Stan Lee: Unpacking the Complex World of Pop Culture and Black America

Pop Culture has generally been defined by outsider culture. Marvel Comics’ creator Stan Lee personified this with X-Men & Black Panther. On the occasion of his passing, Todd Burroughs, Eddie Conway, and Kalima Young examine Lee’s complex legacy

Stan Lee: Unpacking the Complex World of Pop Culture and Black America

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network, I’m Marc Steiner. It’s great having you with us today.

We’re talking about Stan Lee, the man who changed the nature of our imagination in many ways through the world of Marvel Comics, who brought us things like X-Men and the Black Panther.

He passed away last week at the age of 95. He was an immensely controversial figure for many ways, from his not sharing profits with some of his creative partners, people like Jack Kirby, his right hand man, the complex passion he had for his political views, how that entered into his comics, and the Black world, but nevertheless having the Black world created by mostly white writers and artists and what that meant, deepening the complexity while raising a lot of questions and a lot of powerful questions for our society. When he created the characters like Charles Xavier aka Professor X, and Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto, the creators of X-man, he had in mind Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, something most people don’t talk about and few realize.

So we’ll examine his life and the power of Marvel Comics and the power of his comic book reality and what it means, and all of that in this segment of Real News with our guests. We’re joined by Dr. Todd Steven Burroughs, who’s author of Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, Dr. Kalima Young, who is a professor at Towson University in the Electronic Media Department, and I call a pop culture archivist, activist and thinker, and Eddie Conway, Executive Producer here at The Real News Network. And folks, welcome. Good to have you all with us.

KALIMA YOUNG: Thank you.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: Thank You.

EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, thank you.

MARC STEINER: So let me hear from all your perspectives here for a moment, what you think, very quickly in kind of short bursts here, opening us up to your thoughts about Stan Lee, what he meant. Because as soon as he passed away, I saw all these people writing on Facebook and other places about the power he meant, especially in the Black world, and changing the nature of comics in our pop culture. So let’s give some quick opening thoughts about Stan Lee himself and what he meant. Kalima?

KALIMA YOUNG: Well. Stan Lee meant a lot to me as a young person who really thoroughly enjoyed comic books. I read Marvel and I read DC all throughout my childhood as a little girl. And literally, my introduction to Spiderman, you know, the cartoon – as a kid, that blew my mind. I was always a huge fan of The Incredible Hulk. He was always my boy, I was always sad for him. I loved Daredevil, I’ve read daredevil ferociously. But what really kicked me in the butt as a young person was the X-Men and the ability to see so many shades of my own personality and situations in ways that I felt, as a sort of outsider, in Stan Lee’s universes that he helped create. He really had a voice for outsider status and I know that I identified with that as a child. And especially, I cut all my white barbie dolls’ hair into Mohawks and painted them black when Storm came out –

MARC STEINER: Why am I not surprised at all about this at all, Kalima?

KALIMA YOUNG: That’s how I live my life. So Stan Lee means a lot to me in terms of worldbuilding and understanding what it means to be an outsider pushing for things that are social justice oriented.

MARC STEINER: And I want to explore this outsider theme in a few minutes here, and what that means in our society, especially political struggles. And Todd, why don’t you jump in next, Todd Burroughs?

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: I just want to say, with the notable exception – I’ll tell you the only DC Comic I loved. It was a huge book called Superman Versus Muhammad Ali. With the exception of that book, I was a straight-up Marvel Comics zombie in the 1970s. All I needed to see was Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s name or Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s name on something and I read. My fifth grade teacher had a bound copy of Stan Lee’s stuff, called Bring on the Bad Guys. It was a series of books that Simon and Schuster published about Marvel Comics. And Bring on the Bad Guys was the volume that had all the origins of the Marvel villains. So when I read that book, there was literally no turning back for me. Anything with Marvel’s name on it, I read.

MARC STEINER: My dear friend Eddie Conway, so why don’t you jump in? Because you and I are the same generation, so we grew up with these comics when they were actually just beginning to take hold, right?

EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah. And actually, it created an excitement for me in reading. I think this is where I first got my first passion for reading, due to these comic books. And it also played a key role in socialization in terms of my growth and my world perspective, which obviously as I grew up I didn’t realize it at the time, but there was a cold war going on and Stan Lee was a champion in terms of promoting America’s might in the world. And it empowered everybody, and it led, probably one of the factors that led to me going into the army. Really, yes. I mean, it made me a soldier of America.

