On November 12, 2018, Stan Lee passed away at the age of 95. Depending on your nostalgia for comic books and superheroes, your response to this news might be the same as radio personality Mike Francesca: “Oh who cares?” Evidently an awful lot of people care, if the ever growing wave of articles and social media posts paying tribute to his contributions to pop culture are any indication.
I count myself among the ranks of those mourning his passing. Never truly considering myself a “reader,” I was first exposed to Stan Lee via Saturday Morning cartoons. In the mid-1990s, he introduced a block of shows based on Marvel Comics characters and, every once in a while, would appear in animated form. I was curious who this guy was. The appeal of superheroes demands little explanation. The mythic world of good versus evil with altercations being decided by the well-timed use of a superpower can easily hold the attention of audiences for 30 minutes or 30 pages at a time. Only after exposure to heroes on television did I seek out more, and often better, material in print. That is where Stan Lee comes into play.
Stan Lee was creative precisely because he was created in the image of his Creator.
Stan Lee’s Creative Gift
Marvel and DC Comics have held a stranglehold over the comic book industry almost since it found its cultural footing nearly a century ago. While DC enjoyed massive success with heroes like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, Marvel answered with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk. Comic book aficionados (read: nerds) will tell you the key difference between the lists is that DC’s characters seem like unapproachable gods, idealistic and archetypal, while Marvel’s characters are more relatable and down to earth. The real difference? The three DC heroes listed all have different creators (Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and William Marston, respectively) while the Marvel heroes had one in common: Stan Lee.
Stan Lee began his career at Marvel, then called Timely Comics, in the 1940s doing odd jobs around the office. Every so often, he would be given small chances to showcase his own talents, slowly but surely making his value to the company known. In the 1960s, Lee would create some of the most recognizable characters in the world. In addition to the list previously mentioned, Lee brought to life Daredevil, Iron Man, Thor and Doctor Strange with the help of industry legends like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Lee also created the X-Men, mutants imbued with superhuman abilities as a result of an evolutionary leap forward, simply because he was tired of coming up with unique origins for his characters’ fantastic powers. Necessity really is the mother of invention.
Over and above his universally praised good humor and generosity of spirit, people admired Lee’s prolific creativity. He created so much to the delight of so many. A whole world of possibility, filled to the brim with colorful characters and larger-than-life stories. Seem familiar? So often we admire people like Lee for their gifts when they are just that — gifts. Stan Lee was creative precisely because he was created in the image of his Creator. He did not create from nothing. He merely organized thoughts and themes he saw in everyday life in such a way that was compelling to readers. Lee gave us what we wanted, and we loved him for it.
Lee created characters designed to make us long for a savior, but who could ultimately never fill the role.
Tales to Admonish
On the one hand, his stories feed our most unfortunate desires. We want stories of heroes taking control of their destinies, bowing to no one in their endless pursuit of justice (and often defining justice for themselves). If not to live vicariously and identify with the protagonist, we are excited by tales of redemption at the hands of a savior closer to our own definition. We want a strongman (or woman) with awesome power, able to enact justice with immediate relief to the oppressed and brutality toward their enemies. We want a savior with a six pack and heat vision, undeterred by collateral damage. The ends justify the means, or so we would like to believe.
Yet Stan Lee’s superheroes were flawed and conflicted. Their origins were often uniquely tragic, and they dealt with the same troubles and afflictions as their readers: insecurity, poverty, prejudice and substance abuse. Spider-Man saved the day while Peter Parker struggled to make ends meet. The Hulk subdued monsters while Bruce Banner lived in fear of what he might become. The X-Men fought other mutants to protect the very people who hated them. Lee created heroes much like those of the Old and New Testaments, characters designed to make us long for a savior, but who could ultimately never fill the role. His heroes often needed saving as much as the common man.
The Incredible Gospel
Stan Lee died on November 12, 2018. He created much, it’s true. An entire fantasy world of words and pictures owes much of its existence and success to him. Many others make their livelihood as a result of his creations, and countless millions delight in its entertainment.
Stan Lee did that. Stan Lee died. Death is the tragic but inescapable result of sin.
Stan Lee accomplished much with a life that was not his own, in a world he did not create, with gifts he did not earn. We inhabit this same world, created by the Word as a picture of its Creator to His delight. Ironically, the vast majority of the characters credited to Stan Lee will either never die or inevitably resurrect in the grandest possible fashion. The will and the mercy of our Creator by the power of the gospel invite us to share in their fate.