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The Stan Lee legacy: A tribute to the Marvel man

He gave us heroes that were flawed, and human. Lee, who died this week, was flawed himself. A look back at his life and work.

more lifestyle Updated: Nov 21, 2018 18:11 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Stan Lee,Marvel comics,Spider-Man
Stan Lee’s superheroes became wildly successful as film franchises over the last two decades. Successive generations have identified with the frailties and flaws of Spider-Man, The Hulk, and even Iron Man; and fallen for the charms of Thor. As for Black Panther, it was a new one to many, but still became one of the highest-grossing films of 2018.(Marvel)

Growing up in Mumbai in the 1980s, illustrator Abhijeet Kini would read and re-read his collection of comics – heroes, villains, superpowers, capes, Ka-Pows and cliffhangers – and realise that one name consistently stood out: Stan Lee. “I wondered who this Chinese guy was,” says Kini. “In my head, he was some kind of superhero, churning out book after book, story after story.”

Stan Lee, he eventually learned, was Stanley Martin Lieber, the son of Romanian immigrants to America. As writer, publisher, creator and eventually president of Marvel, he created or co-created Spider-Man, the X-Men, Thor, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk, Daredevil, Ant-Man, Black Panther and dozens of other characters. In the process, he’d masterminded the most imaginative fantasy universe ever created.

“Most young Marvel fans like me expected him to live past 100,” says Steny Klinson. The 18-year-old Mumbai-based illustrator, like countless comics artists worldwide, has been posting tribute sketches of Lee and his heroes on Instagram since the news broke. ( Steny Klinson )

Lee died on November 12, aged 95. Kini sees it as a life well spent, with “bonus years” as Lee’s superheroes became wildly successful as film franchises over the last two decades (with many films featuring Lee in beloved cameos).

For others the loss is acute. “Most young Marvel fans like me expected him to live past 100,” says Steny Klinson. The 18-year-old Mumbai-based illustrator, like countless comics artists worldwide, has been posting tribute sketches of Lee and his heroes on Instagram since the news broke. “I grew up with the Spiderman films. I learned about the value of friendship and the ways to cope with life’s challenges from the stories,” he says. “For me it’s like losing a family member.”

As flags fly at half-mast across the billion-dollar Marvel universe (films, TV shows, books, comics, games, digital media and merchandise), one thing is clear. Lee didn’t need radioactive-spiders, meteorites or genetic mutations to activate his superpowers. He just needed a pen.

In 2004, Marvel released an Indian retelling of the Spider-Man story, with four issues covering the life of Pavitr Prabhakar, fresh-off-the-boat in Mumbai, with spider-like abilities bestowed on him by a yogi. ( Marvel )

WEB OF MEMORIES

“I bet more people can recognise Spider-Man than the Mona Lisa,” says Sharad Devarajan, CEO of Graphic India and the American digital entertainment company Liquid Comics. In India, that’s possibly true.

For a certain generation, Lee is a legend largely because they watched the animated Spider-Man on Doordarshan on Sunday evenings in the 1980s. Younger Indians took to the character through seven big-screen movies between 2002 and 2018. Of the 20 highest-grossing Hollywood films in India, three are Spider-Man movies.

Director Satyajit Ray even met Lee in New York to discuss an Indian version of Peter Parker, but plans only materialised after Ray’s death. In 2004, Marvel released an Indian retelling of the Spider-Man story, with four issues covering the life of Pavitr Prabhakar, fresh-off-the-boat in Mumbai, with spider-like abilities bestowed on him by a yogi.

Devarjan later collaborated with Lee too, to produce an Indian superhero in 2013. They came up with Raju Rai aka Chakra, a Mumbai boy who turns into a superhero with the help of a suit that activates his body’s chakras. “To create superheroes with Stan was like being able to paint with Picasso or write poetry with Shakespeare,” Devarajan says. “One great bit of wisdom he gave us was the powers mean nothing if you don’t care about the person.”

Alok Sharma, who worked on later issues of Chakra and collaborated with Lee on the TV series Cosmic Crusaders five years ago, has similar stories of Lee’s knack for storytelling. “Being able to receive an email from him directly, his enthusiasm and panache were such thrills,” he says. “He focused on the idea of powers as a gift and also a burden, of the hero’s story being more important than the hero’s journey.”

‘To create a superhero with Stan Lee was like being able to paint with Picasso or write poetry with Shakes-peare,’ says Sharad Devarajan. He worked with Lee to create the Indian super-hero Chakra, in 2013. ( Graphic India )

Both Chakra and Spider-Man India failed to find a large fan base. Kini says this is probably because both versions were cosmetic – a souvenir-shop idea of India rather than an attempt to engage local readers in the way homegrown comics like Nagraj do. “Chakra needs a reboot,” Sharma admits. “But Indian superhero comics owe their entire existence to Stan Lee. If there were no Spider-Man there would likely be no Nagraj.”

UPS AND DOWNS

For young fans like Klinson, Spider-Man’s draw is that he’s like them, broke, idealistic, picked-on and struggling to fit in. “He’s fallible and mortal; he’s basically me,” Klinson says. “He’s also relatable because his superpower is not a magic solution to his life’s problems.”

It’s a Stan Lee signature, says Devarajan. In Marvel’s world, “having a superpower doesn’t mean the character is lucky in love or can pay the bills”.

After years of Superman and Batman, Lee’s vulnerable heroes felt more relatable. These conflicts made sense. Moral dilemmas offered food for thought. “As Stan would say, ‘Achilles, without his heel, you wouldn’t even know his name today,’” Devarajan says.

via GIPHY

Other signatures Lee leaves behind: Superheroes who lived in the real world, came from actual spots on the map. The notion that characters could cross over and team up. And heroes and villains who, in Devarajan’s words, “have often been reflective of larger societal narratives”. Cold-War era heroes were largely created though mutation and radiation (Spider-Man, X-Men, Hulk, Fantastic Four, Daredevil), which played on fears of radioactivity. The civil rights-era X-Men carry strong ideas of inclusion and fighting bigotry.

Stan Lee struggled with creating strong women heroes. Critics point out that he often denied collaborators royalties. Several nurses who used to care for him have, on separate occasions, accused him of sexual misconduct. He was by no means the benign old gent that fans are used to spotting in blockbuster cameos.

Perhaps his artistic legacy might offer more inspiration than his personal life. “Marvel made us nerds belong,” says Sharma. Devarajan recalls being on a panel with Lee at New York Comic Con in 2008, with thousands of fans lining up. “Stan told me he was going to try to shake everyone’s hand,” he says. “I walked with Stan as he travelled the convention shaking hundreds, if not thousands, of hands!” He was 85 at the time. “We went to a back room and he sat down, exhausted. In two minutes, he gathered back his energy and we went on stage where he entertained the entire room. That was the amazing thing about Stan, he had an energy that was incredible.”

First Published: Nov 17, 2018 16:01 IST