Comics, Pop Culture

Stan Lee’s complicated memory: negotiating someone’s art with their past

Stan Lee taught me women can be superheroes, but he was also flawed.

“You know, I guess one person can make a difference… ’nuff said.”

That was the first time I’d ever laid eyes on Stan Lee, the 95-year-old father of Marvel Comics who passed away on November 12. It was in Spider-Man 3, a movie that for all intents and purposes, is often regarded as one of the worst movies in the superhero era.

It was the first superhero movie I’d seen opening night, and while we joked about how weird Peter Parker turned out in this movie – and how Topher Grace would never truly grow out of his role as Eric Foreman – I still remember the night fondly. Seeing superheroes on the big screen still wasn’t all that common. The wave had started however, with the first Spider-Man in 2002 and its sequel in 2004. 

“You know, I guess one person can make a difference… ’nuff said.” - Stan Lee Click To Tweet

When Spider-Man 3 came out in 2007, Marvel was just about to crest its big break. Lee would catapult from a name shared in comic book circles to a common name with the release of Marvel Studios‘ first venture, Iron Man, in 2008. (In this cameo, Tony Stark mistakes him for Hugh Hefner.)

However, before the movies – before the silly cameos and giant glasses – Lee was a comic writer who taught me what it means to be a strong woman.

That might surprise you – especially if you take a look at any of his comics. Lee’s style of art had no place for body positivity, as his comics featured thin women in skin tight costumes. His art was meant for male consumption – and there’s no secret that he was aware of that. However, that never stopped him from creating compelling characters who joined the men who saved the world multiple times.

However, before the movies - before the silly cameos and giant glasses - Lee was a comic writer who taught me what it means to be a strong woman. Click To Tweet

Peggy Carter appeared in May 1966 as a member of the French Resistance during World War II. While she is a love interest of Captain America, she’s portrayed as a skilled fighter who accompanies him as a partner on many missions throughout the series. Carter appeared in print at an exciting time for women – only a month after her debut in Marvel Comics, the National Organization of Women was founded.

Perhaps one of the most powerful female characters created by Lee was She-Hulk, Jennifer Walters. Jennifer, who is the cousin of Bruce Banner, the original Hulk, starts as a small and shy person in the comics. After being exposed to gamma radiation in an attempt to save her life, she gains the ability to turn into a woman described as an Amazonian warrior.

Walters is able to harness her power, and uses it to her advantage. She is not in battle with the monster that lives inside her – instead she’s empowered by it. As She-Hulk, she finds herself more confident, assertive, and wholly powerful for it. She uses it to drive her career as a successful criminal defense lawyer.

Jennifer Walters is able to harness her power, and uses it to her advantage. She is not in battle with the monster that lives inside her - instead she’s empowered by it. Click To Tweet

Walters debuted in The Savage She-Hulk in 1992. I was only 2 years old at the time, however, the message was sent, and primed for when I would come into my own. She’s a model for the woman of today – and tells us that the anger inside us is not something to hate or subdue. Instead, that anger can be used to drive and empower us to be successful and own our space, even in the superhero universe.

Despite these wonderful characters that Lee has created, and the media empire that his name has assumed, it would be remiss to not acknowledge his poor conduct. In January of 2018, the Daily Mail reported that Lee had been accused of groping nurses who worked in his home. Lee maintained his innocence, and has sought legal action against the firm that reported the story.

Perhaps he can still be a superhero. As Marvel has taught me - superheroes can be villains sometimes, too. Click To Tweet

While there is not much more information about the allegations, Lee has also been criticized for many labor issues inside Marvel. One of the most damning pieces of history in Lee’s memory is his treatment of his longtime partner, Jack Kirby. Kirby is often credited with creating more of the big-name Marvel characters, like Spider-Man or Captain America, but when he joined with Marvel, he was forced to give up all of his intellectual property. Kirby passed away in 1994, without a fraction of the fame that Stan Lee accumulated.

This history serves to complicate my memory of this man who has done so much for me. In the tide of many Hollywood moguls who have created art that I enjoy, but also attacked women or abused staff, I have simply been able to abstain from their work.

However, Stan Lee feels different. It’s in part because I simply do not want to remember him as a person who hurt women. I want to remember him as the superhero he’s always been for me – a person who taught me it’s okay to be strong.

Perhaps he can still be a superhero. As Marvel has taught me – superheroes can be villains sometimes, too.