A HALF-CENTURY ago, at the height of the civil rights era, Stan Lee was co-creating the regal African character the Black Panther with the aim to appeal to a diverse readership. The legendary Marvel editor believed in the power of comics not only to reflect truthful aspects of society, but also to illuminate the better angels of our nature.
Now, at 93, Lee continues to create visuals to appeal to our higher sense of self, even as, he says, some might divide us.
That is why this week, comics’ greatest living ambassador is bringing a new symbol to New York, and thus, he hopes, the nation. Lee will be featured Friday night at a Madison Square Garden “creators’ roundtable” event as part of his appearance at the bustling New York Comic Con, which runs through Sunday.
And what Lee will speak to, through the prism of his many flawed superheroes, is mutual respect. Because Lee is again seeing a country that is roiling and boiling and hurting, partly along lines of race and authority, and so he has drawn up a simple lapel pin that depicts a handshake between arms of contrasting tints, interlocked beneath the word “Respect.”
“My daughter J.C. and I were watching TV, and she commented about the U.S. flag pin that so many politicians, including the president, often wear,” Lee tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. The daughter then asked Dad: Why couldn’t people, regardless of race, wear a solidarity pin that indicated mutual respect?
“JC’s remarks sent me back to the drawing board,” Lee says, “and I designed such a pin.”
The symbol is simple in order to be effective. This isn’t about supporting any one side, he says, but rather about coming together.
“It is our desire,” Lee says, “that the ‘Hands of Respect’ symbol spreads into the general culture.”
It was at the dawn of the ’60s, of course, that Lee (working with such greats as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko) helped turn Marvel Comics into a global powerhouse through characters such as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the X-Men — social outsiders who fight for a better society.
“I always felt the X-Men, in a subtle way, often touched upon the subject of racism and inequality, and I believe that subject has come up in other titles, too,” Lee says, “but we would never pound hard on the subject, which must be handled with care and intelligence.”
Today, decades after leaving Marvel’s editorial offices, Lee is the most recognized face in superhero comics — Los Angeles last month proclaimed a Stan Lee Day, and he is already filming his next several cameos in blockbuster Marvel movies.
Lee has signaled that he will slow down some on the convention circuit, taking not quite as many tours as he has done so tirelessly for decades. Yet for the right causes, he will still make major appearances, as well as work doggedly behind the scenes.
For his “Hands of Respect” pin, for instance, Lee — working with Bay Area-based employee Jerry Olivarez — is reaching out to major sports teams, as well as to law enforcement and politicians, with the aim that some will adopt wearing his symbol as a sign of positive good.
“As a believer in the inert goodness of man,” Lee says, “I’m hoping that the pin will serve to remind people that America is made of different races and different religions, but [that] we’re all co-travelers on the spaceship Earth and must respect and help each other along the way.”