Faithful Viewer Opinion

Flawed people, great power clashed in worlds of Stan Lee’s creations

Stan Lee, creator of comic-book franchises such as “Spider-Man,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “X-Men,” smiles during a photo session in his office in Santa Monica, Calif, in 2002. Lee, the architect of the contemporary comic book, died at the age of 95. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

(RNS) — “And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

Those words, written by Stan Lee, appear in the momentous final panel of the first story to feature the Amazing Spider-Man, published in 1962’s “Amazing Fantasy #15.”

It’s a measure of how completely Lee’s stories have been subsumed into our collective cultural bloodstream that if you were to quote that line above to your average person on the street, many would make the link to the iconic web-spinning superhero.

With the equally iconic Lee’s death on Monday (Nov. 12) at the age of 95, it’s worth taking a step back to examine the long reach of the legendary writer/editor. Along with artists such as Steve Ditko (Spider-Man’s co-creator), Jack Kirby, John Buscema, John Romita, Don Heck, Gene Colan and so many others, Lee laid the sturdy foundations of what has collectively become one of the most significant storytelling endeavors in modern history.

It’s worth pausing here to reflect on what a paradigm shift Lee and his collaborators’ approach to superhero fiction represented in the early 1960s.

Before then, Timely Comics (the company that eventually became Marvel) had been kicking around with a small roster of colorful crime fighters —most prominently Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner, all introduced during the Second World War. The big kid on the block was DC/National Comics, who inaugurated the comic-book superhero, with Superman and Batman modeling for the next several decades what the tropes of the genre would be.

While Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and the various other DC heroes endure to this day, Lee imagined a different kind of hero. His innovation in the ’60s — after several decades toiling in relative obscurity over stories that he increasingly felt didn’t particularly matter — was to create characters who struggled under the weight of everyday problems even while trying to live up to their heroic ideals.

His characters weren’t necessarily called to heroism but chose it all the same.

Comic-book creator Stan Lee stands beside some of his drawings in the Marvel Super Heroes Science Exhibition at the California Science Center in Los Angeles on March 21, 2006. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

The process toward these more human heroes began in 1961 with “Fantastic Four #1,” co-created by Kirby. That’s where that book’s titular quartet — Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards, Susan “Invisible Woman” Storm, Johnny “Human Torch” Storm and Ben “Thing” Grimm — decide to become do-gooders without much additional prodding after gaining otherworldly powers from an outer space anomaly.

Lee evolved the template somewhat with 1962’s “The Incredible Hulk #1,” again with Kirby. Here we had bookish and introverted nuclear scientist Bruce Banner, about to test the terrifying “Gamma Bomb” — his own creation. An act of enemy sabotage coupled with uncharacteristic bravery by Banner results in him risking his life to rescue a trespassing teenager just as the bomb explodes, enveloping him in “the full force of the mysterious Gamma Rays!”

The tale of a man of science inventing an instrument of mass destruction and being immediately gripped with conscience over impending loss of life marks Banner as a comic-book Oppenheimer of sorts, his last-second rescue of the boy serving as his own version of  “I am become death.”

As Banner finds himself transformed by the bomb and his own hubris into a brutal personification of rage itself, the Lee template for Marvel characters is well and truly set.

Flawed characters.

Human failings.

Feet of clay.

But still nonetheless striving to do right, even when doing right comes at considerable personal cost.

Thus we have bullied teenager Peter Parker, who initially uses his newfound spider-powers to forge a path as a TV celebrity until his decision to let a burglar go — because “I just look out for number one!” — results in the same burglar murdering his beloved uncle.

It’s a parable that could sit comfortably in an O. Henry anthology.

And so it goes. Iron Man. Daredevil. Black Panther. The Silver Surfer. Too many others to even list.

But all embody the same ethos of flawed people doing their best to do good. The Marvel characters have long since transcended their four-colors-on-newsprint origins, but the simple formula behind their success is as potent today as ever.

Through the roster of colorful characters Stan Lee was able to demonstrate for several generations of the young (and the young at heart) how heroism comes not from superpowers but from the willingness to use what we have to do what we can, however we can.

In the immortal words of the man himself, “’Nuff said.”

(Zaki Hasan, who teaches at San Jose State University, has been a media scholar and critic for more than 20 years. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

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Zaki Hasan


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  • From Stan Lee in 1968

    Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater — one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black men, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’s down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen — people he’s never known — with equal intensity — with equal venom.

    “Now, we’re not trying to say it’s unreasonable for one human being to bug another. But, although anyone has the right to dislike another individual, it’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race — to despise an entire nation — to vilify an entire religion. Sooner or later, we must learn to judge each other on our own merits. Sooner or later, if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance. For then, and only then, will we be truly worthy of the concept that man was created in the image of God ― a God who calls us ALL ― His children.

    “Pax et Justitia, Stan.”

  • The paradox of the flawed characters Stan Lee and his Marvel collaborators created was that their enhanced abilities and their desire to do good were paralleled by the temptation to unilaterally decide what “good” meant. They were heroes but they were also perpetually on the slippery slope to becoming villains, always tempted to force their will on society, ostensibly for its own good.

    Marvel comics are cautionary tales for America and other developed nations, especially at a time when nationalism has yet again reared its ugly head. Having the power of a god without the wisdom of one is dangerous, always and everywhere. Stan Lee understood that.

  • Nationalism, per se, does not have an ugly head.

    It was the policy of the League of Nations, which is why there is a nation of Israel and Poland is a nation, and remains the policy of the United Nations.

    It led to the country of Italy, Greece’s separation from the Ottoman Empire, the rise of China, the decolonization of South America, and so on.

