Stan Lee, the man behind Marvel, passed away this past week, giving us pause to consider just how influential his creations have been on American culture. Lee might be best known for animating his superhuman characters with humanity, something that had never quite been done when Lee started developing his best known characters. Lee’s superheroes, the ones we know best today, were not beyond-human, but possessed the same characteristics we readers struggle with – grief, pride, depression, innocence, boredom, illness, anger and mortality. These are the versions of the superheroes we avidly watch with every new Marvel movie; they are not apart from us, but like us, all the more alive for their flaws.
Like Mary Shelley, Lee’s creations will live on beyond their creator, but that’s not where the connections end. It’s no surprise that the green Hulk, born of an experiment gone wrong, was imagined as a combination of Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. The Hulk is a misunderstood monster, remembering the vestiges of his humanity while trying to gain control of both his limbs and his emotions.
In 1969, Frankenstein’s monster first became a character in Marvel Comics, though he made an earlier appearance in Atlas Comics. The early appearances of the monster featured a retelling of Shelley’s classic, ending with the monster frozen in ice. The monster would come in an out of this frozen state to team up with such characters as Spiderman, Iron Man and Howard the Duck. In later iterations, the monster would be cloned to become a member of different teams, such as the intelligent clone named Frank that joined Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos. Put to more nefarious uses, clones of the monster were made by Nazi supporters in the 1970’s Marvel stories set during World War II.
If we’ve learned anything during One State / One Story: Frankenstein, it’s that Shelley’s idea of the creature is one of the most adaptable myths in literature. Novelists, screenwriters, and poets have all taken inspiration from Frankenstein, and it’s no surprise that comics would find the creature to be a highly versatile character with extra-human strength alongside the attributes Lee inscribed in all his superheroes. The creature is often misunderstood, seeks revenge, but can be motivated to do good. Just as Shelley’s creation has lived 200 years beyond its creator, there’s no doubt that Stan Lee has left a similar legacy of characters that will speak to the generations of comic fans to come.