“Why didn’t you tell me Stan Lee had died?” my daughter asked accusingly last week. There’s no better illustration of the Marvel Comics impresario’s unique cultural impact than a 12-year-old girl’s grief for a man who was born in 1922. Comic book fans may tussle over Lee’s notorious failure to give sufficient credit to key collaborators such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but to kids he was simply the benign pop-culture grandpa who gave them Spider-Man, Iron Man, Black Panther, Thor, the Hulk and many more. As Lee liked to say: ’Nuff said.
Following news of his death, one of Lee’s old columns went viral. “Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” he wrote in a “Stan’s Soapbox” from December 1968. “But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them – to reveal them for the insidious evil they really are.” The combination of high-mindedness and chummy slang (snoot!) was typical of a man with no allergy to corn. Lee lived long enough to make the same point in a video message last year: “Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender or colour of their skin. The only things we don’t have room for are hate, intolerance and bigotry.”
Shortly before Lee died, comic book artist Ethan Van Sciver announced he was stepping down as the de facto head of the movement known as Comicsgate; though he quickly changed his mind. According to Van Sciver, Comicsgate is “a consumer-led revolt against what is clearly a left-wing dominance in the comic book industry”. Instead, it advocates “escapist, apolitical entertainment”.
In reality, Comicsgaters use the standard harassment toolkit, including “doxxing” (publishing private information about an individual online) and orchestrated abuse, to bully creators, especially young women, who have the audacity to promote diversity and social awareness in superhero comic books. Scratch the surface of their concern for narrative consistency, and pure bigotry seeps out. In a clear echo of the video game equivalent, Gamergate, Comicsgate has earned the contempt of most comic book creators. “Stop being brownshirts,” wrote veteran artist Bill Sienkiewicz on Facebook. “Stop being goddamned ugly dicks.”
The Comicsgate argument is nonsense from root to branch. Reactionary James Bond fans can at least make the case that Ian Fleming intended his snobbish macho imperialist to be a white man for ever, but anyone decrying political content in modern comic books is suffering from acute cultural amnesia. As a Jewish child of the 1920s who hit his creative stride in the early 1960s, Stan Lee’s liberal inclinations aligned with the mood of the times. He shook up superhero comics by orienting them towards underdogs and outcasts, including Spider-Man, a working-class nerd, and the X-Men, whose stories used anti-mutant prejudice as a flexible metaphor for racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Even as a not particularly woke child in the 1980s, I got the message that you shouldn’t stigmatise anyone for being different, even if that person has blue skin and a forked tail. Bullies, bigots and fanatics were always on the wrong side.
It’s true that superheroes sometimes behaved in ways that would trigger disciplinary proceedings at a left-leaning arts college. Nonetheless, progressive politics were baked in from the start. What are the X-Men if not Social Justice Warriors? And isn’t almost every superhero a virtue-signaller? Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 for the express purpose of punching Nazis. Marvel’s brand of escapism was never politically neutral.
Since Lee was both a natural liberal and a tireless hustler, many of Marvel’s beloved characters sprang out of a convergence of political idealism and commercial opportunism. Subsequent creators developed the characters and ideas. Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther movie is immeasurably more thoughtful about race than the original comic books, but it wouldn’t exist at all if, in 1966, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby hadn’t decided that Marvel needed a black hero to acknowledge the civil rights movement.
Most of the foundational texts of geek culture were the product of this kind of mid-century liberalism. Star Trek was an ecumenical fantasy that produced the first interracial kiss in the history of American television. Alt-right opponents of The Last Jedi somehow failed to notice that George Lucas’s Empire was always thinly veiled fascism, which basically makes the Rebel Alliance antifa. The conservative backlash against the new “politically correct” Doctor Who ignores the fact that the Doctor is an ambassador for empathy whose first enemies were genocidal cyborg Nazis.
This history matters because Comicsgaters and their fellow travellers want to rewrite it to imply that there was once a screw-your-feelings pre-PC Eden before people who weren’t straight white men came along and ruined pop culture. That fallacy is unwittingly mirrored by some young people on the left, who act as if diversity and social justice were recent inventions.
Frankly, it’s too easy to mock the kind of men who are stirred to rage by a cartoon called She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. But now that toxic fandom overlaps with white nationalism it is important to reassert the simple fact that it’s a culture war fought on a false prospectus. The apolitical past that the Comicsgaters long for never existed. As the rediscovered “Stan’s Soapbox” demonstrates, reactionary fans were always the bad guys, richly deserving a punch on the snoot. Perhaps this is why they are so furious about the characters that shaped their childhoods being “taken away” from them. They know that those characters were never really on their side.
This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis