Lee’s characters were outsiders, and they knew and accepted it. They showed my children that it is OK to be different
Monday evening, a little after seven. I am in a cafe in Oxford, waiting for my son to finish guitar practice, staring at my laptop and crying over the death of a 95-year-old man.
Like most of the world, I never met Stan Lee, but it feels like part of my life is over. I heard his voice narrating the 1982 Incredible Hulk TV series before I even knew who he was: that came later, along with the discovery that he was partially responsible for half my favourite comic characters. To go to your grave having created the Hulk would have been acclaim enough. Lee – together with long-time collaborator Jack Kirby – also gave us the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Mighty Thor and a frequently ignored webslinger from Queens, known only as Spider-Man.
It’s Spider-Man who I’m thinking about today. All Lee’s creations seemed to be afflicted in some way or another, but Spider-Man – a personal favourite of my nine-year-old – had it tougher than most. When he wasn’t having the snot kicked out of him by the Green Goblin, he was usually having to deal with bad press (the Daily Bugle had the monopoly on fake news long before Donald Trump got hold of it), unwanted police attention or financial ruin – sometimes all three at once.
It was a hard lesson, and Marvel is full of them. The X-Men are a group of gifted students who take it upon themselves to protect a world that hates them. When the Fantastic Four weren’t fighting Doctor Doom, they were invariably fighting each other. Even Tony Stark – a multimillionaire with seemingly limitless talents and resources – must conquer his own demons before he conquers the Mandarin. The costumed heroes that inhabit the pages of Kirby and Lee’s many volumes have a dozen backstories and come from all walks of life, but they seldom have it easy. “This is my gift,” says Spider-Man, “and my curse.”
I wonder if that’s the reason my children love Marvel characters so much: they seem to have a vulnerability to them that makes them instantly relatable. They are ordinary people who inherit great gifts and don’t always know what to do with them – it takes a family tragedy to make Spider-Man grow up – and the road to heroism is a series of peaks and troughs, of good and bad decisions, of mistakes and redemption. The stories my children read are twisted rollercoasters of hope and despair – last minute reprieves from desperate situations, and seemingly happy endings wildly subverted on the final page.
It’s like that in a family, and you stick with it. Whenever we watch Pixar’s The Incredibles (a film that owes a colossal amount to The Fantastic Four, for better or worse) I’m always struck by how that particular family managed to work together, even in the face of odds that threatened to tear them apart. Three of my children have autism, but the 11-year-old has it harder than the others. He recently started secondary school, and he really needs to do something about that temper of his. It’s landing him in hot water. But like the Hulk, it is a part of who he is. And like the Hulk, it is difficult to control. Emotional intelligence is a hard skill to learn when your brain is wired differently. And I shout at him far too much. Lee’s Marvel creations can fight off the fiercest of intergalactic marauders, but they are rubbish at relationships. Aren’t we all?
There’s more: Lee’s characters were outsiders, and they knew and accepted it. The idea of being both a strong individual and the best that you can be is one that permeates social media with such irritating frequency we more or less ignore it. Surely if everyone is unique, then no one is? But when you’re 13 and the playground is awash with dares and cliques and relentless peer pressure, it is a message you cannot hear enough. Education may have immeasurably improved over the past few decades, but if there’s one thing my children’s dining table chatter has taught me it’s that schoolyard politics have not. The boundaries have shifted, but things are as tough as they ever were.
So when the nine-year-old (who has a tough time of things) gets to feeling like the world is crushing him, there is a sense of hope that he gleans from the likes of Spider-Man. Because Spider-Man brushes off rubble at the drop of a hat, but finds it much harder to deal with life outside his costume. He is the lone wolf who both embraces and despises his existence as an outsider, and that makes it easy for children to both love and relate to him.
The nine-year-old knows that Spider-Man isn’t real. Still, he recognises, even at this tender age, that the world is unfair, but that it can be brightened just a little by the light that you hold within yourself. He holds onto that, even when things are difficult for us and we fight and argue. And when his brother is crying into his pillow because of the fallout from another playground scuffle, I am comforted by the words of Susan Storm: “We choose to stand by you, because we’re a family. This is where we belong.”