MARC STEINER: Captain America.

EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah, without realizing it, you know. So on hindsight now, I look at the damage that’s been done in terms of young minds and that brings me to look at the Black Panther in a different way, the movie itself.

MARC STEINER: Which I do want to get to because there’s a lot of complexity with Black Panther. But let’s talk about these contradictions. I mean, what Marvel did, I think in some ways, Stan Lee – and I’m just going to throw this out here as somebody who grew up poor and Jewish in this country in that era he grew up in. I mean, he was an outsider. Jews were very much an outsider culture in this country for a long time, in some ways maybe similar, but not like it was back in the teens and 20s, 30s and 40s. So he brings that to that, and also brings that sensibility which is kind of a bridge between some of the Jewish world to the Black world in stuff he was doing. So let’s talk a bit about that. I mean, so what are the contradictions here that you see in Stan Lee and in the comics he created, especially when he got around to doing Black Panther?

KALIMA YOUNG: Well, I think one of the treatises of his work that I found very interesting in terms of this other, this outsider status, is his ability to understand that outsider status is something that’s created and not something that comes naturally. So I think about the X-Men, right, and I think about how they are superhuman, they have a mutant gene that somehow makes them superhuman. It doesn’t take them away from being actually human, right, that it is our treatment of the X-Men that make them outsiders, not an acceptance of the fact that this is how they are they are made and the world. Does that make some sense? So I’ve always found his approach to showing that it’s really the systems that create the outsider status and not the people themselves, even if they have something superhuman going on with their bodies, as a really interesting approach to understand sort of systems, inequities, people’s feelings of belonging.

I know that’s something that I recognized as a child. And I know as I became older, of course, and learned things, that there was an actual point behind all of that. So to show there’s a reason why every time I see Mike Pence I think that he’s sitting there, and a panel is saying “no more mutants.” You know what I’m saying? You know he looks like he’s trying to make the Mutant Registry 99 happen. You know he’s gonna do it the as soon as he gets in office. I’m a gay woman and I see it. So that’s one of the things that I’ve always thought. I thought he had a really good grasp on the fact that it’s systems that create outsider status, not necessarily the people themselves.

MARC STEINER: Todd, you look like you’re ready to pick up on that.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: I think it’s important to talk about where all of that comes from and how the outsider can become the insider. Because first, we have to start with the fact that the American superhero is a Jewish-American creation. When we talk about Superman, Superman was created by two white male Jews in the Midwest, right, who were nerds, who wanted the attention of girls but were too kind of nerdy, and if he only knew when I was really like, this whole identity concept. Now, it’s in literature before then, but the superhero popularizes it. And we also have to deal with the fact that it was American Jews who had a major role in creating American pop culture. In fact, Neal Gabler, in his book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, basically says in the introduction that Jews invented American popular culture.

Now, when we read Gerard Jones’s book, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the American Comic Book, we see a very similar story in terms of Jews being allowed by WASPs to develop popular culture. And as a result of that, these working class Jews, high school educated, some were running the streets and gangs. Like Jack Kirby ran in a gang, you know. And this was for protection, really, in terms of living in an openly anti-Semitic country. These young Jewish men, I mean, comic books were basically their hip-hop. It was their chance to get off the streets and participate in American popular culture. And so, they develop it, they develop these superheroes to the point where they become popular with this huge baby boomer generation, post-World War II generation, and Stan becomes the focal point of that.

And what’s interesting and contradictory is that we’re talking about people who are Cold War and who were anti-communist, but at the same time, we’re talking about people who live in a city that back then had about five or six daily newspapers, they had the United Nations. So Stan and Jack were looking at what was going on in the United Nations with Patrice Lumumba. And so, it’s not accidental that out of all of that cultural stew comes the Black Panther.

MARC STEINER: So that’s interesting. There’s so much to talk about here. I wish we had like hours to do this, but we’ll figure out how to do that some other time I guess. Because this is really interesting to me, what you just raised, Todd in your comments, what you just raised as well, Kalima. So there’s no mistake that a Jewish culture in some ways was separate from but also intermixed with Black culture in this country, in a very weird pattern we don’t have to get into too deeply, as in 70 percent of all the white Freedom Riders in the South during the Civil Rights Movement were Jews. And this kind of ties, to me, directly into Kirby and the rest and Stan Lee.

