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Stan Lee – more than just pictures with a few words

Stan Lee, the legendary creator of Spiderman died on Monday 12 November 2018 at the age of 95. Gushwell Brooks, South African talk radio host, columnist and a passionate advocate for social justice is the creator of his own comics title, “The Adventures of Ntate Molefe”. He will remember Lee for much more than his comics creations.

Writing about the legacy of Stan Lee is a daunting task. As a comic book geek with a Marvel Comics bias this is particularly difficult. It is so easy to completely geek out and lose you as a reading audience.

Simultaneously the quandary is exacerbated by the fact that Regina – my wife – and I have turned a fortnightly cartoon strip that I illustrate and write for The Daily Sun, The Adventures of Ntate Molefe”, into a comic book. As a result we also launched a small comic book publisher at the beginning of this year. But most importantly for a publication such as this one you are probably wondering what could be Stan Lee’s connection to social justice.

Within the confines of this piece, I’ll geek out over the legacy of Stan Lee, what he meant to the comic book industry, why it matters and why we should be replicating it here in South Africa. I will also look at Stan Lee’s legacy of fighting for social justice through a medium often described as aimed at 10-year-old boys.

Stanley Martin Lieber was born on 28 of December 1922 in Manhattan, New York City to Romanian-born Jewish immigrants. At age 16 and a half, he joined Timely Comics, a predecessor to what would become Marvel Comics, as an assistant. He fetched coffee and erased the remnants of pencil lines once comic frames had been inked. The name Stan Lee was initially his writing pseudonym.

On 18 April 1938, Superman, the first ever superhero created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster appeared in Action Comics #1. Later it was called Detective Comics (DC). This ushered in two major epochs: humankind’s fascination with superheroes and the golden age of comics. The path was set for the comic book industry’s largest commercial rivalry.

Fascination with superheroes waned by the 1950s and the Comics Code Authority (CCA) castrated comic book content through censorship to the point that Stan Lee hated the Romance, Western and other popular titles he was expected to write. He considered abandoning his career but then his wife advised him to write one last great story. So in November 1961, at the age of 38, Stan Lee set the world ablaze with The Fantastic Four #1.

Along with under-credited collaborators such as legendary artists Jack “The King” Kirby, Steve Ditko, the ever-present letterer Art Simek and Stan Lee’s younger brother Larry Lieber, he gifted us the silver age of comics. Titles such as Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, The X-Men, The Avengers and Marvel’s very own self-conflicted Catholic character, Matt Murdock, better known as The Daredevil, were among his greatest creations.

His career grew all the way to his familiar and highly anticipated movie cameos across the globally dominant Marvel Cinematic Universe, right up until the ripe old age of 95.

To call Stan Lee a hard worker would be an injustice. He had gone from making coffee and running errands to writing comics and eventually creating his own world-renowned characters.

He ran the publications at Marvel Comics as Editor-in-Chief and was later appointed the chairman. Lee saw its highs and lows, once sued the company for 10 million dollars and nearly saw its sale to Michael Jackson.

What he created was always meant to inspire. His favourite personal creation was the Silver Surfer because it showed the power of the pacifist. Professor Charles Xavier and Magneto, characters he created under the X-Men titles, were allegories for Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X.

Lee endorsed King’s message of equality, non-violence and acceptance. He also introduced the world’s first black superhero, The Black Panther, in July 1966 in Fantastic Four #52.

On the issue of racism Lee had this to say:

“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.”

Stan Lee is my personal inspiration.

A medium of writing and art like comics not only raises social justice issues while entertaining but has been consistently proven to encourage reading among youth. It is even more frustrating as a geek and comics entrepreneur that within a context of 78% of our grade four learners being functionally illiterate, financiers seem reluctant to invest in the publishing of comics. We really need to get the kids reading again!

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.