Marvel Comics Icon Stan Lee Talks Superhero Diversity And Creating Black Panther

"If my books and my stories can make people realize that everybody should be equal then I think it would be a better world."

Stan Lee is not just the elderly mustachioed man who cameos in every Marvel movie. The spry 93-year-old also co-created most of the comic book company's stable of superheroes — from Fantastic Four, the X-Men and the Avengers to Spider-Man, Iron Man and even Guardians of the Galaxy's sentient tree, Groot.

Working with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee introduced these soon-to-be iconic characters in an unparalleled burst of creativity during the early 1960s. Of course, at the time he had no idea they would last, much less eventually take over, post-millennial popular culture a half-century later.

"I never thought of it that way," Lee tells HuffPost Canada over the phone from his California home where he's "multitasking" by signing posters he'll be bringing to his last trip to Toromoraeynto's Fan Expo, which runs Sept 1 - 4. (He's healthy, by the way, just will no longer be attending comic conventions back east because he's, well, 93.)

"I would write the stories, and hope the public would buy them and like them, and then I'd be able to pay the rent. I never really spent time thinking how how long will that last, because I knew if the character became unpopular, I can always write another one.

"I was always writing other ones."

Indeed he was, and some of them pushed beyond the white, mostly male superhero blueprint laid by DC Comics a few decades earlier with Batman, Superman and later the rest of the Justice League. The 1960s was an era of social and political upheaval, and that bled into Lee's work, though he demurs somewhat.

"You were always aware of all those social issues, but I wasn't writing political stories or social stories. I was just trying to write stories that people of all ages and sexes would enjoy reading. If we touched on any issue, I did it very lightly," he says. But when he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2008, the dedication cited that "these new stories provided a medium for social commentary. In 1972, when he became the publisher, he used his editorial page, 'Stan's Soapbox,' to speak to the comic book reader about social justice issues such as discrimination, intolerance, and prejudice."

And it wasn't just on the back pages.

Stan Lee's Greatest Hits

The X-Men — a team made up of mutants who endured terrible racism (speciesism?) — were inspired by the civil rights movement, including the philosophical dichotomy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X influencing pacifist Professor X and militant Holocaust survivor Magneto.

Lee also created the first black superhero, T'Challa a.k.a. Black Panther, in 1966 and three years later introduced Sam Wilson as Captain America's partner, The Falcon.

"It wasn't a huge deal to me. It was a very normal natural thing," Lee says. "A good many of our people here in America are not white. You've got to recognize that and you've got to include them in whatever you do."

If my books and my stories can change that, can make people realize that everybody should be equal, and treated that way, then I think it would be a better world."

Lee and Jack Kirby actually created Black Panther a few months before the Black Panther Party was founded, but the same social changes inspired both the political movement and the super-powered African king of the fictional nation of Wakanda.

"At that point I felt we really needed a black superhero," Lee recalls. "And I wanted to get away from a common perception. So what I did, I made I made him almost like like [Fantastic Four's] Reed Richards. He's a brilliant scientist and he lives in an area that, under the ground, is very modern and scientific and nobody suspects it because on the surface it's just thatched huts with ordinary 'natives.' And he's not letting the world know what's really going on or how brilliant they really are."

I was just trying to write stories that people of all ages and sexes would enjoy reading."

Black Panther was rebooted this year in a series by award-winning author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, which debuted as the year's top-selling comic book. Coates, a life-long comic fan, has cited Spider-Man as his childhood hero.

"One of the great things about Spider-Man is that his body is totally covered by his costume," Lee points out, "so a black kid or a Latino or an Asian, it doesn't matter what colour your skin is, you could be Spider-Man."

But nowadays, kids don't have to imagine what's under the costume. Marvel has been on a massive diversity push over the past few years, and there are now two Spider-Men, including the massively popular "ultimate" Spider-Man Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Hispanic teen.

Chadwick Boseman will be playing T'Challa/Black Panther in the Black Panther movie.

Meanwhile, Ms. Marvel is now Kamala Khan, a Muslim teen, and the Hulk is Korean-American kid Amadeus Cho. Thor, Hawkeye and Wolverine are all now female characters while Ice-Man recently came out as gay and Canadian hero Northstar, who left the closet back in 1992, married his husband in 2012.

"If kids of all types can identify with our heroes, it's the most gratifying thing I can think of," Lee says, adding that he's "flattered" if his earlier efforts laid the groundwork for these current creative decisions.

"I hope they were progressive and I hope they did a lot for the social mores of our time, but there's no reason that a movie couldn't be equally effective."

Yet even now diversity at the movie theatre has proven difficult and it goes beyond #OscarsSoWhite. Marvel Studios' own movies have been accused of over-representing white dudes, and though Black Panther stole scenes in "Captain America: Civil War" and will get a solo film in two years, the studio's first film starring a person of colour (directed by a person of colour, "Creed's" Ryan Coogler) will also be the company's 18th film overall. (The studio's first female-led film will come one year and three movies later with Captain Marvel's solo debut.)

If kids of all types can identify with our heroes, it's the most gratifying thing I can think of."

And, of course, 2016 is also the era of Trump and the alt-right, with online campaigns against people like actress Leslie Jones for daring to star in "Ghostbusters." Why does Lee think it's still so hard for people to accept diversity?

"A lot of people are just too narrow-minded and a little bit bigoted. And there are a lot of people who feel that if somebody is not just like me, he's a bad guy. I could see the day come when all of the people with black hair hate the blonds or tall people hate the short ones. I mean, it's ridiculous. It's as though some people feel you just have to hate anyone who is different than you.

"And if my books and my stories can change that, can make people realize that everybody should be equal, and treated that way, then I think it would be a better world."

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