It’s impossible to imagine American pop culture without Spider-Man. Or the Hulk. Or, thanks to a decade’s worth of mega-blockbuster films, Iron Man, Thor, Dr. Strange, and Ant-Man. These stories—all co-creations of Marvel Comics impresario Stan Lee, who died on November 12, 2018 at 95—were swashbuckling adventures with a human bent. The characters weren’t all powerful; they felt pain, anguish, regret; they won, but also lost. And many of them were informed by the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s.
Through stories of characters who were demonized by the public as the terrifying Other, Lee drove home messages of tolerance and acceptance while rejecting demonization and bullying. “Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or color of their skin,” Lee said in a 2017 video published by Marvel. “The only things we don't have room for are hatred, intolerance, and bigotry.”
The greatest manifestation of that idea was the X-Men. Introduced in September 1963, the X-Men were a team of teenage mutants, led by their teacher and mentor Professor Charles Xavier, who fought super-criminals and other mutants, led by Magneto, bent on the destruction of humanity. But rather than be a black-and-white battle between good and evil, the X-Men had a wrinkle: mutants were hated by the “normal” humans they defended.
“I loved that idea,” Lee told the Guardian in 2000, as the first X-Men movie hit theaters. ”It not only made them different, but it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the Civil Rights Movement in the country at that time.”
That metaphor extended to the characters themselves, with Professor X and his vision of harmonious human-mutant coexistence standing in for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., while Magneto’s rigid attitude toward the defense of mutantkind reflected the philosophy of Malcolm X. The Sentinels, a brand of massive mutant-hunting robot, were introduced two years later as readers watched on TV as black Americans were beaten and abused by white police officers.
“There's kind of an undeniable set of allegories that are going on there,” says Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. “The X-Men was probably the most explicitly political of the 1960s Marvel comics.”
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In 1966, Lee and his X-Men collaborator “King” Kirby again engaged with racial equality when they created Black Panther, a black superhero who was also the king of the fictional African nation Wakanda, an Afrofuturist wonderland of high-tech exceptionalism. And two years later, in a Stan’s Soapbox column, Lee made his most explicit statement yet on civil rights and acceptance.
“Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” he wrote in December 1968. “[I]t’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 a man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, we must fill our hearts with tolerance.”
Although he was deeply influenced by the Civil Rights struggles unfolding around him in the 1960s, Lee was more of a chronicler than an activist, says Howe. “I think he was probably a good reflection of the average American and how the average American was awakened by everything that happened in the '50s and '60s,” he notes. “I don't think of him as an activist in any sort… although now, 50 years on, I guess maybe even the most middle of the road championing of justice seems more courageous.”
The X-Men’s struggles in a world defined by systemic persecution proved malleable enough to outlast the civil rights era. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing through today, the X-Men have been adopted by those fighting for LGBTQ rights who see the mutants’ struggle for acceptance and equality as their own. This was made explicit in the film X2: X-Men United (2003) when the distraught parents of Bobby Drake, also known as Iceman, ask him, “Have you tried not being a mutant?” It’s a question that was painfully familiar to generations of LGBTQ youth. (The comic book Iceman came out as gay in 2015.)
Born Stanley Martin Lieber in New York City on December 28, 1922, Lee got his start at Marvel thanks to his uncle Robbie Solomon in 1939, when it was still called Timely Comics. After working on monster books and various sundry titles with titans like Jack Kirby (who co-created Captain America in 1941 with Joe Simon), Lee seized comics’ Silver Age as Marvel’s in 1961 with the introduction of the Fantastic Four, which he co-created with Kirby. The team of superheroes, given strange and wonderful powers after being irradiated in an outer space accident, was full of the kind of showmanship, street-level mythicism, and pop sensibility that defined his life and career.
When news of Lee’s death spread across the Internet, it invariably drew remembrances from legions of comic book readers and celebrity fans. Most said the world had lost a titanic creator, which was true. But some, like Seth Rogen, went deeper. "Thank you Stan Lee for making people who feel different realize they are special,” he tweeted.
By creating characters that looked and acted differently, Lee tapped into the struggles that readers of his books experienced every day. “Marvel has always been and always will be a reflection of the world right outside our window,” Lee explained a year before his death.