Stan Lee is more than a comic book writer


John Salangsang

Stan Lee at the premiere of the 2017 film “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Darius Melton, Assistant Opinion Editor

Over the past few years, “geek culture” has started to really take over mainstream media. Rick and Morty, the big adult cartoon of our day, is one large homage to the science fiction genre. Pokémon became so popular that in the summer of 2016 even politicians were talking about it. But the biggest indicator that nerdy is the new norm is Marvel Studios’ total takeover of Hollywood – an act that has Stan Lee’s fingerprints all over it.

On November 12, 2018, Stanley Martin Lieber passed away at the age of 95, but as cliché, as this may sound, I don’t feel like he’s truly gone. As with most artists, Lee and his legacy will continue to live on through his work, with the characters and stories he helped bring to life in the 60s still remaining fixtures in pop culture to this day.

Lee wasn’t just any artist, though; he is a pop culture icon just like Spider-Man, Iron Man, the X-Men and all of the other characters that he and Marvel created. As well as writing timeless stories, Lee also impacted the personal lives of myself and those around me, and I feel like he deserves more than just your old run-of-the-mill obituary.

Let’s take a step back and look at two of the big reasons why Stan Lee should be remembered as more than just a comic book writer.

Lee and His Writing

Of course, Lee was a comic book writer – and a great one at that – so in order to explain why his impact was so large, I feel like it is smart to talk about what he actually did for a career. As someone who has been passionate about writing and storytelling for over twelve years now, this is one of the things I appreciate the most about Lee.

Chris Brantley, a senior and fellow Creative Writing major here at UNCW, began our interview by explaining that the first word that comes to his mind when he thinks of Lee is “career.”

“When you ask me, ‘What is Stan Lee?’ well, Stan Lee is a career because I’m a writer, I’m a director, I’m a filmmaker, I’m a storyteller, that’s what I’ve been since I was 10 years old,” Brantley said. “I see Stan Lee as a guiding light.”

Sophomore and Creative Writing major Kaylee Bryant told me that Lee was the man who inspired her to become a screenwriter, even poking fun at the fact that Lee wasn’t a screenwriter himself.

“He inspired me because seeing what he could do – this huge impact he’s had on the world – these Marvel movies, superhero comics…he really seemed to understand the characters and he perfectly wrote them out.”

I started to take note of Bryant’s last point when I was 15 years old and bought a book called “Stan Lee’s How to Draw Superheroes.” The more I read, the more I realized that it wasn’t just a book about sketching Spider-Men, but rather an explanation of what goes into creating a functional superhero.

Finding the balance between “strong” and “threatening,” learning the intricacies of creating believable science-fiction vehicles, figuring out why “villainous villains” was more than a redundant punchline; this 25-dollar book gave me advice on specific topics that I’ve used countless times in my writing despite never encountering instructions like these in any of my classes so far.

However, one of Lee’s biggest tricks is walking the fine line between the inherent goofiness of superheroes and their serious side. Brantley mentioned this during our discussion, pointing out Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Daredevil as specific characters with real human emotions under their colorful costumes.

“Growing up, Stan Lee was the guy I would look to when I was trying to figure out, ‘Hey, I need a character that’s got a little bit of extra dimension.’” Brantley said. “And, if he’s got that little bit of extra dimension, what do I look for?”

It’s this very life-like quality that makes Lee’s characters so well-rounded, and this brings me right to my next point.

Lee and Our Society

I am a writing nerd by choice, but I was born black, and even though I can’t recall many situations where my blackness has been an issue for others, it’s always a quality about me that is right on the surface when we meet. Lee wasn’t a black man, but he was a very progressive one with a powerful voice.

Brantley spoke at length during our interview about Lee’s understated position as a true beacon for social change.

“What Stan Lee did is he said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re white if you’re black if you’re whatever you are – if you have a problem with something, make a statement,’” Brantley said.

Lee not only knew how to explain complex social issues to a wide audience through his comics, but he also knew how to make his characters relatable to the people he tried to emulate. Take the X-Men for example, a group of men and women whose genetic makeup made them different than the general public and were shunned for it.

As a kid, this information was just a backdrop for intense action featuring a trio of blue guys, a woman with lightning powers, and short Canadians with claws. As an adult, the parallels between the mutants’ plight and that of my grandparents became much more transparent, with Professor Xavier and Magneto representing the philosophies of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X respectively. The same information means different things to different versions of me, and I imagine it is a similar situation among others.

Lee’s everyone-is-welcome ideology isn’t just limited to racial minorities, but also to women, members of the LGBTQ+ community or simply those with relatively abnormal interests, as explained by Bryant in her interview.

“He made it kind of easier because he showed people who were outcasts, who kind of didn’t fit in… with all of his various superhero movies, he made it where people like that can fit in, and they’re not only fitting in, but they’re doing better than fitting in,” Bryant said.

Lee’s writing was for people of all ages, all backgrounds, and even all interests. You don’t have to be interested in spiders to care about Peter Parker’s romance with Mary Jane Watson; nor do you have to be particularly enthralled with robot battles to be drawn in by Tony Stark’s battle to overcome his substance abuse problems.

Lee wrote comics, but he used it to do more. He is an inspiration to writers, to filmmakers, to the young and the old, to the black and the white, to the social butterflies and the socially awkward. Stan was a storyteller for all, and his stories needed to be told.

“All of the things that I aspire to be are what Stan Lee was,” Bryant said.

I couldn’t agree more.