Representation is a superpower. Stan Lee knew that.
He wasn’t just the spirit of Marvel or the man who revolutionized comics some six decades ago.
When the 95-year old mastermind died on Monday, the multiverse cried for our pop culture hero. If we love Cardi B because she describes herself as a “regular degular smegular girl,” we love Lee because he saw the extraordinary in the ordinary.
For years, my friends and I have flocked to theaters and stood in long lines, blocked off entire rows, rocked our geeky T-shirts, and nerded out together.
We were once the kids who used our blankets as capes, the little guys in the world, the fans that eagerly await the post-credits scenes. We are the ones who leave the theater howling with laughter, shining with hope, and shouting quotes at one another.
“How’s the pie?” is a favorite.
It wasn’t just that Lee helped craft “The Fantastic Four,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “Spider-Man.” Yeah, we love those characters because they have powers we can only imagine — Herculean strength, the ability to soar, stretch, manipulate light, and make themselves invisible.
We love them because we see ourselves in them. Lee understood the reality of human limitations. We’re imperfect. We have insecurities, fears, and flaws. On top of that, many of us are bullied and treated as outcasts for being different.
In the ’60s at the height of the civil rights movement, he knew there was no neutrality in the face of injustice. He used his platform to craft “X-Men” -- you know, the teen mutants trying to save humanity despite the fact that mutants were demonized by humans?
“...[I]t occurred to me that instead of them just being heroes that everybody admired, what if I made other people fear and suspect and actually hate them because they were different?,” Lee told The Guardian. “I loved that idea; 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.”
“Black Panther” isn’t just the history-making Marvel blockbuster brimming with black excellence. One of the biggest movies of all time started as a comic — one Lee created months before the Black Panther Party launched. Though unrelated, both had a message of resistance.
Wakanda, the fictional African utopia Black Panther hails from, hasn’t been colonized. Slavery, brutality, and the fly-swatting wasteland stereotypes are non-existent. It felt good to see black people like me uplifted and celebrated. Seeing little black boys and girls confidently cross their black power fists across their chests in a Wakanda salute? I cried.
White fanboys yelling “Wakanda Forever!” is a choice I like to see. And it happened all over the world.
“Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” Lee wrote in 1968 in his “Stan’s Soapbox” column that once ran in Marvel titles. “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.”
No, Black Panther alone can’t end supremacy. X-Men won’t overturn oppression. Ms. Marvel won’t end anti-Muslim thinking. A-Force won’t end sexism.
Yes, we must acknowledge that at the end of his life while receiving care, Lee was accused of sexually harassing his nurses. There was also an elder-abuse restraining order to keep Lee’s former manager away from him.
There’s still a lot to sort out. But the impact remains. In those comic book pages or on the big screen, huddled with friends in a melody of half-hugs and high-fives, we see ourselves in the otherness of our heroes — many made possible because of Lee.
The people who’ve been taught we are less than see we are more. It matters in building esteem, breaking barriers, and clearing the path for better days.
And as far as representation, we still have work to do. We need to see more Asians, more Latinx people, more Native Americans, more LGBTQ, more disabled people, more, more, more.
In superheroes, our humanity is amplified. Connection comes easier. Little by little, we move forward, together.
Lee liked to sign-off using the latin word meaning “ever upward.”
Excelsior, dear friends. Excelsior!