Stan Lee has always been a hero of mine; a sentiment I share with many comic book fans. But it was only recently – and especially after his death on Monday at age 95 – that I began to realize that part of my love for him came specifically from my perspective as a black kid who grew up reading comic books in the 1970s.
Not only that, as editor-in-chief and later editor of Marvel Comics, he helped create the coolest black superheroes of the era, such as Black Panther and The Falcon. Or that he developed legal allegories to overcome prejudices and stereotypes rooted in fear and ignorance, such as The X-Men, The Inhumans, and The Hulk.
What was cool about Marvel under Stan Lee was realism. They used royal cities as the basis of their heroes, who founded everything in a world that felt as real as possible. Spider-Man was a nerdy kid from Queens; The Fantastic Four was a quarrelsome family based in a tall building in Manhattan. And Luke Cage was a principled African-American ex-prisoner reinventing himself as a hired hero in an office in Times Square.
For a nerd boy growing up in Gary, Ind. – the term blerd, or black nerd, would be coined much later to describe my defiantly cool lifestyle – that was an incredible step forward. I felt like I was learning about the world while sitting in my corner of Northwest Indiana. Somewhere, there was a place where reading and writing were better than fighting and sports made you a hero. Or at least it allowed you to create one or two of them.
Not to shadow DC Comics. But heroes like Superman and The Flash lived in gleaming places called Metropolis and Central City. Their stories rarely presented people who resembled me or lived anywhere I recognized. Watching his exploits seemed a bit disconnected; like watching a fairy tale set in a land like my world … but neither.
Stan Lee's Marvel universe was braver, wilder, and often in urban spaces I wanted to see in person. He dealt with pressing social issues with which young people cared, with stories based on related things. The Fantastic Four worried about paying the bills for its mighty headquarters, while Spider-Man bothered to finish his homework and deal with bully Flash Thompson without revealing his powers.
Luke Cage, though not a direct Lee creation, was full of nods to the Blaxploitation action movies I loved back then. Given his own series of books in 1972, Luke Cage was proud, hands-on and full power in a way that I did not know I needed to see until I was in a book staring at me.
I also loved the way Lee spoke directly to the fans, through the editor's notes in the comics and his columns in the books, with his own jocular and distinct tone. I hate to think about how much of his style – with jovial asides slipped into action, just as that phrase was inserted in this phrase – influenced my own writing. He uttered words like "Excelsior!" at the end of the columns, giving the young fans a shared language and culture that could lead us to the inevitable times when we had to explain our obsessions with these "caricatures" to disdainful parents, teachers, or provocateurs.
Most of all, Lee made it clear that he was creating a wonderful, stimulating fictional universe that valued a wide range of people. Last year, in the wake of the white supremacy meeting, Unite the Right in Charlottesville, the man himself tweeted a link to one of his 1968 "Stan & Soapbox" columns, claiming that fanaticism and racism are among the most lethal social evils that plague the world today. "
At a time when people of color were still struggling to be seen in the common spaces, that feeling meant a lot – especially when it was supported by comic books.
There were limits to Lee's vision at that time. The white men were still the heroes, especially in the early books. As much as I loved the anti-hero he helped create called The Prowler, it was a little disappointing to see that this character, who was basically a super thief, turned out to be a misunderstood African-American kid.
And many non-white heroes were partners-as Captain America's replacement, The Falcon-or had powers rooted in their racial identity, as was the custom of the day. Then we had Black Panther and Black Goliath in Marvel, with Black Lightning and Black Racer in rival DC Comics' books.
(I joked in a column I wrote earlier that I always wondered why Thor, The God of Thunder was not originally called White Lightning.)
Glen Weldon of NPR noted in an excellent obituary how Lee's legacy is really complicated. His tireless self-promotion led to criticism that he shared little credit and did not compensate the artists who helped him create this incredible universe.
But for a young black man trying to figure out his place in the comic book world and fandom, Stan Lee helped make this journey a little easier.
Many years ago, I was hit by an ad in a black-focused magazine that showed a young black man staring at the mirror with a towel tied to his shoulders, clearly imagining himself as a powerful superhero. But the face that looked at him from the mirror was a white man with a cloak.
Thanks in part to Lee's influence, I could imagine Black Panther or The Falcon staring at me.
Copyright NPR 2018.