Ever Upward: Farewell, Stan Lee
A tribute to the late Stan Lee, a man who forever changed superhero comics and displayed values that were ahead of his timeWith great power comes – say it with me – great responsibility. The line achieved pop culture ubiquity after Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ released in 2002, but a version of it appeared all the way back in Spider-Man’s first comic book appearance in 1962. That’s not to say it was an original thought back then. Multiple political leaders have espoused some variation of it over the years. Winston Churchill probably got the closest to the actual quote, saying “The price of greatness is responsibility” in 1943. I remember once reading that, of all people, Voltaire first coined the “With great power…” phrase. My research, somewhat disappointingly, shows that he never said anything of the sort, but I have an odd feeling that the French philosopher would have taken a fondness to the giant of a man we lost this week. I refer, of course, to the man who wrote that 1962 comic book: Stan Lee.
It may seem ridiculous to compare a creator of comic books to one of the most famed enlightenment thinkers of all time, but, with a little bit of tongue admittedly brushing against my cheek, I see similarities between Stan Lee and Voltaire. Both were prolific writers. Both wrote under assumed names. And both were progressive thinkers, unafraid to propagate ideas and values different from the dominant wisdom of their times. In Voltaire’s ‘Candide’, the titular character at one point asks “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what then are the others?” In 1960, Marvel Comics founder Martin Goodman was eyeing the success that rival DC Comics had recently had with their ‘Justice League of America’ series. Goodman directed his young comics editor, Stan Lee, to create their own superhero team. Thus was born the ‘Fantastic Four’. Lee’s was no mere copy-paste operation though. As he would later say, “I would do the type of story I myself would enjoy reading. And the characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to: they’d be flesh and blood, they’d have their faults and foibles, they’d be fallible and feisty, and, most important of all, inside their colourful, costumed bodies they’d still have feet of clay.” The approach worked wonders, and ‘Fantastic Four’ was a spectacular hit. This sparked off an awe-inspiring decade in which Lee, along with fellow revolutionary creators like Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber, created or co-created a range of iconic characters: The Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, Ant-Man, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, The X-Men, The Avengers, Daredevil…that’s three cinematic universes right there. The characters that had the Stan Lee stamp were decidedly different from the array of heroes in DC’s arsenal. While the latter were often godlike and otherworldly (think Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern), the Marvel heroes mirrored the flaws and fears of real people (think Peter Parker’s teenage woes, or The Thing’s struggles with his appearance). While even the most iconic of DC heroes lived in fictional locations such as Metropolis and Gotham City, the epicentre of Marvel action was usually a very recognisable New York City. Revisiting Candide’s question, while the traditional approach to superhero stories was to ask “What then are the other worlds?”, Stan Lee started with “If this is the best of all possible worlds…” and took it from there. Voltaire also said, “Every man is a creature of the age in which he lives and few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of the time.” Voltaire himself was one of these few, of course, but less obviously, so was Stan Lee. Consider how ground-breaking a film 2018’s ‘Black Panther’ seemed to be in its depiction of an African country advanced far beyond Western civilisation, and in its portrayal of an African hero who was tough and powerful, but also intelligent and sensitive. Now consider how much more revolutionary the character was when Stan Lee introduced him half a century ago in 1966, in an era when representations of black characters, let alone foreign black characters, very much still ranged from ignorant to horrifying. In 1968, Lee would use his monthly ‘Stan’s Soapbox’ column to write about the evils of racism. As for the X-Men stories, they can be seen as allegories of society’s treatment of just about any number of marginalised groups. As Lee himself said, “I wanted them to be diverse. The whole underlying principle of the X-Men was to try to be an anti-bigotry story to show there’s good in every person.” Despite his obvious and radical gifts, it took Stan Lee some time to come to terms with his place in the world. “I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer while other people were building bridges or going on to medical careers,” he once said. “But then I began to realise: entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives. Without it they might go off the deep end. I feel that if you’re able to entertain people, you’re doing a good thing.” Or as Voltaire said, “Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
Goodbye and excelsior, great man.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances
Thank god we had time for a Stan Lee cameo.
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