Stan Lee: Fighting for Civil Rights Since the 60s

Stan Lee, aged 95, died this past week. Now we are left with his expansive portfolio of work to remind us of the kind of person he was.

Image source: Gage Skidmore

Starting in the 1960s, the heroes he created had depth and character. They had a distinct desire to do good in the world, even though they themselves were imperfect. Taking a step back and looking at Lee himself, you can see where this message comes from.

Lee spoke out against bigotry since the 1960s through his characters, as well as through his own personal statements. He worked to support social injustice with creativity. Lee's comics were political, and he knew it. He actively used the stories as social commentaries, which isn't uncommon in the genre of science-fiction.

His message came through in a variety of ways, and with varying levels of subtlety. There are clear examples of racial discrimination in the X-Men. The mutants are shunned by the human world, yet strive to do good in the world anyway (for the most part). He was also the co-creator of heroes that were people of color starting back in the 1960s. For example, the Black Panther (first appearance 1966), Falcon (1969), and Luke Cage (1973).

Audiences also saw the empowerment of people with disabilities, such as Charles Xavier (1963) in X-Men, who is paraplegic. Iron Man is paraplegic in the comics as well (1989) and struggles with alcoholism. And while Iron Man has use of his legs in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), on-screen he struggles with mental health issues. And possibly one of the most prominent disabled characters is Daredevil, who has been blind since first appearing in the comics in the 1980s.

Finally, there is also a representation of the LGBT+ community, but not until the early 1990s. The first gay character to appear was Northstar of Team Alpha Flight in 1992. Since then, we have seen Deadpool and Valkyrie canonically confirmed as bisexual. Loki is gender fluid; Odin goes so far as to call him "my child who is both." As well as queer couples such as Hulkling and Wiccan from "Young Avengers" and Ayo and Aneka from Black Panther. These characters were all confirmed as LGBT after Lee's time at Marvel, but still, it shows the attitude of representation lives on in the company.

Lee created a culture of heroes, and anti-heroes readers can connect with. While his characters were superhuman, they still had everyday problems. Spiderman is a lower-class orphaned teen from Queens, the Hulk has hatred for himself and his lack of control, and Iron Man fights against his own anxiety and PTSD.

His characters and their stories are accessible and represented the reader. One of the most admiral parts about Lee and his support for civil rights was how he has been outspoken since the beginning. Since early on in his career he made his intent know and made what he stood for very clear.

He started his Bullpen Bulletin, a quick add-on to the weekly comic, in 1967. This was the same year of the race riots sweeping America. In 1968, it was there where he released a statement shutting down racial discrimination. 

"Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, they can't be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are," said Lee.

He ended his declaration with Pax et Justitia, meaning Peace and Justice.

He continued on this trajectory throughout his career. In 2017, in response to white-supremacists wearing Captain America gear and marching in Charlottesville, he spoke out again. In his statement he reminded the world that:

"Those stories have room for everyone regardless of their race, gender, religion, or color of their skin. The only things we don't have room for our hatred, intolerance, and bigotry."