I have very little to contribute regarding the Rice game. We’re good, they’re not. Let that be your guide for this weekend. Of course, we’ll watch, but this is the week to maybe make a test pie for Thanksgiving.
Instead, I turn my attention to the real world, and mark the passing of the one and only Stan Lee. We’ve got a firm contingent of comic nerds in the ATVS community, but Lee’s legacy is even bigger than those of us still living in Mom’s Basement.
Stan Lee had a hand in creating some of the defining characters of many of our lives. Yes, there’s some dispute to how much creating he actually did, but he tends to get nearly full credit for the Big Idea of a shared universe, a pop culture idea that everyone has been trying to steal for 50 years to little success. For some reason, it just seems to work for his merry band of heroes.
At last count, the MCU has grossed over $17 billion worldwide and it keeps getting better. A generation was practically raised on the X-Men cartoon and another still fondly remembers the circular racks at the local drug store. My son has three different pairs of Spider-Man pajamas to say nothing of a toy box full of super heroes which can trace their roots to Stan Lee.
Simply put, the only person who had as much influence on pop culture as Stan Lee is likely Walt Disney himself. Not bad for a guy who practically stopped writing comic books in the early 70s, shifting into his familiar role of comic book evangelist and full-time huckster.
Hell, part of his charm was the shameless over-the-top way he sold his wares. He veered past used car salesman and landed right next to a carnival barker. We knew he was running a con game, but we were all in on the con, and it brought all of us so much joy, why question it? Even when longtime foil Jack Kirby invented a character to make fun of Stan, like J. Jonah Jameson or Funky Flashman, the character would always transform into something endearing.
Stan Lee specialized in Big Ideas. Even the idea of Stan Lee himself was a character, too big to hold inside a normal person. It’s indisputable that Jack Kirby was sorely mistreated by Marvel, but I’m not sure how much of that bill ends up at Lee’s doorstep. He always gave credit, even if he saved the biggest myths for himself. He couldn’t help it, that’s who he was. But ultimately, the characters were shared creations. Kirby and Ditko would make the designs and even the character, but it was Lee who transformed them into something bigger. He imbued them with his Big Idea.
And to be fair to Lee, he treated the generation that came after him with nothing but support. The shared universe only works if Marvel owns the character, not the creator, and he let his beloved characters move in whatever direction the new staff decided. He didn’t second guess, and often fully endorse whatever retcon or crazy new direction the writers came up with for established characters. They were never trapped in amber, the characters continued to grow, even if it wasn’t Lee who oversaw all that growth.
So without getting bogged down of how much of the credit belongs to Lee, here’s the top ten character that Stan Lee helped create.
10. Hawkeye. Hawkeye gets treated as a bit of a joke by younger fans, as he’s a guy whose super power is shooting a bow and arrow. However, Clint Barton shows how radical Lee was as a storyteller, and how willing he was to pull everything down. After his introduction as a villain, Hawkeye joined the Avengers… in issue #16. Within a year and a half, Lee completely turned over the membership of his flagship superhero team, and he made Hawkeye the foil for Captain America. While Cap is everything we aspire to be, an avatar for American ideals, Hawkeye is a braggart, a thief, and a bit of a womanizer. He’s not forthright, but more importantly, he would constantly question Cap’s leadership. He’s the flipside of the American dream, a self-made man, an individualist, and a guy who overcame his disability (he’s deaf due to an exploding arrow, that’s right, Hawkeye suffered a workplace injury). Hawkeye is the real American dream, especially when he screws up and simply gets back up again.
9. Daredevil. The Man Without Fear started as a simple rip off of Batman. He likely would have continued as a B-list hero had not Frank Miller gotten his hands on him, and turned Matt Murdoch into so much more. Once again, it showed Lee’s ability to let other people play in his sandbox. Daredevil leaned heavily into his Catholicism, imbuing him with a sense of justice. Batman has to punish evildoers, but Daredevil can’t let them get away with it because it’s simply not right. More importantly, he doesn’t live in a stately manor, he lives in Hell’s Kitchen, and is as tied to where he lives as any person. He loves his neighborhood and the people in it, and that is what drives him as well: his community. Daredevil has since become sort of a writer’s paradise, as many of Marvel’s biggest heavy hitters have spent time on his book. No one can suffer like Matt Murdoch, but he’s not going to die for your sins.
8. She-Hulk. I’ll admit it, I’m not a big Hulk fan. There’s a reason the Hulk movies didn’t work as well, mainly because Hulk works better as a support character. The metaphor of out of control id simply takes over the character. Now, Stan Lee’s record of creating female characters is pretty poor, though Marvel has a much better track record in the last decade, but he hit It out of the park with She-Hulk. Lawyer Jennifer Walters is saved by a blood transfusion from her cousin, Bruce Banner. You can see the problem, as the gamma radiation turns her into She-Hulk. But this is the part I love, Banner becomes Hulk when he’s angry, but Jennifer is always She-Hulk because she is always angry. Yet despite this, she’s one of the easiest going characters in the Marvel Universe. She’s been on countless teams, even joining the Fantastic Four, which is like joining a family. There’s a potent metaphor there about the role of women in society and female rage. She’s angry, but she manages to have a life and not level cities.
