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.