Stan Lee, Generational Alienation, and Spider-man: An Aspiring Novelist Becomes a Comics Legend

Grateful to share this reflection by Wenatchee the Hatchet: Just as the world (in Marvel comics) […]

Grateful to share this reflection by Wenatchee the Hatchet:

Just as the world (in Marvel comics) may know Spider-man yet not know Peter Parker, the world may likewise know that Stanley Lieber was Stan Lee, whether or not the world ever knew who Stanley Lieber was. The man Stan Lee, who died this week, became world-famous for creating a comics empire despite having set out, like so many American men before and since, hoping to write a great American novel. Stan Lee was the pen-name, the alter-ego created to make a living by selling pulp stories in comics, even while he hoped to establish another legacy. As Jeet Heer put it recently, “Stanley Lieber transformed himself into Stan Lee, but there was always part of him that regretted the change.

Although I’m a lifelong Batman fan, if I had to pick a superhero comics run that I think is the greatest iteration of the genre across the board, I would not hesitate to pick Stan Lee’s run on Spider-man from the origin of the character up to Captain Stacy’s death.

There is a lot that could be said about what Stan Lee did as a writer to revolutionize the superhero genre, but the clearest, simplest way to describe what he did might also gall fans: Stan Lee and his artists managed to inject into the superhero genre the emotional webs of soap operas, something the genre had not developed when Lee began his famous work. I don’t think that Stan Lee introduced that much emotional complexity: I can see ambivalence in Clark Kent’s relationship to Lois Lane, both as Clark Kent and as Superman, in the earliest Superman stories. There’s also a lot of humor. I might say that given how much was lost or changed in DC comics in reaction to things like the Comics Code or industry shifts, Stan Lee did not so much introduce emotional complexity as re-introduce it. That may seem impossible to take seriously given how much mythologizing people have done with Stan Lee’s reputation, but that’s my impression of Lee’s legacy. The science was no more plausible in Marvel Comics than it was for DC. Radiation doesn’t give people super powers, it kills them. Peter Parker has superpowers, of course, but he has money problems first and foremost. Then he has worries about the health of his elderly aunt. Supposedly he has had problems with girls even though, as Steven Grant so bluntly noted, all of Parker’s closest relationships are with women, and all his girlfriends look like models.

It might be more accurate to say that Lee and his collaborators refined the superhero genre’s inescapable relational ambivalence. I get that writers and readers might think of that as emotionally complex, or more mature, but I don’t know if many would say the same about the soap operas that also accomplished this. Though I wasn’t exactly drawn to soap operas, my mom watched them steadily, or at least one, Days of Our Lives. Stefano could die and then turn out to not really have died about as often as Norman Osborne would seem to…or the Green Goblin was a mere amateur at seeming dead by comparison.

Norman’s a good case in point of what Lee managed to achieve. Norman Osborne is an older man who, in the earlier comics, respects Parker, and Parker respects him; Norman’s son Harry feels slighted by comparison. As the Green Goblin, Norman wants Spider-man to die, to prove his superior physical and intellectual abilities. But in the earlier stories, Norman has suffered enough brain damage from failed experimental work (in which he stole the ideas of others) that he doesn’t even realize he’s the Green Goblin. Why was Norman so eager to experiment? Since his wife died, he began to lose his emotional stability. He became obsessed with work and did all he could to support his son Harry financially, even if it meant becoming emotionally remote and unscrupulous in his business practices.

It was because Norman Osborne was the kind of bad father you might actually have to live with in real life, who means well and rarely ever does as well as he means, that made Spider-man comics so riveting in the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko years. Unlike Superman or Batman, who could send the criminals to jail and then forget about them until the next time they broke out of jail, Peter Parker could never have a battle with the Green Goblin without considering that if the battle went sideways and Norman died, he’d be responsible, or held responsible, for the death of the father of his best friend Harry. Winning in one realm of life nearly always meant losing in another.

It can seem as though the “life lesson” to be learned from this is one that many people resolve never to accept: that if a fanciful superhero can’t “have it all,” then we most assuredly can’t either.

It’s the kind of bitter humor that could remind a person of Ecclesiastes and all of its bleak irony about how a man can have everything and yet have no ability to enjoy it. That could be a Norman Osborne, someone who had everything but, in losing his wife, lost the one good that anchored his moral compass and his ability to relate to people.

In the classic Spider-man run, Lee presented a young man, Peter, who was thoroughly alienated from his peer group but was respected and trusted by father figures — or the men who would have been part of his father’s generation had his father not died. In that sense, the supervillains that have stood the test of time are arguably those father figures who reject Spider-man as a representation of all that Peter Parker “can” do or “could” do. The most iconic of these supervillains, whether the Green Goblin or the Lizard or Doctor Octopus, are not always against Peter. Norman and Curt Connors both genuinely like Peter Parker (and Connors trusts Spider-man), but when their villainous alter-egos take over, both Norman and Curt ultimately want Parker dead.

