Stan Lee Helped Shape the Story of What It Is to Be American

Smithsonian curator Eric Jentsch weighs into the legacy of the comic-book mastermind

Stan Lee
Aflo Co. Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

For Eric Jentsch, it was Black Bolt, the leader of a genetically altered race known as the Inhumans, who debuted in Marvel’s Fantastic Four in December 1965. As Black Bolt’s powerful voice could lay waste to his surroundings, the comic-book character resolved not to speak at all.

“That really resonated with me,” says Jentsch, curator and deputy chair of the division of culture and arts at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Growing up, Jentsch latched onto the inward-looking character, who understood more than most how “speaking can be both powerful but also dangerous.”

Every Marvel fan can name a character like Black Bolt, whose complexities, flaws and abilities especially hit home. They owe a debt of gratitude to the man synonymous with establishing that sprawling universe of characters, Stan Lee, who died Monday, November 12, at age 95.

“He's responsible for creating a lot of our shared stories about what it is to be an American,” says Jentsch.

Lee, who was born Stanley Lieber in New York City in 1922 to Romanian Jewish immigrants, recognized early on that the one thing more powerful than a perfect superhero was a human one.

“As a kid I would relish reading comics of all the characters that he created,” says Jentsch. “It really influenced my understanding of the world, especially in terms of interpersonal issues, different personality types, and philosophical questions; things I wasn’t really getting anywhere else.”

When Lee was just shy of 18 years old, his cousin-in-law Martin Goodman, a pulp publisher, hired him on as an assistant at Timely Comics. There, editor Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby were turning out the highly successful Captain America Comics. But once they found out they were being shortchanged on profits, they began writing on the side for rival National Comics Publications, later to be renamed DC Comics. A murky series of events followed. When the dust settled, Goodman, having learned about the duo’s moonlighting, fired Simon and Kirby, and temporarily promoted Lee to serve as the editorial director in their absence. That proved to be Lee’s big break, and there he stayed, long past temporary, as editor-in-chief of the publication, the fixture steering the ship through Timely’s reincarnations as Atlas and, later, Marvel.

It was the Silver Age of Comics and by the 1960s, Lee, together with luminary co-creators Kirby (who would return, somewhat bitterly, to work with Lee under a work-for-hire arrangement) and Steve Ditko, hit upon an alchemy that led to the birth of the challenging, subversive, wanting heroes of the Marvel universe that continue to resonate today.

“Many of the superheroes that we're seeing in movies [today] are about the people he created in the ’60s,” says Jentsch. “It's not as if there are these waves of new superheroes that people are engaging with. The core Marvel Universe is still the one that he created.”

One of popular culture’s biggest strongholds is finding inroads to capture the current moment in ways that are accessible and relatable, and Lee demonstrated a remarkable sense for how to successfully weigh in on the day’s anxieties. “Lee knew that balance,” says Jentsch. “He made these really exciting stories about complex characters, but would always kind of add this commentary in them to make them both more interesting, but also to make people a little more thoughtful about the world around them.”

What Lee also recognized was that everyone wanted to see themselves represented on the page. “The celebration around his character Black Panther so many years later shows that there’s still a need for more stories, more diversity, for all the different types of people that populated this country to have representation in stories,” says Jentsch. “I think that Lee was aware of that and tried to have characters that represented not only different personality types, but just different types of people."

Lee kept working toward that with now-iconic titles, such as the original X-Men, Thor, The Fantastic Four, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk. "He expanded his universe to include more stories and more people, and I think that that has had an impact on how people see themselves as part of this country," Jentsch says.

Lee's death, comes, perhaps, at the height of his name recognition. While he always embraced his role as the public face of Marvel— "Smilin' Stan," if you will—in recent years, Marvel movie fame further skyrocketed his profile. “Many people have peaks and valleys, [but there] has been a pretty steady ascent and recognition of his importance," Jentsch says. "He did not die forgotten."

The comic book maven leaves behind a singular legacy, so much so that Jentsch struggles to think of how to contextualize him among his peers. “It would be hard to think of someone who generated so many different characters that have such a long cultural property. . . . I'm really trying to think of what an equivalent would be,” he says. "It's hard."

Beginning November 20, 2018, the National Museum of American History will be showcasing select Superhero artifacts from the museum’s collections, which will include a shield from Captain America: Civil War and a pair of Wolverine's claws. The display will run through September 2, 2019.

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