    Nationalism is a political, social, and economic system characterized by the promotion of the interests of a particular nation, especially with the aim of gaining and maintaining sovereignty (self-governance) over the homeland. The political theory of nationalism holds that a nation should govern itself, free from outside interference and is linked to the concept of self-determination. Nationalism is further oriented towards developing and maintaining a single national identity based on shared social characteristics, such as culture and language, religion and politics, and a belief in a shared and singular history. Nationalism, therefore, seeks to build a national cultural identity, by way of pride in national achievements, and is closely linked to patriotism, which includes the belief that the nation should control the country’s government.

    I am sure you meant something like xenophobia.

  • So, Stan Lee believed that all humans are created in the image of God.

    And you quoted Stan Lee approvingly. What does that do for (or to) your Atheism?

  • Absolutely nothing. I am not threatened by people who do not share my religious beliefs like you are.

    His statement was more humanistic than anything you have said on behalf of your faith. You certainly have not shared the same vision of God and his works.

  • We can always check the scoreboard, let’s see what it says.

    (1) Believes all humans are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27): Stan Lee 1, Atheists 0.

    (2) Believes all humans are the children of God (Acts 17:28-29): Stan Lee 2, Atheists 0.

    (3) Added the late Pope John Paul II as one of Marvel Comics’ heroes (see the link).

    Final Score: Stan Lee 3, Atheists 0. (Not too shabby, eh?)

  • Empty phrases used like a voodoo talisman to keep the unbelievers away by magic.

    You can stop trying to put your tramp stamp on Stan Lee. He opposed bigotry and discrimination. You support such things. Everything in my first post went right over your head.

    Aside from Steve Ditko, who would Stan Lee hate?

  • John 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
    John 1:12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God
    Romans 8:14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.

  • >>paralleled by the temptation to unilaterally decide what “good” meant.<>Having the power of a god without the wisdom of one is dangerous<<

    The SERPENT speaks to Eve in the Garden of Eden:
    Genesis 3:5“For God knows that in the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 When the woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom, she took the fruit and ate it

    About ADAM after eating food from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
    Genesis 3:22 And the LORD God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever."

  • Every major Marvel character has bern through the “revolving door of death” but the hard and fast rule from Stan Lee: Ben Parker and Frank Castle’s family always stay dead.

  • Even if floydlee associates with people and causes of various unsavory reputations (none of which there is proof of);
    dismissing floydlee’s points with “voodoo” and “magic” is entirely an inadequate rebuttal. Floydlee is conveying, among other things, specific points about Stan Lee as described in his post given, are more consistent with aspects of Jewish/Christian faith than secular humanism.

    To adequately answer his most interesting post, you would have to respond in kind, for example presenting incidents from his life and writings that is more consistent with Stan giving statements of a humanistic viewpoint. This is a tall order since that link YOU provided attesting to his viewpoint about ‘the concept that man was created in the image of God ― a God who calls us ALL ― His children.”

  • Funny how Christian bigots are trying to tramp stamp Stan Lee as one of their own despite being both Jewish and having beliefs antithetical to their own.

    Only Fundamentalist Christians consider humanism in opposition to religious belief. They are a pretty venal and petty lot. Btw I never said secular humanism, I said humanism. As in belief in the best of humanity. A belief shared by many religions and also secular humanism.

    Your argument is garbage because you made a fundamental error and assumption. A God who calls all humanity his children is not a belief you or floydlee share.

  • I’m not sure what your point is, but history is filled with cautionary tales of the harm done by people with great power but little wisdom. Knowing good from evil is not the same as having the moral strength to choose good.

  • What? Did I not cite an actual Bible verse to prove that all humans (even yourself) are children of God?

    You already know that the Bible is infallible and inerrant, so since your claim IS taught in the Bible (Acts 17:28:29), you automatically know I believe in “a God who calls all humanity his children. ”

    Of course, if one believes the REST of the Bible is true as well, one might be inclined to oppose Gay Marriage (and perhaps atheism too!), and to support the Ex-Gays (1 Cor. 6: 9-11). Wouldn’t you agree?

  • The Stan Lee quote went right over your head. Rather then get the point about bigotry, you focused on a generalized reference to God.

    Typical tramp stamping fundie wanting to take credit for things they not only had zilch to to with, but actively oppose.

    You threw a quote out, but frankly I have no reason to care. You don’t share such beliefs about humanity.

    The belief of the Bible as infallible and inerrent is a Christian fundamentalist belief. One not shared by anyone else. I don’t know, believe or have to accept such a notion. Especially given your propensity to lie in support of such beliefs.

    You can’t claim God loves all humanity and then claim God hates f_gs in the next sentence.

    Your religious belief has more to do with what Stan Lee criticized than my non religious ideas which supports them.

  • Well, that’s the kicker Spuddie. In all the years we’ve been happily debating in this forum, you’ve never seen me say or even suggest that God hates anybody. In fact, God’s the one guy who loves & cares for everybody.

  • Yes, your comment flows nicely with a view of the Garden of Eden story. One of the trees was the Tree was Knowledge of Good and Evil. A view is that Eve then Adam as prompted by the Serpent (who was later revealed to be an angel functioning in defiance to God) obtained information that was beyond their stature to know. With knowledge improperly learned or revealed before certain other things are learned first can be very damaging.

    The Next part of the story was the concern that Adam would reach out and eat of another tree, the Tree of Life which caused great concern
    “lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever”,.. what this exactly means is room for a lot of discussion since it was stated eating of the Tree was Knowledge of Good and Evil would cause them to die. Perhaps having the Knowledge as given by the first tree and the death negating power of the 2nd Life tree would have indeed given the pair tremendous amounts of power which they were not mature enough to weld wisely.

    While the story has many speculative aspects as to the exact nature of the trees and their fruit, the interaction of the Serpent; the main point accepted was the first human couple seriously disobeyed God and by that action brought sin into the world.