How Stan Lee became an icon and created space for the unseen & underrepresented to lead

Looking at Leadership: How Stan Lee became an icon and created space for the unseen & underrepresented to lead

By Jalin B. Johnson

“Let’s lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. 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 evils they really are. The bigot is an unreasoning hater—one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately. If his hang-up is black men, he hates ALL black men. If a redhead once offended him, he hates ALL redheads. If some foreigner beat him to a job, he’s down on ALL foreigners. He hates people he’s never seen—people he’s never known—with equal intensity—with equal venom.” (Stan’s Soapbox, 1968)

Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee penned these words, discussing the “deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” 50 years ago. It is a harsh commentary on our reality that these words are relevant and prevailing even now. This issue of Stan’s Soapbox resurfaced when Lee tweeted out the column on Aug. 15, 2017 after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., and the subsequent violence and loss of life that ensued.

Horrified by what the world witnessed that day – and the excuses made for the reasoning behind the violence in the weeks following – Marvel Entertainment released “A Message from Stan Lee.” 

There, he reminds fans and the casual observer of where he and the comic industry juggernaut stand:

“Marvel has always been and always will be a reflection of the world right outside our window. That world may change and evolve, but the one thing that will never change is the way we tell our stories of heroism. Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race gender religion or color of their skin. The only things we don’t have room for are hatred, intolerance and bigotry. That man next to you, he’s your brother. That woman over there, she’s your sister. And that kid walking by, hey who knows, he may have the proportionate strength of a spider. We’re all part of one big family, the human family …” (Marvel Entertainment, October 2017).

Sergeant Stanley Martin Lieber, known everywhere as Stan Lee, was born in New York, New York, on Dec. 28, 1922, to Celia (née Solomon) and Jack Lieber. Both were Romanian-born Jewish immigrants. After World War II (Lee served from 1942 to 1945), his story takes twists and turns, full of drama and intrigue, ready for adaptation to the big screen. The reality of his day-to-day life, and occasional controversy, lends itself to characteristics found among the heroes and villains that grace the pages of comics penned by Lee and co-created with fellow comic icons, including illustrators Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby.

Although there are too many characters to choose from, casual and serious fans can find similarities to themselves among Lee’s greatest character collaborations. Whether well-known or lesser-acknowledged characters, many of their alter egos carried the weight of being unseen, under-appreciated and often forgotten.

In a previous “Looking at Leadership,” I marveled as the story of Black Panther was coming to the big screen 52 years after Kirby and Lee introduced him in Fantastic Four #52. While it was not the same year of my own arrival, landing on my birth date made it appear to this fan girl as though it was always meant to be.  Other characters, in recent decades, have become legend while exploring gender stereotypes, socio-economic challenges, accessibility and disability, human rights struggles and advocacy for the voiceless. The backstories and cannon behind Jean GreyThe WaspPeggy Carter, members of the Avengers and The Fantastic FourDaredevil and Spider-Man, and their evolving character iterations, have inspired discussions, creating a space to address the very ills that Lee described in Stan’s Soapbox in 1968.

Among the plethora of examples of Lee collaborations, you need only read or listen to Lee’s recent words to understand why he championed the benefit of “reflecting the world right outside our window,” with compassion and understanding, while always remembering the heroes inside and among us.

As you’re Looking at Leadership, and considering what is worth advocating for and supporting with your own voice, allow Lee’s last Instagram post from Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, the day before he passed at age 95, to encourage you: “Thank you to all of America’s veterans for your service. Fun fact: Stan’s official US Army title during WW2 was ‘Playwright.’ #VeteransDay.”


Jalin Johnson, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in the Brandman University School of Business and Professional Studies focusing on business and

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