Great power, Great Responsibility: Stan Lee, Morality, and What I Learned by Loving Superheroes

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Stan Lee at the Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona, 2011 (Image: Gage Skidmore)

As I write this, I’ve only just learned of the death of Stan Lee, one of the divine figures along with Jack Kirby and others who helped to create some of the most beloved characters in Western literature.

Maybe the use of the word “literature” to describe the comics medium is a dubious one to some. But I feel that in this current era, it is far easier to defend that usage than it perhaps was before people like Stan Lee decided to deviate from the idea that superhero characters could or should not reflect our humanity while they were busy flying faster than a speeding bullet.

Yet even with the loftier tales of last sons of Krypton, fastest men alive, Dark Knights, or Amazon princesses that compel us to tell the truth, we see humanity reflected there anyway. Like many, I was a child when I was originally confronted with the concept of a man or woman dressing up in a costume to fight bad guys. It seemed to be a natural fit to me, something I didn’t have to question. It is the colourful embodiment of some elemental truth to stand against the forces of chaos for everyone’s good. That’s the basis for a lot of our stories, some of which are hundreds and thousands of years old, far predating the printing press let alone the comic book industry. That being said, looking at these stories is another thing entirely for many who reach adulthood. Adults tend to want to take things apart to see how they work. They want to test the boundaries to see where things stand, and where they fall.

In the excellent 1985–86 limited series, eventually compiled into the 1987 graphic novel Watchmen, writer Alan Moore pursued this very exercise to amazing effect and certainly with great artistry. By now, it’s almost indisputable to say it’s one of the greatest stories ever told in the superhero comics genre and in many other genres, too. In that story, superheroes are terrifying figures, ultimately at odds with and even completely removed from the human condition and morality, and with civilization itself. Their flaws are fatal not only to themselves, but to everyone. The story points out that if superheroes were real, we would be in peril at their hands rather than having reason to count on any salvation delivered by them.

But.

That story’s success is based on the foundation that was first laid down as children; that superheroes as a concept is something for us to love; the costumes, the courage, the feats of strength and skill of which we could only dream, and the resolution that everything will work out in the end. Superheroes are pure Garden of Eden territory to a kid, with each story being a kind of Blakean Song of Innocence. Because that’s the world we want, not the world as it often is. That’s why superhero comics are considered to be so juvenile by many. Moore’s latter day take on superheroes falls squarely into the Experience camp; the knowing, the jaded, even the political. Superheroes, as it turns out, can be viewed through either lens and still be satisfying, artful, and even culturally important. But as great as that story is, it was a reaction against that first idea of the hero as an ideal, a figure to admire and love because they always do the right thing even in the face of their own flaws and personal baggage.

Here’s the thing, though. Personal flaws and inner conflicts balanced against heroism didn’t always go together in these kinds of stories. Someone had to make that connection and then introduce it to readers. That brings us back to Stan Lee!

Most people these days know Stan Lee because of his cameos in the Marvel Universe films, with his face and voice in cameo form being a trend that stretches back to 1989 at least, not counting the same in the pages of comic books that go back even further. During the 1970s, generations of children knew his work from The Electric Company TV show who used one of his creations, Spider-Man, and his literary voice to teach kids parts of speech. During that same time and up until today, he’s served as a kind of emcee for Marvel comics as a brand, with himself as an associated brand. He continues to be a comforting presence for generations of people even now that he’s gone.

While working for and helping to define the narrative voice and style of Marvel comics in the early 1960s, Stan Lee couched his early tales in very meta terms. His style was to speak directly to his audience, pointing out the dynamic to us True Believers that we were reading a story in a comic book. He did so after gaining a revolutionary perspective on the kinds of stories he wanted to tell; that superheroes should be relatable. That they should have the same problems we do. That they should fail sometimes and suffer consequences too, often because of the sacrifices they had to make so that they could continue to be heroic. This departure from traditional superhero narratives added pivotal dimension to the stories, and to the characters he created, too.

At the time, his compatriots wondered if he knew what he was doing, if he in fact knew what a hero was supposed to be at all. Because from Beowulf to Batman, a mythic hero had always been indestructible. He or she would face trials Joseph Campbell style, of course. But they would always come away unscathed, untouched by the consequences of their actions or those of their enemies. They were heroes after all. They had to be constant and unmoved. They couldn’t be affected by things like having to work at relationships, being late for class, having cash flow problems, or just by failing at something important. Stan Lee was the prime architect for changing that in comics initially in his own work but also affecting the work of others in ensuing years, too. That same dynamic when it comes to superhero stories is in place today.

