Stanley Martin Lieber was born in New York on December 28th, 1922. When he was in high school, he often fantasized about writing the Great American Novel. But that was a lofty dream for the son of Romanian Jewish immigrants. Lieber worked various jobs before earning a position at Timely Comics, a division of Pulp Magazines at the time. Lieber was hired as an assistant and performed minor duties such as running out for lunch, erasing pencil marks on the finished pages, and filling the inkwells of the artists. But in May 1941, Lieber sought his opportunity to be a text filler for Captain America Comics issue #3. The pen name he chose was Stan Lee. Timely Comics would later become Marvel Comics and Stan Lee would become a major force in the Comics Industry creating some of the most enduring characters in the Marvel catalogue still in print today.
Comic books are seen as a method of escapism to lands beyond our imaginations. We relate to the mild mannered secret identities of these characters and wish for the powers and abilities of the superheroes they portray. The early years of comic books were established by what is now referred to as “The Golden Age”. This period of the industry was solidified in 1938 with the first issue of Action Comics featuring Superman.
As the first superhero (and arguably the most powerful), Superman ushered in a wave of superhero comic books introducing several other DC characters including: Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman, and Hawkman. Timely Comics (The precursor to Marvel) during this time introduced several characters as well, the three most popular being: The Human Torch, Namor the Submariner, and the titular American hero and future leader of The Avengers, Captain America.
Thematically, superhero comic books during this time emphasized two major aspects in the genre. The first was that the heroes and villains were always seen as polar opposites. A gray area, if there was any, was hardly evident as the comics were published to represent the real-life struggles of World War II. While some comics presented the conflicts in WWII through symbolism such as Superman fighting an invasion of hostile aliens, other titles such as Captain America involved the real life fight against Nazis and Communism. The Golden Age was also a time characterized by abilities bestowed upon both heroes and villains and explained through gods and magic. But starting in the mid 1950s, Superhero comic books waned in the face of a post-WWII world. The adventures were no longer on the epic scale they once were.
The Silver Age of Comics began as a period of innovation and artistic ingenuity, which breathed life into the world of superhero comic books. Initially, comics produced in this era involved westerns, horror, crime and romance. Though these comic books were initially financially successful, they were later deemed too adult for their mainly juvenile audiences by the Comics Code Authority in 1954. Desperate for a way to reinvigorate their established characters, Julius Schwartz, editor at DC Comics suggested a revamping of the more mainstream superhero titles. Only Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman still held their own titles. So Schwartz decided as a way to appeal to new readers and distance the characters from their Golden Age origins, to ground the heroes in reinvented origins involving science fiction to explain their unnatural abilities. The first of these re-envisioned characters was DC Comic’s The Flash Showcase #4 in October 1956.
After the success of the Flash reboot, DC re-imagined other heroes’ origins such as Green Lantern, The Atom, and Hawkman. This led to the creation of the premiere DC Comics team book, The Justice League. Editor Stan Lee and Marvel Comics in order to compete with DC’s greatest heroes would then create, The Fantastic Four in November 1961.
But while the Justice League has fallen and resurfaced throughout the decades as a pantheon of powerful supergods, Lee discovered that in order to bring younger audiences to their side, the heroes needed to be less powerful and more insecure about themselves and their lives outside of being superheroes. The personal struggles of young men and women on a day-to-day basis mixed with the insurmountable task of being a “Superhero.” Stan Lee and Jack Kirby best elaborate on this idea with the second Marvel team book which debuted in September 1963: The X-Men.
But the most significant part of these stories is Stan Lee’s framing of the mutant rights’ discussion, never completely setting either party at fault, but always trying to bring both groups to the middle.
The X-Men comics continue to frame mutant rights’ in a way that is representative of current conflicts of racial discrimination, sexual orientation, and other forms of bigotry and prejudice. They are a perfect embodiment of the features of the Silver Age, as much as the Justice League was in the Golden Age.