Stan Lee dies at age 95 – Superheroes are one of the most fascinating products of modern pop culture: they can do things that ordinary people can’t and therefore, in the minds of many, they become some ideal beings. The Italian essayist Umberto Eco in his “Travels in Hyperreality” linked that condition to divine powers, especially concerning the first such creature, Superman, created in 1938 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Like demigods of popular culture, however, those superheroes were somehow distant and alien to ordinary people. Even though they had their own alter egos who apparently were just like everyone else, there was something that didn’t connect to guys on the streets. The everyday life of superheroes, not only their daytime jobs and the money to pay the rent, to say nothing of their anxieties and existential doubts, were not an issue, at least not at that time.
Stan Lee Marvel Movie Cameos
Stan Lee, who died this week at the age of 95, changed that conception of superheroes, when as a writer and editor, together with artist Steve Ditko, created Spider-Man in 1962. Peter Parker, is not only an emotionally vulnerable young guy, an orphan living with his aunt and uncle, and in love with the girl next door. He is also a man who has to face an irascible boss and who would have to deal with the perception that he is indeed a villain, an outlaw, and not the do-gooder he tries to be. At first his superpowers, i.e. the ability to climb walls and to produce a strong spider web to jump from building to building which resulted from the bite of a radioactive spider, he didn’t use to fight crime –that only came when his beloved uncle Ben was killed by a criminal– but to make him some money.
Spider-Man then was first a sort of accidental, even reluctant superhero, like many common guys who would not look for trouble. Eventually, that would change, and it probably was that unassuming superhero aura which saved the character, because his debut in 1962 had been in a comic book that was about to be cancelled after only 15 editions. Apparently, fans came to the rescue and Spider-Man was back by popular demand by 1963. The character then became the subject of a popular TV cartoon series in 1967. Those who watched that show must remember the contagious tune: “Spiderman, Spiderman, / Does whatever a spider can / Spins a web, any size, / Catches thieves just like flies / Look Out! Here comes the Spiderman…” By 2002 the first Spider-Man blockbuster was made under the direction of Sam Raimi, written by David Koepp, and with Tobey Maguire in the leading role. Six more movies have been made since then.
Stan Lee’s approach to other superheroes such as The Incredible Hulk was very similar in that sense of “humanizing” the characters, which made them somehow more real as well. With Lee’s death, one of the most influential names in the comic strip genre is gone. Paraphrasing the title of his main character, he was an amazing pop culture creator.
Feature image: Stan Lee with his most popular creation