In the wake of Stan Lee’s death, some historians are pausing to spotlight the first and last pieces that the longtime Marvel mastermind ever wrote — and both are rooted in World War II.
At the Library at Congress, Megan Halsband, reference librarian in the Serial and Government Publications Division, has just posted a gem online: Two pages of prose that represent Lee’s earliest published work of note.
Lee had started at Marvel precursor Timely Comics in the late ’30s as an office boy. But by 1941, Timely editor Joe Simon, co-creator of Captain America, decided to give the then-18-year-old a shot at a story.
See the first and last pieces that Stan Lee wrote
Simon and Jack Kirby had launched Captain America the previous year with a nod to rising anti-Semitism and the United States’s resistance to enter the war. The character’s classic debut cover features Steve Rogers socking the Fuhrer in the jaw.
By May 1941, US entry into the war was still more than a half-year away, and the Nazis are never explicitly mentioned in Lee’s debut story, Captain America Foils the Traitor’s Revenge — yet military bravery and betrayal are very much in Lee’s mind when scripting his tale.
Lee would soon serve three years in the Army during the war, writing training-film scripts in New Jersey before his discharge, after which he joined the publisher Timely/Atlas.
The rise of Marvel Comics was still nearly two decades away, but Lee’s interest in writing comic-book heroes who fought evil and injustice was sparked by wartime. So it was only natural that when [publisher] IDW was set to publish We Spoke Out: Comic Books and the Holocaust earlier this year, Lee would be chosen to write the introduction and afterword.
Lee, the eldest son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, had co-created such characters as the X-Men and Black Panther with an eye toward promoting unity among all people.
“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 told me two years ago, “but we would never pound hard on the subject, which must be handled with care and intelligence.”
Similarly, in the intro the We Spoke Out, Lee writes: “Amidst all the thrilling tales of superheroes foiling evil villains, my colleagues and I have more than once used the pages of comic books in an effort to educate readers about real-life topics.”
We Spoke Out, by Neal Adams, Rafael Medoff and Craig Yoe, collects Holocaust-related comic-book stories, including superheroes from the Marvel universe that Lee helped create and promote.
“Stan was not only the worldwide face of comics — he always had a unique appreciation for the potential of comic books to talk about real-world issues,” Yoe tells The Washington Post. “In the 1970s, at a time when most people thought of comics as junk for kids, Stan was defying the Comics Code Authority by writing and publishing issues of Spider-Man dealing with the drugs crisis.
Here, in full, is Lee’s We Spoke Out introduction, which is believed to be his last essay published prior to his death:
BY STAN LEE
People don’t usually associate so profound and forbidding a topic as the Holocaust with the costumed superheroes and bombastic villains who inhabit the world of comic books. But the truth is that those colourful characters aren’t the only residents of the comic book universe, and comic books can serve more purposes than entertainment alone.
Amidst all the thrilling tales of superheroes foiling evil villains, my colleagues and I have more than once used the pages of comic books in an effort to educate readers about real-life topics. When I wrote the storyline about drug abuse for three issues of Amazing Spider-Man in 1971, and when Neal Adams and Denny O’Neil created stories about drugs, racism, pollution, and other hot-button subjects for Green Lantern/Green Arrow from 1970 to 1972, we were no longer just comic-book creators. We were also teachers.
I’m very proud that comic creators have taught about the Holocaust, too.
Sometimes we forget that talking about the Holocaust is a relatively new thing for most Americans. Sure, thirty-five states now require teaching the Holocaust in public schools. But the first of them, Illinois, adopted that policy as recently as 1990. There were very few opportunities for young people to learn about the Nazi genocide during the years before that, although comic book creators made an effort to fill that gap.
As far back as 1955, Al Feldstein and Bernard Krigstein created the astounding comic story Master Race, about an encounter between a Holocaust survivor and a Nazi war criminal. To this day, that story gives me chills. As far as I know, it was the first attempt by comic creators to address the Holocaust and, appropriately, it is the first story in this volume.
“In the 1960s and 1970s, in the pages of comic books such as Marvel’s Captain America and Sgt. Fury, DC’s Star Spangled War Stories and Sgt. Rock, and James Warren’s Eerie magazine, writers and artists used the comics medium to teach young people about one of the darkest eras in human history. For more than a few, a story in a comic book was their first exposure to the Holocaust. I take great pride in the role comics creators played in introducing this topic. Because educating young people about the Holocaust is crucial to ensuring that such an indescribable atrocity will never be repeated. And there can be no more important mission than that.
— By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, ICON, December 2nd, 2018