7. Dr. Doom. Simply put, Doctor Doom is the best villain in comic books. Just like Stan Lee, he’s completely over the top, but it works. Doom isn’t one thing, he’s everything, and he’s better than you at it. He’s smarter than Reed Richards, has better armor than Iron Man, and is even a sorcerer on the level of Dr. Strange. Oh yeah, and he is the ruler of his own fictional nation, Latveria. Doom’s plans can be foiled, but he cannot be defeated. For he is Doom.
6. Iron Man. Tony Stark began life with a simple challenge: could you make a hero out of an unlikeable person? Now, our image of Iron Man has been softened by years of exposure to Robert Downey, Jr’s charm, but Tony is arrogant, rich, and completely dismissive of others. Oh, and he’s an alcoholic, though that was added later. He wrestled leadership of the Avengers from Captain America, primarily to feed his limitless ego, and he’s now been the centerpiece of both superhero Civil Wars. Iron Man doesn’t get along with others. Despite this, he’s always been a central hero to Marvel, as he represents American ingenuity. His superpower is being the best engineer on earth. How could that not appeal to comic book nerds?
5. The X-Men. Instead of choosing one X-Man, let’s take the whole team. Stan Lee joked that he created mutants born with their powers because he was tired of coming up with origin stories. It’s one of the few times he was being self-deprecating. Because the X-Men are classic body horror and the fear of adolescence. Everyone has those feelings of rejection, but also of our own bodies becoming unfamiliar to us. Cyclops’ origin story is discovering he has a power that isolates him completely from everyone else, to the point that he sits in a dark room, alone, cut off from everyone and everything in the world.
4. Silver Surfer. Jack Kirby designed the Surfer to simply be a cool looking dude who was the henchman for the bigger villain, Galactus. It was Lee who turned him into a sort of alien Jesus, trapped on an unfamiliar world trying to make all of us a little bit better and by virtue of that, free himself from the bonds of this earth. The Surfer is also the entry point to some pretty heady intergalactic characters. Not just the alien races of the Kree and the Skrulls, but literal concepts like Eternity and the Eternals. Thanos might be the mad Titan, but the Silver Surfer would also combat reality itself. Let’s just say that his readership may not have been entirely sober.
3. Magneto. I hesitate to call Magneto a villain, he simply offered a different point of view. The X-Men were a clear allegory for the civil rights movement in its early days, and while Charles Xavier was a Martin Luther King like figure, Magneto was Malcolm X, with a specifically Jewish twist. Having suffered through the Holocaust, he truly knew the capacity of mankind for evil, so he rejected all of mankind. Kirby and Lee’s Jewishness deeply influenced their characters, but rarely as explicitly. He has bounced back from villain to hero, depending on the era, but I liked the young mutant rebels in the 90s wearing ironic T-shirts reading, “MAGNETO WAS RIGHT.”
2. Fantastic Four. The birth of modern comic books. Jack Kirby made the character designs, with each member representing one of the four elements, but it was Lee who created the malleable concept of a family of explorers. At the end of the day, that is what has made the Fantastic Four so difficult to adapt in this era: they are not superheroes, they are explorers first and foremost. Reed Richards superpower isn’t just changing shape, but using his mind and his endless curiosity about the world. But for all of their travels and adventures, it is an unending story about family. The true anchor of the team is Sue Richards, who indulges her husband’s kooky experiments and her brother’s ego-driven celebrity. But she raises the kids, faces down monsters, and ultimately, protects them all with her force fields. Before the Thing can save the world, he must first be saved by Sue, who constantly gets overshadowed by her louder, brasher family members.
1. Spider-Man. There are two truly great superheroes in the pantheon of American pop culture: Batman and Spider-Man. Batman is an ubermemsch, an example if a perfect human with unlimited resources dedicated himself completely to being, well, super. We aspire to be Batman, even if we know its unattainable. But, and I forget which writer put it this way, we love Spider-Man. He’s a kid in over his head, making it up as he goes along, and we just want to protect him. We admire Batman, we want to hug Spider-Man. He’s the Friendly, Neighborhood Spier-Man, a hero who is just as likely to help an old lady cross the street as he is to save the world. Peter Parker got bit by that radioactive spider, but it didn’t solve his problems, it just deepened them. He still has school problems, girl problems, and money problems. He worries about Aunt Mae, who worries about him. He’s trying to figure out a way to scam a few more bucks so he can make rent. Spider-Man has the same problems his readers do. And he has Electro trying to kill him. Like most of Lee’s heroes, his superpower isn’t just his superpowers, but his inherent goodness. He uses his powers for good, as we like to think we would do, but the story of Spider-Man is watching those close to him also come into superpowers, only to use them for evil or personal gain. Hell, even Peter Parker started off by using his powers selfishly. But whatever your power is, whether it’s a gift for gab, or making spreadsheets, or cooking, or making strangers feel welcome… it is your duty to use that power to make the world a better place. We can all be Spider-Man.
Because, as he tells us, with great power comes great responsibility. Use that power to make the world a slightly better place. That’s what Stan Lee did.