So when Stan Lee writes, and let’s talk about this for a moment, that Professor X and Magneto, who – Magneto, as we talked about before we went on the air, was based on a Holocaust victim, but that they were also based on Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. So let’s talk a bit about these contradictions, about what this means for them to have created this that way, and of course X and Magneto not really being Black in the comic books, and then Black Panther coming out and ’66. Talk a bit about the contradictions and also what it brought to us at the same time.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: Well, it’s not accidental that the X-Men were created in 1963, the year of the March on Washington. It’s also not accidental that X-Men is an anti-nationalist comic. Particularly when the younger writers take over, they play more on the Malcolm X versus Martin Luther King aspect, more than Stan Lee did. And they, the younger people, knew about Malcolm X, read about Malcolm X. So you see, when you look at the films, whether you look at the animated properties, that Magneto tries everything that a Black Nationalist tries, and he always fails. Now, he fails, because according to the rules of the comic, he doesn’t have the right values. Well, what are the right values? The right values are assimilation and integration.

So we deal with the idea that Jews who are not exactly the biggest fans of Black Nationalism, Pan-Africanism or Afrocentrism. You had tension in X-Men between “do we assimilate and integrate with people who hate us, or do we become nationalists?” And that’s one aspect. But, if you want to deal with the contradictions, Stan Lee is also clear on the fact that he is playing into a white supremacist paradigm in terms of having everybody in these comics being white. So he creates the Black Panther as, in my kind of view, a superpowered Patrice Lumumba, and he does it in the greatest way possible, right. He gives him his own country, the country’s technologically superior, and his first appearance, he beats the Fantastic Four. It’s only the Fantastic Four’s Native American friend, Wyatt Wingfoot, who saves the Fantastic Four from the Black Panther in the first appearance.

So we see all this symbolism that Stan Lee deals with in terms of world culture, conflict culture, but also American history and world history. And he’s fighting against the white supremacy of the time, even though he’s not in any way supportive of Black Nationalism. So we get a very contradictory situation there.

EDDIE CONWAY: And what I would probably add to that is that the Black Panther creation by Stan Lee was a response to the amount of Black writers and Black protests about all of these superheroes being white, and about Blacks not even having any entry into the comic book world, into that universe itself. At some point, the discussion became so loud the Stan Lee decided, well we don’t have a Black hero, we don’t have a Black person at all, let’s create something. And it was out of protests that the Black Panther was created, to kind of like put a Black face in the Marvel comic book universe.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: That was a protest, but it was a protest that also scared Marvel off of it because the Black Panther Party emerges shortly after the book comes out. And then, Stan Lee and Roy Thomas then start to pull apart the character, taking away his African-ness, taking him out of Wakanda, changing his into Luke Charles and making him a Harlem schoolteacher. Because they’re afraid of the Black Panther character being associated with the Black Panther Party. And I go in to a whole thing after that in my book, it’s called From Patrice Lumumba to Sidney Poitier.

EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah, yeah.

MARC STEINER: Kalima, you were going to say what?

KALIMA YOUNG: Yeah. I was going to say, but that is how popular culture works. Popular culture always makes it shifts in its cultural moves and the rupture. It only changes when there’s protest. So, of course, if you’re going to have an industry that’s the comic book industry that is run by a bunch of white men, white Jewish men who are perpetuating things over time, time, time, time, time, it’s going to take protest for people to pivot. It takes protest to figure out where you should add LGBT folks. It takes protest to add how you do differently abled people into it. All pop culture and the ruptures and diversity of pop culture come from protest, right.

So he was responding to the needs of the audience just like Marvel Comics and other comics, and DC, are responding to the needs that people are calling out, like “Oh, we need more Indian characters, we need more Latino characters.” So now, suddenly, we have an alternative universe, Spiderman with Miles Morales. So this is the way culture works. And when people protest, it helps to create a rupture for the creators to have a diversity of thought. The thing that I find always troubling is that even when people have these ruptures and there’s a diversity of thought, the cultural creators create the opening for folks’ voices, but they still hold onto the reins of power and make the stories happen. Does that make some sense? And I think that’s where we run into what we see are some of the contradictions that happen with Stan Lee’s work and with Marvel’s bid toward diversity.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: But we also see where Marvel is trying to correct exactly what she said. Because it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates who brings in Yona Harvey and other Black Women to write the Black Panther Universe.

KALIMA YOUNG: Roxane Gay.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: Right. And also, we deal with the fact that Kevin Feige has already said that the future of Marvel movies is women and People of Color.