But here’s the most important Stan Lee contribution that makes stories about superheroes so resonant. He gave us readers a guiding principle:

With great power comes great responsibility.

This seems like such a basic idea to present to readers. And yet it is potent. It is vital.

Marvel comics and DC comics have historically come at this business of superheroes in quite different ways. With Marvel, the source of conflict is most often internal, impacting relationships between people connected to the hero. When you’re a marvel hero like Spider-Man, Dr. Octopus throwing a car at you is just a hazard of doing your job. The real heroism is about finding out how to balance that job with doing well in your college classes, having a social life with Mary Jane, and getting extra money from the Daily Bugle so that you can help your Aunt May pay the rent. You do this while still having the wherewithal and super-heroic skill to leap out of the way before Doc Ock’s car crushes you and to create a web for it to land in before it crushes someone else. All of that is part and parcel of doing the right thing, which is what heroes do.

With DC, it’s all about carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders in a more Greek Mythology sort of way. The people you protect are in their billions, looking on you as a benevolent god. They’re counting on you, even if you don’t know each of them personally. But, you value each of them as if you do because you have a strong moral foundation in relation to those people and you proceed accordingly. Some people prefer one take on superheroes over the other, and those approaches aren’t mutually exclusive in either camp in any case these days. But that vital guiding principle that Stan Lee laid down for us readers and even his fellow writers and artists is what is common and constant between them.

Real superheroes use their gifts to do the right thing by others. No matter what.

This is even true of the characters that Stan Lee didn’t create. Superman is Superman not because of what he can do. He’s Superman because he is good. He holds a conviction that his power is not there so he can serve himself, or give himself permission to indulge personal interests or salve his insecurities. He uses his power to help people who need it because they need it. He does this because he’s come to believe that he owes the people of the world the value of what he’s been given. He does this because he shares the world that nurtured him with all people, including those who have no power. That is the guiding principle for all superheroes to follow. Otherwise, they truly would be terrifying. That unwavering principle of balancing great power with taking great responsibility for what they owe the world stops them from becoming what Alan Moore outlined in Watchmen; corrupted, destructive, and ultimately undone by their own superiority, while also undoing the world and all of its people in the process.

And here’s the kicker, True Believers.

This isn’t just about the heroes we read about or watch on the screen. It’s about us, too, about our own powers and responsibilities. At an early age and even throughout our lives if we’re open to it, stories about superheroes teach us about our relationship to power and influence even if we’re not conscious of it. They teach us about what we’re responsible for in whatever form that takes according to our talents and resources. Superhero stories teach us the importance of truth and justice, and that there cannot be one without the other. That leads us to fundamental questions of morality, of knowing what’s right and what’s wrong and how those conclusions can and should be applied in our lives and in the lives of others through us on all kinds of levels. It tells us about what we owe each other, which is the root of all stories of heroism.

Maybe this is why there are so many superhero stories being told in our current era, and why so many are consuming them on a scale that is historically unprecedented. Our world lacks this sense of responsibility when it comes to holding and exerting power, particularly at its highest echelons but perhaps in general, too. The vulnerable go unprotected. They are victimized, maligned, and are even used as scapegoats to fulfill self-interested and self-indulgent agendas that in turn fuel pathological levels of insecurity in all the forms it takes; cruelty, greed, ignorance, and the kind of fear that leads to unspeakable violence.

We need superheroes more than ever.

We need those with great power to take on great responsibility and not use their power to protect and enrich only themselves. We need those of us with even a little bit of power to come together to add to the power of others and to take responsibility to make sure that those holding the reins of influence for their own destructive purposes go no further.

I have loved superheroes since I was a child. I love them now. That’s because this same basic principle that Stan Lee coined so eloquently has not changed and has lost none of its meaning and potency. It’s etched in our hearts and has been from the time we were all very young opening the pages of our favourite comics.

Deep down, everyone knows it to be true.

Knowledge of that is power.

Those taking responsibility for it or not is the next and very uncertain step.

‘Nuff said.

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