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“I’ll take any credit that isn’t nailed down,” Stan Lee once said. But the man who gave su­per­heroes re­lat­able foibles de­serves all the credit he gets

One day, Stan Lee looked out of his win­dow and had an idea. “I want en­sure that the neph­ews of the fu­ture are a bit vi­o­lent, par­tic­u­larly Pa­trick’s neph­ews. I’d like a fu­ture where they say things like ‘I’m Thor!’ then jump on his back when he’s not ex­pect­ing it, or shout ‘Hulk at­tack!’ and head­butt him in the stom­ach, wind­ing him, or say, ‘You can be Hawk­eye, who has no pow­ers and just a bow and ar­row, I want you to cry when I hit you, like a baby, you bow-and-ar­row baby.’ Yes, that is my dream,” said Stan Lee, and he went off and wrote a bunch of sto­ries for chil­dren that, for rea­sons to do with both Amer­i­can cul­tural hege­mony and West­ern de­cline, dom­i­nate cul­ture to this day.

Lee died this week at the age of 95. He was a ge­nius and any­one who likes comics or neph­ews/nieces should feel a bit sad. By the time of his death, the bril­liant/bizarre span­dex-clad char­ac­ters he largely cre­ated in a 10-year win­dow in the 1960s had be­come the be­drock of block­buster cin­ema. They both con­tinue to en­ter­tain the masses decades after their com­ple­tion and they pro­vide a much-needed em­ploy­ment pro­gramme for hunky men called Chris (I speak, of course, of the Holy Trin­ity of Hemsworth, Evans and Pratt and not the “false Chris” Chris Pine).

Lee, formerly Stan­ley Lieber, was a late starter. It wasn’t un­til he was in his 40s and Timely Comics, where he worked, mor­phed into Marvel that he in­vented most of the char­ac­ters for which he is fa­mous. (This is good news for any of you who want to quit your job at the Cen­tral Bank to cre­ate su­per­heroes, but are be­ing held back by petty naysay­ers like your spouse.)

Su­per­hero cre­ation is a funny thing. The big comic book pub­lish­ers spent a lot of the late 20th cen­tury adding ran­dom nouns to the word “man” (oc­ca­sion­ally “wo­man”) be­fore fling­ing gar­ishly coloured ho­mo­erotic hunks at ea­ger teens to see what stuck. Lee’s lesser cre­ations, for ex­am­ple, in­clude the tragic As­bestos Man, who is a real comic book char­ac­ter but has some­how not yet ap­peared in any of the films.

Oc­ca­sional duds notwith­stand­ing, Lee cre­ated an at­mos­phere at Marvel that al­lowed it to steal a march on its more up­tight, white bread com­peti­tor, DC Comics. DC’s Su­per­man, you see, was a bit of a pill. An all-pow­er­ful paragon of virtue, he was one-di­men­sional and no one could re­late to him. Lee thought his char­ac­ters could have a stag­ger­ing two di­men­sions and he made sure to add “hokey real-world prob­lem” to the “ran­dom noun” and “state­ment of gen­der iden­tity” for­mula. “What if this char­ac­ter was bit­ten by a ra­dioac­tive plank, giv­ing him plank pow­ers, but he is also wor­ried about sub­si­dence in his New York apart­ment?” he’d say, and the teens of Amer­ica would in­stantly find Plank Man 10 per cent more re­lat­able. And so Lee and his co-con­spir­a­tors be­gan churn­ing out such hugely suc­cess­ful char­ac­ters, that high­fa­lutin in­temal-leck­tu­als nowa­days liken them to the he­roes of Greek myth. Here are some of the big ones:

The In­cred­i­ble Hulk

A hy­per­bolic green rage-a-holic who got his pow­ers after hap­less bof­fin Bruce Ban­ner wan­dered too near a nu­clear ex­plo­sion. He is played by Mark Ruf­falo in the Avengers movies, who is, I’m told, at­trac­tive to some peo­ple, but not, thank­fully, my wife, who finds him hideous and not at all charm­ing.