KALIMA YOUNG: Yes.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: Now, I was going through the Black Panther guide that Marvel puts out, I was going through it a few weeks ago, and I didn’t know this interesting fact. Okay, you know there’s going to be a movie out Captain Marvel, starring a white woman. But what I didn’t know was that the Black Panther and Captain Marvel form a team called the Ultimate.

KALIMA YOUNG: Yes.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: And many people in the Ultimates are People of Color. So the reason that Kevin Feige doesn’t have to worry about Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. and all those folks whose contracts have ended is because he has a whole other universe of characters that could be led by Black Panther and Captain Marvel able to do another ten years with the movies. So you see them reacting to what you were saying, then.

MARC STEINER: So two questions here in the time that we have. So I mean, the ones about Stan Lee himself. So I’m curious, your perceptions of Stan Lee. And we talked about the outsiders, the comics are about outsiders. And people in the rebellious nature of America always kind of look to outsiders, which is why they looked to the Black world a lot for their rebellious characters and all these contradictions in that with the racism in this country. But talk a bit about where Stan Lee was with all of that. Because he was here, obviously, to see his Black Panther creation of ’66 resurrect itself and become a movie, and the whole change of nature of comics with People of Color and women becoming of part of those comics, whether it was from Catwoman to Black Panther to all the others. So how did he change and evolve, and did he change and evolve?

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: I’ll just do one sentence really quick. The whole purpose of me writing the book on Black Panther is I wanted to show what happened when the Black writers were able to take over the character. Now, the Black writers didn’t take over the character until 20 years ago last month. So you had 32 years of Black Panther being shaped by whites, and then Christopher Priest comes in in 1998 and is the first Black writer of the Black Panther. He and Reginald Hudlin have been responsible for the character becoming this cool, Batman like character, and that’s the character they put in Captain America: Civil War and in the Black Panther movie. And that’s the whole thesis of the book.

MARC STEINER: So Kalima, and then we’ll bring Eddie in here too, so did Stan Lee evolve?

KALIMA YOUNG: I feel like Stan Lee always was in a constant state of evolution. I think that you can’t be creator of pop culture and not be constantly evolving, or nobody is going to buy your stuff. And I think anybody who’s – he’s 95 years old, you learn some things after a while. I feel like –

MARC STEINER: Now, how old do you get until you keep evolving?

KALIMA YOUNG: I feel that way. I think you get a little bit more porous the older you get.

MARC STEINER: Right, absolutely.

KALIMA YOUNG: And I feel like, as a child who started reading comics in the 1980s and then who stopped to go to college and then picked them back up as soon as college was over, I saw the evolution in these characters that I love, the Daredevil and stuff. And I’m just like, well look at and this. And then, in the 2000s, as a Black gay woman who makes queer cinema seeing the inclusion of LGBT characters and watching the evolution of those conversations happening in his particular titles, I was just like, “Yes, look at how you don’t calcify with age.”

MARC STEINER: That’s really important.

EDDIE CONWAY: And I think one important piece that we need to remember is that Stan Lee was about the money. It was all about the money. Sony made a billion dollars over the Black Panther. Stan Lee was always reforming and evolving as long as there was money at the end that. That’s in fact why he treated some of his co-creators in such a shabby kind of way, because he was about making that money.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: Well, let me deal with that directly. It’s important to say that Stan Lee made money off of Marvel by being the face of Marvel Comics. He never owned any of the characters he created, and he always talked about that. The problem with what happened between and the artists was that one, Stan Lee thought he was the creator, the sole creator of the characters. And he said, “I gave the character to the artist and the artist just rendered that.” That’s the first problem. The second problem was that he, as a showman, as a P.T. Barnum, he went out to speak to colleges in the 70s. He went out to negotiate with Marvel films and television. And it was he who, at one point in his career, was given a one million dollar retainer by Marvel Comics just to go out and appear at conventions.

So he was treated one way, and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are treated a completely different way, a negative way, in which Marvel attempted to even hold on to Jack Kirby’s artwork and wouldn’t give it back to him until there was a huge protest among the artist community. So Stan Lee pretends to be an innocent victim of the way Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were treated, but none of them owned the characters, and I want to emphasize that.

