Stan Lee passed away this month, and the world has lost not only a great artist, but also an important voice for equality and tolerance. Lee, known primarily for his creation and co-creation of Spider-Man and other superheroes, was the writer, editor and publisher of Marvel Comics. (The Walt Disney Company bought Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009, and nearly all of the top-grossing superhero films of all time have featured a Marvel superhero.)
Lee built a platform from which to teach as much as entertain. The characters he created were fabulous but also flawed in ways that made them vulnerable and relatable. He created the world’s first black superhero in the Black Panther, and the X-Men characters battled discrimination for their mutant features as much as they battled villains. He created characters who reflected real populations of people and wrote stories that mirrored actual challenges of the time.
“Marvel has always been and always will be a reflection of the world right outside our window. That world may change and evolve, but the one thing that will never change is the way we tell our stories of heroism. Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender or color of their skin. The only things we don’t have room for are hatred, intolerance and bigotry.” ~ Lee, 2017
Perhaps his greatest moments of candor were in his monthly column, “Stan’s Soapbox.” Here Lee offered commentary, reflection and advice for a turbulent world.
1968: “Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today… The only way to destroy them is to expose them – to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”
2017: Lee re-shared those words in response to the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA and added that the message was as true in 2017 “as it was in 1968.”
Lee, through his art, was bold in acknowledging serious issues like racism, discrimination, injustice and inequality. He was able to speak through his fictional characters, but also to speak directly in his own voice in his column.
If Lee, as what may seem like “just an entertainer, only a comic book artist” can do it, could all leaders in any organization find ways to advance tolerance and promote equality?