“I grew up in an exurb where it took nearly an hour to walk to the nearest shop, to the nearest place to eat, to the library,” remembers writer Adam Cadre. “And the steep hills made it an exhausting walk. That meant that until I turned sixteen, when school was not in session I was stuck at home. This was often not a good place to be stuck. Stan Lee gave me a place to hang out.” Many other former children of exurban America — as well as everywhere else — did much of their growing up there as well, not just in the universe of Marvel Comics but in those of the comics and other forms of culture to which it gave rise or influenced, most of them either directly or indirectly shaped by Lee, who died yesterday at the age of 95.
“His critics would say that for me to thank Stan Lee for creating the Marvel Universe shows that I’ve fallen for his self‐promotion,” Cadre continues, “that it was Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and his other collaborators who supplied the dynamic, expressive artwork and the epic storylines that made the Marvel Universe so compelling.”
Marvel fans will remember that Ditko, co-creator with Lee of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, died this past summer. Kirby, whose countless achievements in comics include co-creating the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk with Lee, passed away in 1994. (Kirby’s death, as I recall, was the first I’d ever heard about on the internet.)
Those who take a dimmer view of Lee’s career see him as having done little more artistic work than putting dialogue into the speech bubbles. But like no small number of other Marvel Universe habitués, Cadre “didn’t read superhero comics for the fights or the costumes or the trips to Asgard and Attilan. I read them for fantasy that read like reality, for the interplay of wildly different personalities — and for the wisecracks.” And what made superhero stories the right delivery system for that interplay of personalities and those wisecracks? You’ll find the answer in “The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture,” an online course from the Smithsonian, previously featured here on Open Culture and still available to take at your own pace in edX’s archives, created and taught in part by Lee himself. You can watch the trailer for the course at the top of the post.
If you take the course, its promotional materials promise, you’ll learn the answers to such questions as “Why did superheroes first arise in 1938 and experience what we refer to as their “Golden Age” during World War II?,” “How have comic books, published weekly since the mid-1930’s, mirrored a changing American society, reflecting our mores, slang, fads, biases and prejudices?,” and “When and how did comic book artwork become accepted as a true American art form as indigenous to this country as jazz?” Whether or not you consider yourself a “true believer,” as Lee would have put it, there could be few better ways of honoring an American icon like him than discovering what makes his work in superhero comics — the field to which he dedicated his life, and the one which has taken more than its fair share of derision over the decades — not just a reflection of the culture but a major influence on it as well.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.