Stan Lee used his Soapbox to preach tolerance and fight bigotry Primary tabs
Presented by: Tricia Ennis
For decades, letter columns offered fans an inside look at their favorite comics. These tiny, single page sections of their monthly book of choice allowed them access to the creators behind the biggest characters on the page and gave creators an opportunity to communicate directly with their biggest fans long before Twitter changed the game.
While most of these letter columns served simply to provide a platform for fans to feel as though their voice was being heard, or to let publishers engage with their audience, few took the opportunity to use these pages as a means of taking a progressive stand in the industry.
But few were Stan Lee.
Lee, who passed away this morning at 95, was the biggest name in comics and had been for decades as he led the charge in making Marvel the comic book powerhouse it has become. In 1967, Stan started participating in the back of the magazine feature known as the "Bullpen Bulletin," a place which, like a letter column, allowed the Marvel Powers That Be the chance to engage with their readers. In his ongoing column, "Stan’s Soapbox," Lee took the opportunity to share news (he used the platform to celebrate the arrival of Luke Cage, one of the first Black superheroes in comics) to responding to fan questions and suggestions and even just sharing some fun words about life at the comics giant. But Lee also used his self-titled soapbox to make his own stance on certain controversial topics perfectly clear. Stan Lee was not here to suffer bigots.
Several times throughout the run of "Stan’s Soapbox," Lee found himself defending the rights of women and people of color to be seen as equal those who would seek to subjugate them. In one famous column, Lee wrote that “bigotry is one of the many stains on the human escutcheon and must be eradicated before we can truthfully call ourselves civilized.” In that same column, he continued, “You wanna dislike someone? Be my guest. It’s a free country. But do it because he or she has personally given you a reason to feel that way, not because of skin color, or religion, or foreign ancestry, or the shape of their toenails, or any other moronic, mixed-up, mindless motive! Because, if you justify your hatred by smearing everyone in any given group with the same brush, then you’re a bigot, Charlie!”
In another issue, Lee found himself defending Marvel’s comics themselves, as readers wrote to him expressing their anger over the use of these stories to support, oppose, or otherwise comment on various political agendas. Despite the fact that Marvel created such works as The X-Men, a book in which its characters’ main struggle is against an unaccepting world, or Captain America, who was politicized from the start, many readers felt that comics should only ever be escapist, a complaint still lobbed today creators of color, LGBTQ, and women.
In response to this complaint, Lee made it perfectly clear that he did not agree, writing, “It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul. In fact, even the most escapist literature of all—old-time fairy tales and heroic legends—contained moral and philosophical points of view. At every college campus where I may speak, there’s as much discussion of war and peace, civil rights, and the so-called youth rebellion as there is of our Marvel mags per se. None of us lives in a vacuum—none of us is untouched by the everyday events about us—events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives. Sure our tales can be called escapist—but just because something’s for fun, doesn’t mean we have to blanket our brains while we read it!”
While, to many young fans of Marvel comics and its characters, Stan Lee has become mostly a figurehead and a fun movie cameo, his legacy in the world of comics will truly prove much deeper even than we may yet know. In addition to creating some of the most well known and influential characters of a generation, Lee will also go down in history as someone who used his platform to promote tolerance and reject bigotry, and, as he said in an issue of X-Men, it is those men history remembers:
“The power of love — and the power of hate. Which is most truly enduring? When you tend to despair . . . let the answer sustain you.”