• Michelle Johnson

Stan Lee: a tribute to the comic book visionary and Marvel of modern storytelling

In tribute to Stan Lee, Marvel Comics visionary, who has died aged 95

Yesterday, Marvel's visionary writer, editor and publisher Stan Lee died aged 95. Any fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – from the Avengers to Jessica Jones – or franchises such as the X-Men, Fantastic Four or Spider-Man, knew Lee's work. Anyone who read comic books, as kids or now, has their favourite version of their favourite Marvel character. It's nothing special to say I feel the same.

But what feels so important about the work of Stanley Lieber, born to Romanian-Jewish immigrants in 1922, was his vision not just to create these wild superheroes as rounded, flawed characters – freaks and misfits – with tricky moral lines to draw and difficult decisions to make, but also to represent people we often saw vilified or scorned or dismissed, and give them back to us as heroes, struggling with the difficulties of the world we know.

His most beloved creation, Spider-Man, has broken new ground several times in his history – not least in a controversial anti-drug storyline in 1971 – while Lee’s most famous antagonist Magneto shed light on the horrors and trauma of the Holocaust even as he went to villainous lengths to strike first against the possibility of persecution of the mutant minority. Lee introduced Daredevil, a blind hero, and gave us another first when he co-created the Black Panther – giving readers a genius, technologically advanced African king as the first mainstream black superhero in 1966. Lee also helped create and nurture his writers' pioneering characters, such as openly gay X-Man Northstar and female –  or even genderfluid – reimaginings of previously cis-male characters, like Thor and Loki.

The Scarlet Witch is just one of Marvel's antiheroes who inspired me

For me, the importance of having representation in comics clicked when I first encountered a character with my own background, not having known until that point that I was missing something. I am adopted, and one side of my family is Romany. I'm incredibly lucky to have my wonderful family but, as I’ve since learned is common in the majority of adopted children, I have experienced some tricky moments of navigating my own identity. I am my parents’ daughter, though not by blood, and I am embraced by my culture. I’ve felt the prejudice against it, too, and like many Traveller families that integrated into gorja lifestyle, our heritage was sometimes an anxious secret during my school years.

Enter the Scarlet Witch.

Originally a reluctant villain, she's an interesting and often inconstant character by any means. As many female characters in the Marvel world, she evolved as time went by, so that by the time I got to her in the 1990s she was a powerful, assertive, conflicted woman. But her backstory was intimately and immediately familiar to me – she was adopted by a Romani family – and she displayed only a few of the usual crappy stereotypes, and even then was written with compassion.

There aren't many positive or fair representations of Romanies in the media – and especially not in the 1990s – so to see a Traveller who wasn't decked out in 'gypsy skirts' while off duty, and whose status as a 'witch' was on her own terms, was powerful for me. She also married an android – the Vision – and I gladly welcomed my robot overlords even then.

I don’t know exactly where this love of difficult characters came from, for Lee. He began his career as an assistant at Timely Comics, Marvel’s predecessor, eventually working on Captain America stories before becoming interim editor aged just 19. In 1942, aged 20, he enlisted in the US Army and created training films and manuals in the Signal Corps with an incredible team that included Oscar-winning director Frank Capra, Pulitzer-prize winning playwright William Saroyan and Dr Seuss writer Theodor Geisel.

Lady Thor, Northstar and RiRi Williams are just some of the new characters blazing a trail in the Marvel universe
Lady Thor, Northstar and RiRi Williams are just some of the new characters blazing a trail in the Marvel universe

Back in New York years later, he and co-writer Jack Kirby launched the Fantastic Four stories for their newly named Marvel Comics in 1961 – to compete with rival DC Comics' Justice League – followed by the Avengers' first appearance in 1963. He loved seeing his creations on screen, big or small, and is now famous for his cameo appearances in all Marvel films. But the Marvel Cinematic Universe, kicked off by the incredible success of Iron Man in 2008, brought him a whole (Iron) Legion of fans and, as a cinematic experiment, has changed how we film and consume blockbuster cinema.

In 2014, Lee said that "I used to think what I did was not very important". But for the young fans who are still finding inspiration from modern Marvel's rekindled dedication to representation, I'd say that even in his legacy, Stan Lee has a few more heroic moments still to come.