KALIMA YOUNG: You never do.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: Right. It was only when Jack Kirby went to DC where he negotiated, that he owned the New Gods Characters. And those are the characters that Ava DuVernay is going to do in an upcoming movie. So Stan was a figurehead, and he was a rich figurehead, and he didn’t share the credit properly until very late in his life. And that’s really sad. He pretended not to understand what happened with Jack Kirby and why Jack Kirby was not given what was promised to him by Martin Goodman, which was a share more money and a share in the profits. He pretended not to understand that, because his bread was buttered by him being a spokesman and him being the media darling of the 70s, 80s, 90s, et cetera.

MARC STEINER: So, in conclusion here, there’s so much more to talk. And having the three of you here is just fascinating because you take this to such depth that you don’t hear very many places with very many people. But if Stan Lee, who created these characters, and what Marvel has done in terms of changing the culture of our country in many ways. And so, as you said earlier, there were a lot of Jews involved in creating this new pop culture in America, but pop culture has always also been defined by Black artists, Black thinkers, Black writers, Black musicians, that changed the nature of this country – not changed it, but always defined the nature of this country, even if we didn’t want to admit that that was what was going on.

So with this explosion of the Black Panthers, Luke Cage, things come out of the Marvel world. So let’s talk about what this means, about this kind of intersection of pop culture kind of molding the minds of the youth now, and everybody else who’s watching what they see, the roots of where it came from for like Stan Lee, who just left us, and where you think this takes the political dynamic. I mean, we haven’t even gotten to the question about how the Black Panther movie ended, and that’s a whole other political question that Eddie and I have gotten into at some length.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: And you can get it in detail on imixwhatilike.org.

MARC STEINER: Right, yes. So let’s end with this kind of piece about what all that means for us. Kalima, go ahead.

KALIMA YOUNG: Okay, I’m going to take this from the perspective of what popular culture is in the first place. So popular culture comes up, it bubbles up from the bottom always. It always bubbles up from the bottom. And people like it and they reify it and they show that they can enjoy it. And then, corporations and the masses take the thing and they turn it into an industry and they create something from it, and then they feed it back to us. Pop culture is always going to bubble up from those who are the most subaltern, and it’s going to become popular enough that corporations will find an opportunity to make money and then they put their own spin on it and they feed it back and say, “this is the thing.”

Pop culture is always in a simulacrum. It’s always losing its origin story. And I think that until we change how profit works, until we change who gets money from these things, it’s always going to end up being a bit of a simulacrum, it’s always going to be a sort of false face of something that bubbled up from the bottom. And that’s what I think about when I think about the shifts in terms that are happening and comic book worlds. That’s where I’m coming from.

MARC STEINER: I hear that. Eddie, you want to jump in?

EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah. I think probably what happens is that it’s always used to socialize and to socialize young, innocent minds to create a perspective in which that will guide their future. And in the particular case of the Black Panther, you could say that it’s okay to be advanced and be powerful, as long as you’re Martin Luther King, as long as you buy into the gradualism of things will change if you just behave yourself. And I think that’s a message that’s sent to our youth, and it’s going to impact them for the next 10 or 20 years.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: And it’s interesting that what Eddie Conway said about his analysis of the Black Panther could be traced back to the post-Black Panther Party Black Panther in the comics, supervised by Stan Lee and written by Roy Thomas. So we see the pattern there repeats after the 50 year period, because when we talk about popular culture, we talk about something that can either be used for social protest or mental conquest. And that is always the question when this culture develops and who develops it and for what purpose.

KALIMA YOUNG: Yes, praise.

MARC STEINER: I really wish we had a great deal more time. And maybe we can revisit this, because the three of you are just amazing and so has this conversation been as we remember Stan Lee, and also the pop culture of America as seen through Marvel Comics and what it says about the power of the Black world in our society that we keep wanting to ignore. Well, not all of us, but many people keep wanting to ignore.

Dr. Todd Burroughs, Dr. Kalima Young, Eddie Conway, I thank the three of you so much for being with us. It’s been great to have this conversation with you all.

KALIMA YOUNG: Thanks for having us, Marc.

EDDIE CONWAY: Yeah, thanks.

TODD STEVEN BURROUGHS: Thank you.

MARC STEINER: Thank you. And if you’ve enjoyed this conversation, go to therealnews.com and hit that donate button. Show you support for Real News now. You watch this because you love conversations like this, because they mean something to you all and to all of us. So please go there now.

And Marc Steiner, here for The Real News Network. We’ve got plenty more for you. Thanks for watching, take care.