How Stan Lee Catapulted Superheroes into the American Mainstream

These heroes leaned heavier into the possibilities and anxieties of the Atomic Age and Cold War than their counterparts at DC. Sci-fi accidents gone wrong were usually firmly at the heart of the origin of many of the heroes and villains of the Marvel Universe, from cosmic radiation changing the fate of four astronauts and a gamma bomb exposing a scientist to untold elements, to a certain radioactive spider bite changing a high school student's life forever. The Golden Age heroes often received their powers and motivations from the last vestiges of the pulp action-adventure genre. Marvel's heroes were products of the Cold War-fueled scientific revolution taking up the headlines seemingly every day. DC's heroes lived in fictional cities like Metropolis, Gotham and Central City; Marvel's heroes lived in Lee's native New York, a real world allusion that was there from day one, both emotionally and geographically.

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By the late 1960s, Lee had shifted into more of an editorial role with Marvel, writing monthly columns known as "Stan's Soapbox" in which he reminded readers of the moral messages across the publishing line while promoting new books and hiring new talent that continued to push the boundaries of the medium, including Jim Steranko and Roy Thomas. Under his supervision, the Marvel heroes and titles created in the early 1970s reflected contemporary interests from street-level heroes like Luke Cage to horror-tinged series, including Werewolf by Night and The Tomb of Dracula. It was at this time that Stan Lee began to truly become publicly identified with genre he helped reinvigorate and expand beyond children's literature. At the advent of comic book conventions, Smilin' Stan was a regular presence, and quickly became the face of the industry with his amiable persona and friendly demeanor with fans.

Perhaps the best thing about Stan's life is that he lived long enough to see technology and public interest catch up to his imagination, as his creations would be adapted to film and television. The countless cameos were always more than just an easy paycheck for the venerable comic book creator; it was a chance to play in the worlds he had helped create decades previous.

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A common thread in Stan Lee's creations was a sense of striving for self-acceptance despite one's own perceived flaws. Peter Parker was ever the social pariah in high school before he became Spider-Man. Bruce Banner has the worst issues with repressed anger and rage in the history of modern fiction. Tony Stark, Matt Murdock, Stephen Strange, Charles Xavier and Scott Summers each suffer from their own respective physical disabilities. Ben Grimm, Norrin Radd and Steve Rogers each just want to fit into the strange world around them. Each of these superheroes would channel their own insecurities and perceived shortcomings into achieving something greater and become role models to the world.

Stan Lee himself may have never written that Great American Novel, but he was integral in laying the foundation of a world of heroes that would go on to shape American pop culture more than any single novel published in his lifetime. And that came from taking his own feelings and hangups and threading them throughout what would become the Marvel Universe. Excelsior.

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