Stan Lee: the greatest storyteller in history?

Stan LeePhoto by Luigi Novi

Sci-fi/fantasy writer Damien Walter makes his case in The Guardian:

Before Lee, heroes were all supermen, or strutting John Waynes, who triumphed through strength or ruthlessness. Lee’s heroes triumph through brains, invention, innovation and most of all, SCIENCE. It’s all oddly prescient of what geek culture would become 50 years later, with hackers and tech giants wielding enormous power for good and ill. Given the vast popularity of Marvel among geeks, it’s not inconceivable that Lee helped inspire a lot of those people who are reshaping our world today.

But Stan Lee’s stories are all just weird fantasy and make-believe! They’re not real. Yes, but as we move from what physicist Michio Kaku calls “the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery”, Lee’s super-science fantasies seem less preposterous and more prophetic. Like all great mythical worlds, the Marvel universe speaks to us in metaphors, symbols and other non-literal truths. And as the dreamer who brought these modern myths into reality, Stan Lee may well be remembered as one of literature’s greatest heroes.

Lee’s other radical innovation was to give his characters depth. Marvel super-heroes had to fight self-doubt before they could fight the bad guys. Some, such as Benjamin J. Grimm, felt their powers were a curse. And most startling of all, Marvel super-heroes sometimes fought each other, and even changed sides. When I discovered Marvel comics as a pre-teen, I felt like I’d found an illustrated guide to many of life’s mysteries.

And Marvel stories were intelligent, insightful, and full of delicious twists. Fantastic Four 51 is a prime example. The story, titled “This Man, This Monster,” was not just an exciting tale but emotionally compelling. Such a plot and character arc could only come from an authentic and serious talent. The reason Stanley Lieber changed his name to Stan Lee was because, as Lee himself put it, “I felt someday I’d write ‘The Great American Novel’ and I didn’t want to use my real name on these silly little comics.”

Those who turn their noses at comics (or pulp fiction or sci-fi and fantasy) are missing some great, worthwhile stories. As the recently departed Umberto Eco observed, “Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the sense that a Japanese haiku is.” A well-crafted story is to be appreciated for what it is, no matter the genre.

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5 thoughts on “Stan Lee: the greatest storyteller in history?”

  1. I had this mentor once who started her first session with every student asking this simple question: “What’s your favorite book and why?” My answer was that it was not a book. It was, in fact, Spider-Man. So basically, all I can do is agree with everything here.

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