Prior to Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, superheroes were fairly two-dimensional characters. Superman was, well, just super at everything. He fought for “truth, justice and the American way.”
In Superman’s first adventure, he saved a woman from being wrongly executed, stopped a senator from being blackmailed and protected a woman from her abusive husband. “Delivering justice, protecting family and stopping corruption, Superman represented the newly expanded New Deal state,” observed Benjamin Moore in The Washington Post.
The New Deal was a real-world example of political philosopher Michael Oakeshott called “politics as the crow flies” — a rationalist approach that tries to use the state as an active participant in life to achieve desirable ends without much concern for the means. It should be no surprise that Superman transitioned from New Deal warrior to World War II warrior. He was fighting Nazis long before American troops were.
Lee grew up professionally in this “Golden Age” of comics, but he also rebelled against it. While a member of the so-called Greatest Generation, Lee better represented the more ironic attitudes of the postwar generation. His superheroes struggled with their powers and their moral responsibilities. Spider-Man, the quintessential Marvel character was a nerdy, angst-ridden teenager who only reluctantly accepted his role and the idea that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
The baby boomers, Lee’s target audience, were plagued with a great unease about living up to the legacy of their parents’ generation. They believed they were special but didn’t know exactly what to do about it.
This kind of ambiguity suffused Marvel’s storylines. The X-Men were mutants, a government-persecuted minority community, bitterly divided between assimilationists and rejectionists. Their powers were a thinly veiled metaphor for the confusion of puberty.
Captain America debuted in his own comic by punching Hitler in the face on the cover, but by Vietnam he was emoting, “I’m like a dinosaur — in the cro-magnon age! An anachronism — who’s out-lived his time! This is the day of the anti-hero — the age of the rebel — and the dissenter! It isn’t hip — to defend the establishment! — only to tear it down! And, in a world rife with injustice, greed, and endless war — who’s to say the rebels are wrong? … I’ve spent a lifetime defending the flag — and the law! Perhaps I should have battled less — and questioned more!”
Of course, there was plenty of fighting, derring-do and onomatopoetic “pows,” “bamfs” and “snikts.” But future historians looking to understand the near-century of Lee’s lifetime would be well-advised to look at his life’s work.
Writes for Tribune Content Agency.