The Amaz­ing Spi­der-Man

Co-cre­ated with Steve Ditko, the most fan­tas­ti­cal thing about Spi­der-Man nowa­days is that he man­ages to make a liv­ing wage as a free­lance pho­to­jour­nal­ist. In the 1960s, Lee’s in­no­va­tion was to make Peter Parker a lovelorn and bul­lied school­boy who se­cretly fought crime with the pow­ers he gained after be­ing bit­ten by a ra­dioac­tive spi­der. Those pow­ers were not in­fec­tion and fever, which I imag­ine would be a more typ­i­cal re­sponse to ra­dioac­tiv­ity and spi­ders. Yes, thanks to Stan Lee, a gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren had un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions about what hap­pens when you get bit­ten or ex­ploded.

Iron Man

Tony Stark was an al­co­holic mul­ti­mil­lion­aire who had a road to Da­m­as­cus mo­ment and de­cided to make the world a bet­ter place.

“What are you go­ing to do Tony? Pay your taxes and lobby for more in­vest­ment in schools and hos­pi­tals?”

“Pshaw, you’re think­ing too small! I’m go­ing to build a ro­bot suit and go fight a gi­ant lizard!”

Iron Man is the most real­is­tic of the su­per­heroes, re­ally. This is the type of crap rich peo­ple do. Check out Elon Musk and that huge ro­botic crab with which he is cur­rently ter­ror­is­ing France.

The Un­canny X-Men

Co-cre­ated by Jack Kirby, this bunch of dis­en­fran­chised mu­tants evoked the civil rights move­ment at the time and later, in the 1990s, be­came a mir­ror in which young gay peo­ple could see them­selves. Marvel comics were only ever gen­tly pro­gres­sive at best (ma­jor char­ac­ters only re­ally be­gan com­ing out as gay in re­cent years) but good sto­ries with a gen­eral mes­sage of tol­er­ance mean a lot to peo­ple when they’re young and vul­ner­a­ble.

The Mighty Thor

Stan Lee went back in time to in­vent the Norse god Thor and make Vik­ings wor­ship him. Or maybe he just co-opted the ham­mer-wield­ing hunk into the Marvel uni­verse. One way or an­other, Thor is cool.

Now, there’s a bit of dis­pute about how much credit Lee ac­tu­ally de­serves for some of these cre­ations. Bril­liant genre-defin­ing artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (who went on to cre­ate the in­sane, right-wing, Ayn Rand-in­flu­enced Mr A) com­plained that Lee of­ten swooped in at the last minute to “co-cre­ate” pre-ex­ist­ing plots, char­ac­ters and lay­outs. “I’ll take any credit that isn’t nailed down,” said the man him­self, and this is, after all, the Amer­i­can way. Cre­ators of­ten felt ripped off and in­suf­fi­ciently re­mu­ner­ated. There’s also no doubt that Lee had a vi­sion and that, much like David Frost or Steve Jobs, he was good at mar­shalling the forces of ge­nius.

In the 1980s, re­vi­sion­ist comic cre­ators tried to make su­per­heroes more “real­is­tic” by giv­ing them sex lives and guns and men­tal prob­lems. How­ever, this was stupid, be­cause there is noth­ing par­tic­u­larly real­is­tic about a man dress­ing in ly­cra and fight­ing crime just be­cause an arach­nid has bit­ten him or he has found a magic ring or he has built a suit out of as­bestos. So, these comics stayed silly, but they also be­came cyn­i­cal and de­press­ing.

Luck­ily, the cyn­i­cism didn’t stick. In more re­cent years there have been great in­no­va­tors like G Wil­low Wil­son, Brian K Vaughan, Ryan North and Matt Frac­tion, who have em­braced the beau­ti­ful daft­ness of the world Lee co-cre­ated in or­der to tell sto­ries that some­how man­age to be mov­ing, in­sight­ful and funny about the real world. The Marvel films take their cues from these writ­ers with­out quite match­ing their sub­tlety.

If there is a prob­lem with Lee’s legacy, it’s that in the world of comic books, and in­creas­ingly film, it’s dif­fi­cult to tell any story now un­less it is through the medium of su­per­heroes. Ad­dic­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion, sex­ism, ado­les­cent angst, what­ever the is­sue, su­per­heroes are the de­liv­ery mech­a­nism and it all started with Stan Lee.

On a per­sonal level, I can only open up about my emo­tions nowa­days when dressed in span­dex and be­ing punched in the face by a so­lil­o­quis­ing neme­sis. Stan Lee has had a huge ef­fect on me, and, if the small masked chil­dren who belt me with plas­tic ham­mers are any­thing to go by, he will con­tinue to wield an in­flu­ence. Ex­cel­sior!

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