Why Stan Lee might be the greatest living artist


I know you’ve heard of memes, but have you ever heard of “Meme Theory?” This theory states that ideas multiply and spread like organisms. It’s survival of the fittest: the successful ideas go viral among their human hosts, while the unsuccessful ones are soon forgotten. We might define an artist as one who creates treasured memes, and measure the artist by the staying power of the ideas he or she brings to the world. I’ll grant you that definition is a bit narrow, but if we take it as a starting point then I think the greatest living artist might just be Stan Lee, the Generalissimo of Superheroes and the man who made Marvel Comics a household name.

How can funny-books stack up against other forms of artwork? Surely there are other ideas that are more intellectually sophisticated, right? Well, the real test of a meme is its staying power, and the best way to predict the future is to look at the past.

Memes of the Past

Among the most powerful and enduring set of stories are the ancient Greek Myths. Thousands of years after dying out as a religion, these tales of monsters and heroes are still celebrated and even updated in the forms of movies, video games, and spin-off stories set in modern times. These memes are as alive and kicking as they have ever been, and they’re likely to be just as full of vitality in a thousand years. There’s something elemental about them, something that works magic inside the human brain.

Shakespeare is another great example. He only wrote 37 plays and a handful of sonnets, but his works are still performed across the world and the plots and the characters are recognized by everyone, not to mention the dozens of words he coined for the English language. Scholars debate whether he actually wrote them all, but it doesn’t change the impact they will have on western civilization. Even Shakespeare drew on myths in his plays, and even the most serious of tragedies is thickly layered with mythological references.

How can Stan Lee compare?

Mr. Lee helped create some of our greatest modern mythological figures, including Spiderman, the X-Men and more. All of these characters share the elements of eternal myth: powerful heroes destined to battle against great evil. These are the stories that reflect what human beings are and what they want to be, and their lack of a central canon will allow them to be redefined and re-imagined by generations of storytellers to come. Maybe someday they’ll even give the Olympians a run for their money.

But what about other superheroes, those not created by Stan Lee? I concede that Batman is the most popular superhero and that Superman’s red-white-and-blue spandex is even more iconic than Captain America’s. I likewise concede that Stan Lee could never have created the Marvel Universe without partnering with visionaries such as Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and many more.

Even considering that, Stan Lee can lay claim to more influence than any other contributor. He changed the way we think of superheroes—once a uniform bunch of perfect, squeaky-clean do-gooders, Stan Lee gave us realistic people with real problems, whose powers are a curse as often as a blessing.

Stan Lee Day

Tomorrow, October 2nd, is Stan Lee day. Yes, there is such a thing. I hope you’ll join me in lifting a glass to the Generalissimo on that day.


About Sechin Tower

Sechin Tower is a teacher, game developer, and author of MAD SCIENCE INSTITUTE, a novel of creatures, calamities, and college matriculation. He lives in Seattle, Washington.
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2 Responses to Why Stan Lee might be the greatest living artist

  1. I think you hit on a great point. You asked, “How can funny-books stack up against other forms of artwork?” But bear in mind, “back in the day,” did the Greeks consider the myths of the gods to be “art?” Maybe. But I would argue they were 75% entertainment and 25% lofty moralistic tales. Likewise, I imagine that the average audience watching a Shakespearean comedy saw it much like we do “the Hangover.” It was two hours of escapism.

    Will school kids 500 years from now study Spiderman? Probably not. But that doesn’t make Stan Lee’s works any less important.

    • Sechin Tower says:

      Bingo. Thank you.
      I think the thing that comics have that many other intellectual properties lack is that comic stories are constantly revised and re-invented, just like the ancient myths. It makes it much more likely that someone will reinvent Spiderman (or another hero) in a way that will be kept for hundreds (or maybe thousands) of years.
      Also, future scholars would do well to study our super heroes as a way to understand the shared hopes, fears, and assumptions of our current culture.

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