As a quirky kid from a small town, I felt out of sink with my surrounding most of childhood. I realize that this isn’t new or unique. Regardless, it was how I felt, and it wasn’t entirely inaccurate. With an almost compulsory need to go my own way, I was adrift. I wasn’t really into sports. I didn’t hunt. I wasn’t in the band. Yeah these were most of the group dynamics available to me.
Then I happened upon graphic novel in my school library. Marvel’s Secrets of the Fantastic Four. Mind blown! Here was a story, book, and world full of colorful characters striving to make the world a better place. What’s more they were human. I don’t mean that that they homo sapiens based from the planet earth. Batman from Detective Comics is human by the technicality of that strange yet precise definition. The character in this marvel book were flawed, like me. They had fears and worries. They made mistakes, both big and small. They were quirky outsiders, who for one reason or another wanted to make the world a better place than they found it. They were like me.
With these four-colored paneled books I found a road-map, and a beacon. I didn’t have to be perfect like Superman, or affluent like Batman to make a difference. I just had to strive forward, one scenario at a time. I learned that I can’t let the big things like death of an Uncle Ben or smaller ones like coming up with money the for bills, stop me from striving to do what is right.
The writing of Stan Lee was what breathed this fresh air into the superhero genre. It was a universal truth that until then had been ignored in comics. We all have problems with money, relationships, and feelings of inadequacy, but we can’t that stop us from standing up for what is right. This undercurrent theme resonated with readers old and young, for generations. I was yet to be born when Spiderman spun his first web on Amazing Fantasy number 15.
Then Stan Lee revolutionized story making in the comic book world with three little words. To Be Continued….
Excelsior! Before he had the audacity to add these words in the bottom right hand corner of the 22nd page, all stories in the comic books had to begin and end in a single self-contained magazine. When Stan Lee added this, it was revolutionary. Now they could tell a story with more depth, gravitas, and take the time flush a story out, let it breath. Comic stories like life were not neatly solved in an allotted time-frame. The characters could be dealing with a difficulty for months, years, before they reached an inevitable conclusion.
Just when I didn’t think Stan Lee can up his game any further. He creates the X-men. First off, these characters were mutants. The first in comics to coin the phrase. They didn’t have a near fatal accident through twist of luck imbued them with powers. They weren’t from another planet. They weren’t even super rich with obsession with crime and drive to make little gadgets to fight it. They were people who just like you and me, who happened to be born different.
Thanks to their differentness, they were ostracized, bullied, and treated with undo prejudice. Did I mentioned that the X-men debuted in September of 1963 less than one month after the March on Washington? Stan Lee was clearly writing an allegory of how he felt about the times. Giving his readers, many of them children, some very compelling food for thought.
However, the X-men had one inherit inadequacy to properly display this metaphor. All the characters were white. In fact, most the characters in all comics were inherently of anglo-saxon descent with more than a few, racially-charged, stereotyped, exceptions.
However, Stan Lee, and the iconic writer/artist Jack Kirby, doubled down in July of 1966, in Fantastic Four issue #52. That was when the Black Panther the first, person of color, superhero debuted. Disregarding the possible social and financial repercussions that were certainly threatened at the time, Stan and Jack created a hero of depth and strength, and forever changed the face of comics. Black Panther gave millions of readers a new face to look to as hero. Reminding us all that it was the content of character that measured our worth, not the color of our skin. Don’t just take my words for it read Stan’s words for yourself.
Stan Lee’s life and his work had resonated with so many beyond myself. I am in awe of the torches he lit in the hearts and minds of his readers. New storytellers took up his gauntlet and wrote inspiring works. Others like me, were inspired by his heroes and decided to take direct role in the betterment of mankind. I became a paramedic for a time and have helped and even saved a few lives along. Stan Lee’s stories showed that courage. When the stories in my head became too strong. I gradually stepped back from the trenches and started to create my own worlds to entertain and hopefully inspire.
My story is not unique. So many have had Stan Lee to stand up and hold a beacon of light to guide us to our destinies and through valleys of shadow and death. His life and work have influenced generations. Sharing his stories with my children, I am confident that many more generations follow. For that, this quirky small-town kid will forever be thankful and will always remain a True Believer.