You know all about how the late Stan Lee and his partners at Marvel Comics blew open our popular culture to what one of Lee’s comic series once called “Amazing Fantasy.” From Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and John Romita and many more came the great flowering of ‘60s superheroes, the ones who seemed like human beings in ways that Superman or Batman didn’t. They included Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, and on and on, some of them squabbling, some of them reviled by the public they protect, some of them hopelessly guilt-ridden and neurotic, all of them colliding into each other’s lives in a “shared universe,” a once novel idea that now generates billions of dollars for Disney each year. (And makes viewers believe they have to see Ant-Man and the Wasp or they might miss something crucial in Avengers 4.)
The impact of these stories on the readers who love them cannot be overstated. When Bill Gates announced his mission to give away most of his fortune in order to better the world, the billionaire declared “with great wealth comes great responsibility.” Like millions of other fans, I wondered, “Did he know he’s paraphrasing the final words of Spider-Man’s first comic book appearance? Has the moral code that Lee and Ditko’s Spidey avowed — 'with great power must also come great responsibility' — stamped even the brain of the man who could have been the world’s richest?”
The ethos of Spider-Man shaped my brain, too. He was my favorite hero not because of his bouncy-goofy power set or his Archie-like romantic problems or his quipping punchouts with villains or the breathless excitement of imagining swinging through the canyons of Manhattan. No, I loved (and love) Spider-Man because of that credo Lee wrote — and because the good Spider-Man stories, the best ones, found him struggling to live up to it. The story of Spider-Man is the story of how hard it is to do the right thing — and how you have keep trying to do it anyway.
Still, by the time I was a kid, in the 1980s, heroes with hangups weren’t new anymore. I adored reprints of his '60s The Amazing Spider-Man and Fantastic Four, but often found Lee’s hepped-up dialogue and the huckster jive of his narrative captions an impediment, a somewhat charming distraction from the urgent emotions of the stories. One day, though, at a junk shop in St. Louis, I discovered a ratty pile of old Silver Surfer comics, the series that Lee, perhaps, was proudest of. I bought them for a couple of bucks apiece and found them dense but exciting, lots of Hamlet-monologuing on the weird-ass Marvel spaceways.
But it was with a bit of plain talk that Stan Lee blew my brain out the back of my head — and left something in there that I treasure to this day.
In 1969, an angry reader named Tim Sullivan fired off a letter to Marvel complaining about a trend he had spotted in the company’s recent publications. Here is an excerpt of the letter in which Sullivan incorrectly refers to Silver Surfer #7 as Silver Surfer #5:
“There has been a recent trend at Marvel to put the Negro in the spotlight (i.e. the Black Panther, Joe Robertson, Centurius.) I’m all for it, but when you start with your own Civil Rights protest, well, I’m against that. I’m talking about the recent SILVER SURFER #5. The part I didn’t like was when the Surfer asked why Al Harper helped him. The reply was, ‘Mebbe it’s ’cause I know how it feels to be pushed around!’ That was uncalled for! For months you’ve been knocking ‘us’ (you know who I mean). … I’m not a racist, just a concerned Marvelite who doesn’t want his favorite comic company to be ruined by something that doesn’t concern you as comic publishers.”
Lee responded as Spider-Man might:
“But, such matters as racism and inequality do concern us, Tim — not just as comic mag artists and writers and publishers, but as human beings. Certainly it’s never been our intention to portray all, or even most, white Americans as hard-core bigots or screaming racists. Maybe it’s just that we think that many people in the land of the free have too long turned their backs or averted their eyes to the more unpleasant things that are going on every day. Maybe we felt we could do something — even within the relatively humble format of what used to be called a ‘comic-book’ – to change things just a bit for the better. If we failed, let’s just say that we’d at least like to have it said of us that — we tried.”
All that’s another way of saying, “With any power, any power at all, must also come great responsibility.” Those words seared into me. I’ve probably thought about them every week or so of my life. And I think of them whenever the world of films or comics or video games is roiled by hateful stooges insisting that their entertainment must avoid diversity or politics or questions of gender. The very representative for the way comics used to be is on record as a social justice warrior almost 50 years ago.
Lee, of course, bears a complex legacy, and it took Marvel much too long to embrace diversity for real. The lesson of that response (and of Spider-Man) is that none of us have any excuse for not trying to make things better. Today, after Lee’s death, we can still say this: At times, in his way, he tried.