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Stan Lee lived 95 long years and his creations as the spearhead of Marvel Comics will last hundreds more. His death feels like a gut punch. We will no longer see his fleeting cameos in Marvel films based on characters he created. But, while his corporal form has left this earth, his imaginative dimensions continue to trickle down on both generations and pop culture itself, showcasing how the universe keeps true innovation in circulation. In hip hop, a genre spurned out of imagination, Lee’s work reigns supreme. His art helped to bring together the world of rap and comic books, giving his creations an invaluable footprint in the culture that we admire.
For starters, hip hop and Marvel both have one thing in common: They were born in New York City. Marvel began as Timely Publications in 1939 and contrary to popular belief, Lee was not the founder. He flourished in the pages of history in the early 1960s as a writer and editor who made the decision to revolutionize superhero comics that were growing stale with their established conventions. Instead of continuing to go for predominantly child audiences with consummate luminaries, Lee began to work on and push superheroes that were more human and flawed, aimed at older readers. These superheroes like Spider-Man and the Hulk, with their accompanying melodrama and glamorized flaws, became sensational hits. And so began the mighty reign of comic dynasty.
Hip hop was born on 1520 Sedgwick Ave in The Bronx in 1973. Run DMC, one of rap’s most iconic groups revealed to DAZED that for him, Marvel was New York City. “Every time I opened up Marvel comics, I got a geography lesson about the city I lived in,” he said. “Times Square, Lower East Side, Hell’s Kitchen, Harlem, 42nd street, Uptown, Downtown, all that.” Marvel combined flawed characters with a realistic setting – something DC Comics skirted around with fictional locales like Metropolis and Gotham. This grounding meant the world for rising rappers who were able to appreciate the humanization of mutants, as well as admire their larger-than-life statuses. “You might not admit it on record, but you talk to almost every rapper – we all grew up with that shit,” said El-P, one half of Run The Jewels, in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone. Killer Mike grew up with X-Men and Spawn, El-P with X-Men, Spider-Man, and The New Mutants.
Lee got to the heart of the reason of why his characters matter after all of these years in an interview with The Washington Post in 2010. “I used to be embarrassed because I was just a comic-book writer, while other people where building bridges or going on to medical careers. And then, I began to realize entertainment is one of the most important things in people’s lives.” Rap music, often serving as escapism for desolate surroundings and lifestyles, often relies on artists repurposing sullen circumstances in different artistic ways. The same way that rappers use music to get away, they also used these comics and characters as instruments of their own entertainment, as well as their creativity. Ghostface Killah of Wu-Tang named his 1996 debut solo album Ironman after Marvel’s billionaire philanthropist, long before the hero became a pop culture icon. Another of rap’s paragons, MF DOOM, adopted a mask reminiscent of Marvel’s big bad Doctor Doom after being gutted by life and the industry. Throughout the years, artists have time and time again drawn from these heroes to create or accentuate their own characters.
Lee was one of the good white guys. Long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe came about and traditionally white characters were written in as black to keep up with the times, Lee was righteous-minded. He condemned bigotry and racism through his characters, and through his voice and influence. “I always felt the X-Men, in a subtle way, often touched upon the subject of racism and inequality,” he told Comic Riffs in 2016. Conspiracy theorists long connected the dots — the frequently discriminated mutants ridiculed for having differences that they couldn’t control and leaders who preferred various levels of violence to peacefully coexist with humanity. Theorists assumed that the story played off of real life to tell a comic story. But in actuality, Lee was using the comic to showcase how stupid discrimination was, while having high-powered mutants duking it out. The legendary comic-book writer was hiding the medicine within the candy.
The year that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated (1968), Lee spoke his mind about what he was seeing. “Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,” he wrote. “But, unlike a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them, is to expose them — to reveal them for the insidious evil they really are.” He expounded upon the evils of bigotry three years later, in 1971, in an interview with Rolling Stone. “The bigot is an unreasoning hater — one who hates blindly, fanatically, indiscriminately… He hates people he’s never seen — people he’s never known — with equal intensity — with equal venom… It’s totally irrational, patently insane to condemn an entire race — to despise an entire nation — to vilify an entire religion,” Lee said.
This authentic way of thinking, before it became socially required, subconsciously endeared the writer, and by extension Marvel to hip hop fans. His flawed heroes showcased his belief that society is full of damaged people. But, Lee held them to a higher regard than reveling in racial superiority complexes. He embraced the African-American community and hip hop. The love was felt both ways. Aside from actors cast in Marvel movies, and die hard comic book experts honoring his memory, dominant members of hip hop culture have turned out in droves to pay their respects. Three 6 Mafia posted an old picture with him smiling on Twitter, Ice T paid his respects, Ghostface posted a commanding picture of him on Instagram. It wasn’t just the immediate generation of rappers that honored him for growing up with his creations, but the new class of rappers were equally as impacted by Lee’s passing. Lil Yachty and Travis Scott honored him with short, simple tweets. Kyle was equally melancholy with his brief acknowledgement. These three artists are under thirty, showcasing that Lee’s creations and influence reached across more than one generation.
From the creation of Black Panther, to Marvel’s hip hop covers that used popular superheroes to create iconic album covers such as Tha Carter III (Spider-Man), The Chronic (Dr. Strange), and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Ms. Marvel), Stan Lee’s firm embrace of black and hip hop culture was authentic even if he wasn’t directly involved in every individual creation process. The environment was built from the foundation that he created in the early 1960s. He was a strong, prominent figure that served as the charismatic face of Marvel Comics -– a company that he didn’t create, but instead built into a kingdom for thoughtful, realistic characters that happened to have superpowers. These flawed figures were, often times, instruments to attack contemporary societal issues. This endeared him to a generation of children who suffered from the issues prevalent in these comics, causing them to carry the torch and ingrain this work in their culture of tomorrow. Hip hop didn’t lose a pillar with his passing, it gained an angel. His work’s been immortalized in pop culture at large, but more specifically in rap’s winding narrative. When we see our rap heavyweights who are influenced by his work, and the frequent references to Marvel properties that he was in some way responsible for, his name continues to live on and his work continues to give life. Lee may not have movie cameos anymore (unless Marvel decides to break out the hologram technology), but we’ll have his cultural cameos until the end of time.
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