By: Rebecca Slocum
On November 12, 2018, the world lost a legend in the world of comic books.
Stan Lee, born Stanley Lieber, was born December 28, 1922 in New York City. He began his career in the comics industry when he was just 16 years old, as an assistant at Timely Comics. There, he worked alongside Captain America creators, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, and eventually, became the editor. In 1961, following the creation of DC Comics hero the Flash, Timely was re-branded as Marvel Comics and debuted the superhero team the Fantastic Four. Lee then went on to create or co-create several other classic comic book heroes, such as Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, and the X-Men.
What’s notable about Lee’s famous superhuman characters is the depiction of how they are, in fact, human. Sure, Peter Parker is a misfit turned Spider-Man, but he is also a teenage boy who worries about girls. Tony Stark is a super genius who creates his state-of-the-art Iron Man suit to fight criminals, but he is also a troubled man and an alcoholic. Logan, aka Wolverine, possesses super healing powers, but he also struggles with anger management issues. These characters are real and flawed. They grapple with moral issues. And yet, they fight hard for justice and save the day. Their victories show readers that they, too, can be a hero, standing up to evil and protecting the innocent, and that they don’t have to be perfect to do so.
Comic books (and their publishers) have long had a reputation for catering to a white, straight, male audience. That is not to say that there were not any diverse characters in comics (Blade, Doctor Voodoo, White Tiger, Storm, Gamora) or that comics were only read by dudes, but diversity, both in content and audience, certainly wasn’t the focus. Recently, however, comics are getting a makeover.
In 2013, Marvel introduced Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American, Muslim teenager from New Jersey. Khan’s powers include growing and extending her limbs and other shapeshifting abilities. She names herself Ms. Marvel as a tribute to her mentor, Carol Danvers, the original Ms. Marvel and now Captain Marvel. Sana Amanat, the Director of Character and Content Development at Marvel and one of the creators of Kamala Khan, spoke about the importance of a character with which she could identify in her TEDxTeen talk. As a child, Amanat loved watching X-Men because the characters were mutants, people who stood out and were different from others, and, most importantly, people to whom she could relate. Speaking about herself, she said that the X-Men “had fulfilled a need to see herself in the world outside.” In co-creating Ms. Marvel, she wanted to fulfill that need for other little girls like herself.
Marvel also recently introduced Riri Williams as Ironheart, an African American teenager who is poised to take over for Tony Stark, and Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino character, as Spider-Man. There is also Sam Wilson, a black hero taking up the shield of Captain American and Cindy Moon, an Asian American queer woman, the newest character in the Spider verse. It is clear Marvel is making several steps to increase representation and inclusivity in their comic book heroes. I personally like how some heroes, such as Captain Marvel and Iron Man, are passing the torch to new characters, Ms. Marvel and Ironheart. It shows that we can still honor and celebrate the good things that the classic heroes did, while paving the way for a new generation of heroes, heroes that more accurately represent the world around us.
In 2017, a Marvel executive claimed that the introduction of diverse characters had driven down their sales (this claim turned out to be inaccurate). Stan Lee fired back with a video on Marvel’s official YouTube channel, stating that Marvel’s stories will always be about the world “outside our window.”
“Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or color of their skin … The only things we don’t have room for are hatred, intolerance, and bigotry.”
Mr. Lee, thank you for helping to create superheroes with which the everyday person can identify. Thank you for building a platform for current and future comic book writers to develop characters that continue to represent the everyday person. Thank you for showing us that, by standing up to and fighting for victims of injustice, we, too, can be heroes.
Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.