. The brilliant and reticent Dr Bruce Banner, along with his monstrous, green gamma irradiated alter-ego is not unlike a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde.
The Hulk in a way represented the public’s cold-war era fears of nuclear war and the perception of how such devastating weapons are a perversion of scientific advancement, essentially (and in Banner’s case, literally) making monsters of the extremely intelligent but misguided men and women that created them.
While the Hulk has become decidedly more heroic in his depictions over the years, like practically all the characters Stan Lee created, he retains the characteristic flaws and imperfections that help make even the stories of an unstoppable green juggernaut appear more grounded and relatable.
Introduced in 1963, The armoured Avenger was co-created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby. Inspired by real-life genius, billionaire and playboy Howard Hughes, Lee has stated that he was interested in challenging himself to create a superhero that readers of the time would have a hard time supporting.
To readers, Tony Stark is a living embodiment of the military-industrial complex. He is a brilliant and arrogant businessman who had made his fortune as an arms manufacturer. His debut during Cold War inevitably resulted in pitting him against the forces of communism around the world, such as in Vietnam at a time when domestic sentiment against American involvement in Vietnam was particularly strong.
Iron Man is also among a small selection of superheroes who have no actual superpowers, relying on intelligence and technology to secure victory. And the fact that despite this disadvantage, Tony Stark is among the strongest of Earth’s heroes has helped make him a fan favourite despite his towering arrogance and, later, his battle with alcoholism.
A character defining portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. that secured him as the anchor of the MCU didn’t hurt either.
Perhaps the most popular of all Stan Lee’s characters, Spider0Man was co-created with artist Steve Ditko and first introduced in 1962. Unlike his counterparts who tend to be older and more accomplished even before they developed superhero powers and personas, Peter Parker was very much the 'everyman'. He wasn’t a billionaire, a scientist, a heroic soldier or especially remarkable in any war really. Parker was just an orphaned teenage high schooler in New York City. Peter Parker proved vigilantism is not just for the idle rich.
Unlike most heroes, Spider-Man’s stories often see him coping with day-to-day life in New York, in addition to fighting crime on the side. With no family fortune or vast business empire to rely on, Peter often finds himself delivering pizzas and doing odd jobs to help make ends meet. It’s hard to pay rent with freelance photojournalism
The combination of his youthful optimism, desire to do good, self-effacing nature as well as having to contend with real-world problems quickly endeared him to comic book readers who found the young web-slinger both easy to relate to and someone who you genuinely feel for when life is not going his way.
Bonus = The Watcher
While Uatu, The Watcher, probably does not show up on many (or any) lists of favourite comic book characters, I felt the Moon dwelling observer of all life on Earth was a worthwhile inclusion on this list, given that it has been essentially confirmed that Stan Lee himself plays the character in his various cameo appearances throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It is all the more important since, for many younger audience members, Stan Lee is probably remembered as the FedEx guy who did not know who Tony Stark was rather than as the Field Marshal of Marvel comics.
But even if some of his fans are too young to even realise that they are, in fact, fans of his work, I think that is actually a perfect example of the strength of his legacy. Stan Lee may no longer be with us, but the characters and stories, that have provided countless hours of entertainment to several generations, endure.
So, this one is for you, Mr Lee.
Updated Date: Nov 14, 2018 10:03 AM