On November 12, 2018 the entertainment world lost an icon when Stan Lee—the godfather of pop culture—passed away. And while nerds, geeks, freaks, and weirdos shed tears at the loss of their common hero, African Americans have lost a friend especially.
A vocal supporter, Lee went about the business of normalizing people of color in the psyche of everyday Americans. But he also gave people of color the opportunity to see images of themselves with superpowers and created a legion of followers that would span generations. That said, it isn’t much of a stretch to question if there would be a Blerd community if it wasn’t for Stan Lee’s influence.
If you’re a Blerd, it’s hard to think of a company that has had more impact on the Blerd community than Marvel. Since the beginning of Marvel, it was his view of the world along with his ability to not only craft worlds beyond our own imaginations but also create characters we could see, understand, empathize with that cause a shift. And it was in his giving birth to these myriad of characters that shared the same space that the readers lived in that helped his readers see things beyond themselves.
Between the pages of Marvel comics, readers got a chance to see the ideas, frustrations, pains and sorrows of those who were different from themselves. They were also able to open their minds to other trains of thought and, for some, experience a profound impact on how they viewed and treated others. And while Stan Lee’s writings often dipped into the current social conscience, it was the characters themselves and theories surrounding them that have cemented his lasting legacy in Black geek culture.
Between the pages of Marvel comics, readers got a chance to see the ideas, frustrations, pains and sorrows of those who were different from themselves.
Lee is credited with creating some of the first African American comic book heroes, and his creation of the X-Men might have been his greatest contribution to the culture. Stan Lee’s Marvel universe doesn’t take place on some alternate universe; it happens in the world we live in, for the most part. So creating a group of humans (mutants) that faced prejudice and racism because of their gifts and differences as the civil rights movement was happening certainly garnered attention.
The X-Men were likened to the members of the movement. While X-Men’s leader (Charles Xavier) echoed Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of tolerance and altruism, the rhetoric of his frenemy Magneto took a more hardline stance on defending mutant kind in a vein similar to Malcolm X. In a 2000 interview with The Guardian, Lee himself said that “it was a good metaphor for what was happening with the Civil Rights Movement in the country at the time.” And let us not belittle the fact that his creation of the X-Men would also produce what’s probably the most cosplayed Black female character in geekdom: Storm. While Lee didn’t have a direct hand in creating Storm (that was done by Len Wein and David Cockrum), with no X-Men there’s no Storm, Bishop, or any of the other characters that have inspired Black geeks.
While the X-Men was a predominately white team that included a few people of color, the first real Black super hero was introduced to comics in 1966 via the pages of Marvel’s Fantastic Four. There, we were introduced to the African country of Wakanda and to its king T’Challa—also known as the Black Panther. The Black Panther was the ceremonial title of the king of Wakanda, who acted both as sovereign and defender of the country.
The country itself was a technologically advanced super power, but cloaked itself in a veil of secrecy so that other nations wouldn’t know about its prowess. Along with being the first black comic book superhero, the Black Panther gave an alternative view of what being Black was or could be. For example, the Black Panther’s first meeting with the Fantastic Four was him sending a flying car to bring them to Wakanda, leaving Reed Richards (aka Mr. Fantastic) amazed by the technological advancements the country had made. The first meeting broke many stigmas at the time, with the Black Panther being portrayed as more intelligent than Reed Richards—one of the smartest people in the Marvel Universe. It also showed Wakanda as an advanced society that was civilized and technologically advanced, both far cries from what the huts and loin cloth that the media of the time depicted Africa to be. And this all occurred, coincidentally, not long after the Black Panther Party was formed.
While there’s no relation to the comic, it definitely brought more pressure on Stan Lee and Marvel since the name essentially gave the party free promotion with each issue. But the character itself would span generations, inspiring new readers and giving Black geeks more to be inspired by. The impact that the Black Panther has had particularly evident in the amount of time the character’s been around. His resurgence in books and cartoons—and now in one of Marvel’s biggest grossing films—is testament.
Another Lee-helmed character that tapped into the imagination of Black geeks was Falcon. While Black Panther was the first hero of African descent, Falcon would be the first African American superhero in mainstream comic books, with his first appearance in a 1969 issue of Captain America #117. Born in Harlem, Sam Wilson (Falcon) had adopted and trained a Falcon he named Redwing. When answering an ad got him captured by Nazis loyal to the Red Skull, he escaped and led others who were captured in a revolt until Captain America came to free them. Noticing his skills, Captain American decided to train him, which is when he took on the name Falcon.
His characters allowed generations to dream, wonder and celebrate their uniqueness.
For years, Falcon would team up with Captain America and eventually would become a permanent member of The Avengers. Falcon has the honor of being of one of the first Black superheroes without having the word Black in their name. He also, for a long part of his comic career, was portrayed as a skilled guy who, through hard work and dedication, was able to become a superhero (it wasn’t until later that his mutant abilities were revealed). Falcon’s allure has kept him in the forefront of Black geek culture, and he even took on the mantle of Captain America for a time.
While these are only some of the characters he created, Lee’s contribution to the lives of Black geeks is immeasurable. His characters allowed generations to dream, wonder and celebrate their uniqueness. They also helped others to appreciate and welcome differences, and not see the world as colorblind, but to admire what our differences mean in the context of the world around us.
His work and the success of his work influenced others to follow suit. DC didn’t release their first Black super hero the Green Lantern (John Stewart) until 1971. But during his tenure at Marvel, Lee’s characters have inspired, made you question, and opened the minds of many, ideologically and financially. If not for the success of these characters, there would be no Blade or Black Panther movies. There wouldn’t be a generation of women seeing Storm and wanting to be her. Nor would the groundwork have been laid to create room for characters like Bishop, Mosaic, Spectrum, Sunspot, Luke Cage, the new Power Man, and the host of others who are now inspiring geeks to be themselves and to express themselves.
Thank you for your contributions, Stan Lee. And rest well.