Which is a long way of saying that of all the Marvel comics, Spider-man may resonate most with people who might not otherwise get into comics because, I suggest, the subtext of the superheroics and supervillainy is generational alienation.  Stan Lee, through Spider-man, managed to distill a story about a young man who wants to find a place in the world, in the society he lives in, yet finds himself alienated from the generation from whom and to whom he looks for some sense of what he can do.

That is why the most moving death in the comics, for me, has never been Gwen’s death. Conway has said for the record that he thought Gwen Stacy was too perfect and a bad fit for Parker, and that Gwen was based conspicuously on Stan Lee’s wife anyway. The death of Gwen Stacy was a stunt to spike readership, and while it worked at the time, the stuntness of the moment shows, and, moving forward, it stunted the storytelling in ways that couldn’t be repaired. That’s just my take.

Rather, what made the death of Captain Stacy potent for me was that Captain Stacy was the man from the generation to which Peter looked up. Captain Stacy was willing to be the father figure Peter lost and knew perfectly well that Parker was Spider-man — but didn’t punish him for it. Furthermore, his dying words were asking Peter to take care of Gwen and letting Peter know that he would regard his future son-in-law (implied more than stated) as a good man for his daughter to build a life with.

Ironically, Captain Stacy died while Spider-man did battle with Doctor Octopus. The irony, within the kid-aimed narratives of the superhero genre, couldn’t have been more bitter. At the beginning of the Stan Lee run, Parker became Spider-man, in the heroic sense, after realizing that his selfishness was why his Uncle Ben died; now, near the end of the Stan Lee run, Parker discovers that his best efforts as Spider-man can’t keep Captain Stacy from dying in the line of duty as a police officer.

Spider-man comics, at their best, shared stories about how you can deeply love someone who never quite stops making your life miserable, often while making a shipwreck of their own lives and the people they really love. Even if what you do is the best that can be done, there’s often no saving other people. Sometimes people give into their lesser selves and become demons, monsters who derive pleasure from the harm they inflict on other people. They see the power they wield as some kind of divine birthright or something they’ve earned the right to use because of their abilities in their professional domain. Those first ninety-some issues of Spider-man, and even a good thirty to forty onward from Captain Stacy’s death, were comics aimed at boys and teens, but they had stories that let us see Parker could discover, as victim and perpetrator, that sometimes the bitter disappointments you encounter in life can’t be avoided. Success in one realm can lead to failure in another; some of the worst ways people let each other down are inadvertent.

Stan Lee managed to create a superhero Charlie Brown and, given the constraints of the superhero genre in what is known as the Silver Age, that was no small feat. Lee’s stories matter because they didn’t have to matter. There’s a joke in television that says you never actually win an Emmy by going for an Emmy. Because Stan Lee wasn’t going for the Emmy in comics, so to speak, he became a comics legend, even if he, like so many other men before and since, aspired to make the great American novel. The endless cycle of world-changing, universe-changing “event stories” in Marvel and DC had not emerged in the Silver Age, when so many of the really classic superhero runs were going on. Back when Lee worked with Ditko, there were no jokes about how, in Marvel comics, nobody stays permanently dead except for maybe Uncle Ben.

Lee and his collaborators made characters whose relational plights were as believable as possible within the milieu that Lee worked. In the case of Spider-man, what made Lee’s cumulative story-telling paradoxically blunt, lazy, and yet also complex and nuanced, was that he managed to show that there was an often impassable generational rift in which young and old could not understand each other or connect and were finding themselves at odds — but that this was not necessarily because of outright malice.

That Parker could find sympathetic mentors in Reed Richards (him, of all people!) or Curt Connors, or other men in his father’s generation suggested that the breach was not total, that persistence on both sides could lead to some kind of connection. That was what Captain Stacy embodied most distinctly in the early Spider-man comics, and that is the emotional and social backdrop against which his death, far more than his daughter’s, packs a substantial punch. It’s not just that Gwen was the woman Parker would have married (everyone who’s read the comics worked that out); it’s not just that she died; it’s that she died after her father basically gave Peter his blessing. George Stacy was convinced that Peter would be a fine son-in-law whom George Stacy knew he wouldn’t live to see marry his child. Gwen’s death has the weight it has in the Spider-man comics because even she doesn’t survive to fulfill the hopes that George Stacy had: for Peter Parker and Gwen to build a happy life together. On each side of a generational divide, which was being repaired, death erased what the men of two different generations hoped could happen.

In Spider-man issues 1 to 90, Stan Lee may have, I don’t know, proven himself the pulpiest Turgenev that the superhero genre could have had. Maybe?


2 responses to “Stan Lee, Generational Alienation, and Spider-man: An Aspiring Novelist Becomes a Comics Legend”

  1. Ian says:

    Not maybe— so completely. RIP, Uncle Stan.

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