A eulogy for Stan Lee, and a call to heroism

A eulogy for Stan Lee, and a call to heroism

A meditation on one of the greatest minds of our time, and the relevance of the superhero genre.

Art by Gian Nicdao

 

In the introduction to his book Supergods, an important text on the history and cultural relevance of the superhero genre’s mythology, renowned comic book writer Grant Morrison describes his life as a young boy in Scotland growing up during the Cold War. “And the Bomb, always the Bomb, and grim and looming, raincoated lodgier, liable to go off any minute, killing everybody and everything,” he wrote of a childhood steeped in the apocalyptic imagery of his time — missiles and astronauts, antiwar zines and pro-military propaganda — and how it shaped his view of the world and the kind of power he held in it.

Then the first comic shop in the United Kingdom arrived, and with it, superheros (Marvel and DC alike) whose feats of strength and derring-do easily outclassed anything the atomic bomb could dish out. Morrison, who would eventually go to work on numerous Superman and Batman titles, saw these stories of superheroes who “rained down across the Atlantic, in a dazzling prism-light of heraldic jumpsuits, bringing new ways to see and hear and think about everything” and found hope. Stories of strong individuals, punching bad guys in the face and making the world a better place, exorcized from Morrison’s brain the fear that the Cold War produced. Suddenly, the Bomb wasn’t a big deal.

When Stan Lee passed away on November 12, I couldn’t help but remember that introduction and imagine the optimism Morrison must’ve felt as he devoured those tales of superheroism. In many ways, Stan Lee — born Stanley Lieber in 1922 to Romanian-born Jewish immigrant parents — seemed to us stronger than the forces arrayed against the world, much like the heroes he helped create. Well into his senior years he was still making spirited, tongue-in-cheek cameos in the Marvel cinematic universe, always with his signature carnival barker accent, before drawing his last breath at the age of 95. I guess the good don’t always die young.


I guess the good don’t always die young.

 

But they die nonetheless. People die, and so do the narratives we cling to, as bleak as that sounds. Earlier this year, Steve Ditko also passed. And it is easy to feel that an era has come to end, and we have to reckon the hole it left.

Marvel movies routinely dominate the box office, so saying that the superhero genre is relevant to culture seems obvious and redundant at this point. But even then, it’s hard to not consider that the idea our current political climate and all its apocalyptic imagery, prove too powerful for the myth of spandex heroics.

In an essay for The New Inquiry, anthropologist David Graeber points out the awkward, conservative implications of the way superhero stories are told. Superheroes tend to be reactionary, rarely ever proactive or systemic in their altruism, and therefore more concerned with preserving the status quo than changing it. “Superheroes seem almost utterly lacking in imagination,” he writes, “like Bruce Wayne, who with all the money in the world can’t seem to think of anything to do with it other than to indulge in the occasional act of charity; it never seems to occur to Superman that he could easily carve free magic cities out of mountains.” Costumed vigilantes throw villains into jail, but what do we do about a prison industrial complex that specifically targets the marginalized? Greenhouse gas emissions threaten to turn our planet into a wasteland of droughts and disasters, why do we think using metal straws is going to solve anything?

Cut and dry stories of good versus evil just won’t do, it seems, so we wrestle with despair. Doesn’t really help, either, that the last Marvel movie to hit theaters (aside from Ant-Man and the Wasp) saw half the population of its cinematic universe turn to ash.

I think to remember the greatness of Stan Lee, the man largely responsible for defining the superhero genre as we know it today, is to creatively engage the idea of heroism.

 

I’m not saying that Stan Lee is to blame for this, or for anything. Quite the opposite. Because I think to remember the greatness of Stan Lee, the man largely responsible for defining the superhero genre as we know it today, is to creatively engage the idea of heroism. Like Grant Morrison as a young boy, discovering comic books while watching the world as he knew it teeter on the edge of total collapse, we too are beset not just by visions of ruin, but also by stories of courage and heroism. There must be a way, I think, to take the stories of Spider-Man and the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, and truly process what they teach us, and convert their splendor and glory into energy that spurs us into action.

I bring this up not to propose that superhero stories can function as some miracle medicine to the social ills that plague us constantly. But how delightful it was, to see that one quote by Stan Lee making the rounds on social media, the one in which the legendary writer and editor says that a story without a moral is like a man without a soul. The one where he admits that superhero tales, much like old tales of good versus evil, make great political and philosophical points, salient to issues such as war and peace and civil rights. We shouldn’t be surprised. It was comic books after all that gave us the iconic cover of Captain America clocking Adolf Hitler in the face.

And wouldn’t it also be fair to say that the superhero genre accurately captures the evils of our current political situation, perhaps even predicted it? Look at the evildoers of today: actual mad scientists, whose innovations in data-mining have been exploited to manipulate elections; armed enforcers who target and kill minorities, the way Sentinels pursued the X-Men; and isn’t it interesting that first world nations who strongarm more vulnerable countries to prey on their resources are also referred to as “superpowers?”

 

To those who want to change the world for the better, we say: assemble.

 

It’s not a stretch. And I don’t think it’s naive, either, to continue finding courage in stories of capes and cowls and iron suits. How lucky we were, to have had someone like Stan Lee shape these stories for us, and shape our view of the world and the kind of power we hold in it, the end of the world be damned.

To those who want to change the world for the better, we say: assemble. And for the future, we battle cry: excelsior.

Rest in peace, Stan Lee. Ever upward.

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#art #career #culture #self

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