Master of the multiverse: A beginner’s guide to the work of Stan Lee
Even if you’ve never opened a comic book, chances are you’ve heard the name Stan Lee, and come across at least a handful of the characters he created. In a world smitten by Batman and Superman, Lee created or helped created superheroes who were charming, flawed and human; they had friends, dysfunctional families, faced discrimination and unrequited love. Each storyline was carefully crafted, full of symbolism, and hope. If you didn’t know Lee’s world, and wish you did, these books and movies are a good place to start.
5 COMIC BOOKS TO READ
Fantastic Four (Vol 1; 1961 onwards)
Lee first shot to fame with this superhero team — astronauts who ended up with superpowers after being exposed to cosmic rays on an outer-space mission. Mr Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and The Thing would set the tone for relatability; they spent almost as much time bickering among themselves as they did fighting the bad guys. The series also set the tone for that Stan Lee specialty, the crossover. Fantastic Four Annual # 3 ‘Bedlam at the Baxter Building’ saw the stars of the Marvel universe come together, including the Avengers and X-Men. “‘Bedlam…’ stands out as my favourite because of its many twists and turns,” says Satish Khemchandani, co-founder of The Entertainment Store, a pop culture merchandise outfit. Also in this series is The Galactus Trilogy (Fantastic Four #48 - #50), which introduced the brooding pacifist Silver Surfer, who Stan Lee often said was his favourite Marvel character.
1967: Amazing Spider-Man #50: Spider-Man No More!
The story of the nerdy, gangly teenager who was also a web-slinging vigilante was first told to us in Amazing Fantasy #15, in 1962, which also gave us the iconic line, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’. The world fell in love with the emotionally fragile Peter Parker, with his anxieties and insecurities, heartache and conflicted feelings. Then, in 1967’s Amazing Spider-Man #50, fans were left stumped when he gave it all up and quit being the guy who always saved the day, giving a new spin to his complex character.
1963: Uncanny X-Men #1
When Stan Lee created Professor Xavier and the first five X-Men (Cyclops, Beast, Iceman, Angel and Marvel Girl), and gave them a nemesis in Magneto, readers saw parallels between their fight and the civil rights movement of the time. His mutants were disfranchised, flawed, emotional, revolutionary, with intense backstories that spawned a subculture of super-powered misfits. “For a bunch of geeky nerds like me, the X-Men series was extremely relatable too. We considered ourselves misfits in some sense and so it felt like the book was about teens like us,” says Jatin Varma, founder of ComicCon India.
1962: Journey into Mystery #83
Thor is an unlikely Stan Lee creation — he’s not really flawed, or fallible, or even human. The Asgardian god of thunder, with his super superpowers (he can fly, and control the weather and has an unbeatable weapon in his mighty hammer), gave Lee a chance to experiment with ancient wisdom and create a saga of epic proportions. Thor’s moody, sidelined brother Loki, on the other hand, is always failing, trying, scheming and failing again, and in him, the legends around Thor acquire shades of grey.
1963: Tales of Suspense #39
Iron Man is everything a superhero shouldn’t be. He’s arrogant, selfish, independently powerful, a billionaire playboy. A suit he builds to protect himself, though, ends up saving the world, multiple times. Lee later admitted that he created Iron Man as a challenge to himself; as a character he knew would be hard to like. Iron Man did become intensely popular, though, partly for being the first superhero with no actual superpowers, and partly for showing the world how wrong it can all go when countries, and companies, take competition too far.
5 MOVIES TO WATCH
“There was Superman in the ’70s and Batman in the ’90s, but Spiderman 1 to 3 kicked off the superhero frenzy for my generation of fans all over the world,” says Jatin Varma, 34, founder of ComicCon India. While a number of actors have played the young, conflicted superhero on screen, the most well-known portrayals have been by Toby Maguire, Andrew Garfield and, most recently, Tom Holland (who played Spider Man in Captain America: Civil War, 2016 and in this year’s Avengers: Infinity War). The upside-down kiss, the death of the uncle, the struggle with the dark side — everyone has their favourite film and favourite film moment.
Black Panther (2018)
T’Challa is the reluctant king of Wakanda. His home country uses an enviable mix of ancient knowledge and scientific prowess to stay wealthier, more peaceful and more powerful than the rest of the world. The king of Wakanda is also Black Panther; a secret herb gives each king superhuman senses, enhanced strength and reflexes. What really stands out is the way this storyline defies stereotypes. There are no blonde, blue-eyed, Stars-and-Stripes-toting Caucasians here; the Wakandan army is dominated by women; the technology flows from Wakanda to the world and not the other way around. Black Panther first appeared on screen in Captain America: Civil War (2016); Chadwick Boseman then returned to the role this year, in one of the highest-grossing films of 2018.
Doctor Strange (2016)
In 1963, Lee started a series called Strange Tales that focussed on magic, mysticism and the surreal. Doctor Strange was originally part of that series. A surgeon turned sorcerer, armed with a cloak determined to protect him, and a medallion that helps him manipulate time, he is mistrustful, egotistical, and prefers to go it alone. Benedict Cumberbatch has starred in the big-screen iterations since 2016, including appearances in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Avengers: Infinity War (2018).
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Rage turns Bruce Banner into an unstoppable, unthinking green monster — and one of Lee’s most recognisable characters. He has a heart of gold, struggles with his inner demon. Eric Bana played Hulk on the big screen first; Edward Norton did it better in 2008. But for most, Mark Ruffalo is the one to watch, even though his Hulk has only had ensemble parts in the Avengers films. “The layers, the contrasts… Ruffalo really nails it,” says Khemchandani.
The first X-Men film introduced two new mutants to Lee’s original brood, the much-loved Wolverine and Rogue. “The X-Men franchise has had some superb character build-ups and dense back stories. Everyone has their favourite X-Man,” says Khemchandani. With a striking cast of Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan and Halle Berry, the first film was such a runaway success that there have since been six more, not counting the Wolverine spinoffs.