Stan Lee and the Power of Vulnerability

5 min read

| By Catherine DiMercurio |

The internet is flooding with tributes to Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee. I think it’s safe to say, given his stature as a creator, that Lee was a superhero in his own right. With Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, he created the Marvel Universe, though it was Lee who would be indelibly associated with the Marvel brand. Many articles and person tributes on social media center on a singular theme—the way Lee focused on the Marvel fans and created a community, a family, around that fanbase.

Comics and Connections

I tapped into that sense of community like many Marvel fans, via screens, big and small, rather than through the colorful pages of comic books. I’ll always have a soft spot for the Incredible Hulk, because my father and I religiously watched the television series, which ran from 1978 through 1982. My dad loved the series because he’d grown up reading the comic books. I loved it because as a nerdy, sensitive tween kid it was oddly comforting to watch a nerdy, sensitive scientist being transformed by out-of-control emotions. (Tweens totally get the whole out-of-control emotions thing.) Not only did I get to partake in this wacky sense of kinship with the Hulk, I was able to hang out with my dad, able to feel like we shared some common ground even though we didn’t always understand each other very well.

Fast forward to that nerdy kid parenting a tween and a teen of her own. Lee’s characters, brought to life on the big screen, gave me another opportunity for connection, this time with my own children. It started years ago, when my son was in middle school and my daughter was just starting high school. We devoured a couple of Avenger movies on DVD first, then we proceeded to catch up on everything we had not yet seen. Now, with my college freshman daughter and my high school junior son, I eagerly await the next release of each new Marvel movie, as eagerly as I used to wait for the next episode of the Hulk with my dad.

Spiderman and Allergies

Many fans of Lee’s work seem to land on the same idea, when pressed about what makes his characters so appealing, that it is their relatability that makes them great. It’s not superhuman strength or power, it’s real, human vulnerability. In an interview Gale’s Contemporary Authors conducted in 1982, Lee stated:

“The reader has to care about a character, and in order to care, he’s got to believe in the character. The way you make a character believable is to flesh him out, make him three-dimensional. When I was a kid I loved Sherlock Holmes. I knew it was fiction, but a part of me felt there was a Sherlock Holmes. When I went to England, I walked down Baker Street looking for his house. I mean Conan Doyle wrote Sherlock Holmes in such a way that you had to believe this character existed; and that to me is the secret of good writing; it’s the secret of good moviemaking; it’s the secret of good television.”

Stan Lee Interview, Contemporary Authors Online

Lee talked about why Spiderman might be his favorite character. Noting that Spiderman is the Marvel character most like him, Lee observed, “He’s not the luckiest guy in the world; nothing ever turns out 100 percent right for him. I shouldn’t say like me so much as like any person really. I think he’s probably the most human superhero. He soliloquizes, and he worries, and he agonizes and wonders why things don’t turn out better for him. He’s always got money problems and allergies and dandruff. I like him.” Lee’s heroes are normal people, often only taking on their superhero status reluctantly, without confidence and, equally as often, questioning what’s right, what they are fighting for.

Stan Lee, Pop Culture, and Literary Analysis

Each new release of a Marvel film spawns a fresh round of commentary about the comics, the way fans of all ages connect with the characters, and the enduring appeal of Lee’s pantheon. If you want to listen in on some in-depth analysis about what made the 2018 release of Black Panther so powerful for example, check out this edition of NPR’s Fresh Air, available through Gale’s Literature Resource Center: “Mythic ‘Black Panther’ Is a Momentous Event in Pop Culture History.”

Lee’s creative endeavors have been analyzed from all angles. For a glimpse at the way his work is studied within a literary context, check out the entry on Lee in Gale’s Children’s Literature Review. Don’t forget to check out the Stan Lee portal in Biography In Context, where you can find biographies, audio files of interviews with Lee, images from movie premieres, and much more.

No matter what your point of entry into Lee’s work is, whether it’s through comic books, television, or film, there is always more to learn. Gale’s seemingly limitless resources can take you into Lee’s world in unexpected, enlightening, and delightful ways.

I will sign off the way Lee famously did. Enjoy your exploration into his life and work, and I’ll see you at the next Marvel movie. Excelsior!

About the Author

Catherine is a developmental editor at Gale (and project editor of Contemporary Authors), an enthusiastic vegan runner, and a recent MFA graduate. If spare time is to be had, she may be found writing, reading, or enjoying some down time with her two teenagers.


Banner image by Gage Skidmore


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