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Stan Lee left memorable impact on Black youth

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According to 59-year-old Marvel Comic book collector Alonzo Jones, his first introduction to the legendary Stan Lee was in 1968, “I was 9 years old,” Jones said, “and it was a weekend that my two brothers and I accompanied my parents to Loyola Marymount University, the Westchester campus, were my mom was employed. The trip was about 16 miles southwest of what was then called South Central Los Angeles.

“While in the city of Westchester my older brother, an 11-year-old who was one of the coolest people I knew asked my mom if we could stop at a store to buy a comic book. His reasoning for wanting to shop out of our neighborhood was the limited stock and used comics found at our local mom-and-pop stores. My mother agreed and there we were, standing in front of a rack filled with new pristine comics, Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and Archie.

‘Thor,’ ‘Incredible Hulk,’ ‘Spiderman’

“My brother immediately immersed himself in newest editions of “Thor,” “The Incredible Hulk,” and “Spiderman.” That’s when I selected “Batman,” a DC comic. My brother shared his disgust with me for the entire drive home, you do not read DC comics, they are for White boys!”

According to author Gary Phillips, who also grew up in South Los Angeles during this time, Marvel comics resonated more with African American youngsters growing up in the area. He recalled that DC had “silly adventures” involving characters that may have been suitable for kids in the white picket fence environs of West L.A. or Orange County, but failed to “meet the mark” to aficionados down in the ‘hood.

On the other hand, Phillips remembered, the plots devised by Lee’s Marvel Comics were grounded in Black reality, exemplified by Spiderman, whose alter ego Peter Parker worried about gainful employment to help support his elderly Aunt May, and the relentless bullying by his nemesis, Flash Thompson. Often Lee had Marvel superheroes being pursued by police officers or the American military. During the 1965 Watts Riots t young African American males—many pre-teens—witnessed the California National Guard and large amounts of peace officers in South Central Los Angeles.

According to Phillips, in spite of the outlandish enemies they encounter, Marvel’s creations were grounded in reality in ways not immediately recognized. Its creative masterminds, writer Lee and artist Jack Kirby, contrived a group of outcast teenagers who differed from their peers by virtue of an alteration of the structure of the chromosomes in their DNA. To describe them, they borrowing a biological term, “mutants,” and titled the comic “X-Men.”

Stan Lee and Civil Rights Movement

These mutations resulted in their possession of special individual abilities which, in turn, made them superheroes viewed with derision and fear, and ostracized and persecuted by the rest of humanity. These conditions spawned comparisons to the plight of African Americans  and the Civil Rights Movement, and the leading characters, diplomatic Charles Xavier (aka “Professor X”), and his former friend, militant Erik Lehnsherr (aka “Magneto”) who were viewed as fictional counterparts to Martin Luther King (MLK) and Malcolm X.

Lee’s characters Charles Xavier, leader of the “X Men,” believed mutants and mainstream America could work together peacefully and achieve racial harmony through nonviolence similar to Martin Luther King’s practice of non-violent protest.  Magneto is quoted in Marvel Comics as saying, “he intends to fight the war between the humans and mutants by any means necessary.” Marvel Comic aficionados have often said the line is a nod to another revolutionary—with an affinity for the letter “X”—who ascended during the Civil Rights era.

It’s presumed in comic book lore that Magneto is a villain but Lee had a different perspective when he created the character. Lee has often discussed the metal-warping mutant: “I did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He was just trying to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist. He was trying to defend mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly, he decided to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course, but I never thought of him as a villain.”

Jones believes most of the African American males in South LA improved their reading skills with Marvel Comics, while others took their passion a bit farther by drawing Marvel Comic superheroes. Being able to draw Marvel Comic heroes made you a “ghetto celebrity” of sorts, similar to an Hispanic in East LA being able to be great at tattoos.

Inspiring future artists

I spoke with Marshall in October 2007. He said he was more interested in discussing individuals we both knew on East 46th Street as opposed to his famous artwork, a former childhood neighbor of Marshall’s. However we did discuss his childhood drawings of “Ironman,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “The Submariner.”

A childhood neighbor, Lister Leonard, said that was the Marshall he remembered. He has always been into art, and if you attempted to ask him about what inspired him to draw, he was more interested in changing the subject. According to Leonard, “ I remember he was always drawing these great images from Marvel comics. When he was young he had a very large afro, and sometimes would wear a bandana around it. He reminded you of Jimi Hendrix, he would sometimes wear a beret similar to what the Black Panthers would wear.

Another Marvel Comics fan, Antwone Brooks,  remembers Marshall being quiet and reserved. “ A group of us would walk home from Jefferson High together,” Brooks said. “It was mostly guys that hung out at South Park, I remember he drew Captain America for a mutual friend, Lamar Crudup. We knew he (Marshall) could draw Marvel Comic heroes and I guess subconsciously we believed he had a talent and would make it one day.”

A painting by former Jefferson High artist Kerry James Marshall titled “Past Times,” was sold for $21.1 million. The purchaser was Hip Hop superstar Sean “P Diddy”  Combs, according to Sotheby’s New York staffer Jackie Watcher. The painting was sold by Chicago’s Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority. ).

Jones believes the American Civil Rights Movement inspired Lee and Kirby to join the movement to improve living conditions of African Americans through several Stan Lee creations.

‘Stan’s Soapbox’

In his monthly Marvel column “Stan’s Soapbox” Lee in 1968 made it clear to his readers that racism and bigotry were unacceptable. The column appeared from 1965-2001. Lee wrote that his readers may not always get along with everyone they meet, but that in no way means it is permissible to blindly hate.

In the 1960s, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Lee co-created “Black Panther” to appeal to a more diverse audience. Until his death this week, Lee believed in the power of comics to bring people together and illicit meaningful discussion.

Jones also stated that Lee was good friends with Civil Rights activist and Georgia Rep. John Lewis (also a graphic novelist). He said Lewis once shared with Lee how a comic book written by Dr. Martin Luther King got him involved in Civil Rights Movement. A article ran in the  Philadelphia Inquirer about how Lewis received a comic book about MLK and the Montgomery bus boycott. King was credited as the editor of the work, and that inspired Lewis to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

When Lee’s daughter, Joan Celia, noticed politicians wearing U.S. flag pins on their lapels after 9/11, she wondered why it is people don’t wear a similar pin that indicates mutual respect, regardless of race. The concept, she believed, seemed simple enough. Lee told The Washington Post: “J.C.’s remarks sent me back to the drawing board, and I designed such a pin.” The pin, in black and white, is an image of two hands grasping one another as equals, the word “respect” printed above. The Los Angeles Police Department has ordered pins for their officers according to YouTube reporters Madison Brunoehler, Clement J Bryant and Tatiana Hullender.

A poem for racial harmony

The following is a 2017 poem written by Lee to encourage racial harmony:

When God made man he went all out

As far as we can tell

He made some Black, He made some White

And other shades as well.

He placed them on the verdant Earth

To live and love and thrive

He favored none, He loved each one

And kept that love alive.

Now the Lord’s perplexed and growing vexed

At those who’d mar his plan—

Instead of love some practice hate—

A practice we must ban.

We all must share this tiny sphere

On which we live and die

Respect for all, in every way,

Should be our battle cry.

It’s not too late to initiate

Friendship between the races

So let’s heed the call of the Lord of All

With the love that He embraces.

Stan Lee

He shall be missed.