Stan Lee's vision of multiculturalism defined the world outside our window

Yesterday, Stan Lee died. He was the creator, in collaboration with others, of countless superheroes, including Spider-Man, the Hulk, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, Black Panther, X-Men, Thor and Iron Man. These characters are now the engine of the global blockbuster movie industry, as well as countless cartoons, children's toys and, of course, comics. They are part of the wallpaper of our world. Barely a day will go by without you spotting them somewhere, whether it's in a shop window, or the T-shirt of a passerby, or a lunchbox. It is hard to think of a single other figure who contributed so much to the culture we live in today.

There was a dark side to his animated public persona. You could spend an article talking about the failure to properly reward other creators, or the charges to fans for autographs, or the weird and unpleasant recriminations around his household in his later years. Underneath the superhero shine, there was a money machine, working as money machines always do. But today isn't the day for that. Today is the day to recognise his achievements. He wanted to portray the world outside your window. And that world was a vibrant place of multicultural myth-making.

Before Lee, comics had become a fairly stuffy affair. The Golden Age of comics, in the late 30s and early 40s, when characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were created, was originally imbued with a odd type of transgression. Superman was the product of Jewish immigrants to the US and acted as a deified version of that experience. Batman had a troubling noirish elasticity. Early Wonder Woman comics were obsessed with ideas of loving submission and female superiority.

But in the 1950s, the genre had been targeted by moral puritans. Psychiatrist Fredric Wertham's book 'Seduction of the Innocent' claimed, among other things, that the stories of Batman and Robin were "psychologically homosexual", triggering a moral panic among legislators and parents. The Comics Code Authority was set up, demanding strict moral guidelines in stories. The  "sanctity of marriage" had to be emphasised in romance. Figures of authority would be presented in ways which promoted respect. "In every instance good shall triumph over evil," it demanded. It was an artistic death sentence. The readership left in droves as the creativity and daring was regulated out of existence.

But regulations rarely work the way they're intended. They tend to push things in weird directions, as people try to game the system. For many superhero comics, like Batman, the hero was pushed away from street-level crime stories towards grand and colourful sci-fi plots, which ended up linking arms with the psychedelic drug-infused hippie culture of the 60s. This was picked up later by writers like Grant Morrison to make a kind of mind-expanding anarchic infrastructure to the genre.

But Lee's response to this stifling culture was to bring back readers by humanising the superheroes. The universe he created, in an unsurpassed frenzy of creativity in the 60s, was designed to reflect the "world outside your window". Instead of fictional cities like Metropolis, which represented sun-lit progress, and Gotham, which represented gothic noir, stories were set in real locations. The characters were chiseled away at too. The square-jawed moral perfection of characters like Superman were replaced with fundamentally flawed, bickering personalities, whose own weaknesses and failings drove their narrative arcs.

Lee, who was himself the child of immigrants, populated his universe with a colourful collection of characters, from different classes, races and sexes, and with different personalities and body-types. It was a kind of lunatic multiculturalism, a place where diversity was injected into every element of the stories.

The Thing was rough-and-ready, working class and from the Lower East Side. His best friend was the thin, intellectual, distant Reed Richards. Spider-Man was a nerdy orphan living with his aunt and uncle. Scientist Bruce Banner was turned into a Jekyll-and-Hyde green monster which reflected his own internal angst. Iron Man was a billionaire industrialist, who would later develop a drink problem. Thor was a Norse God, who spoke in cod-Shakespearean language. Daredevil was an inner-city lawyer whose disability gave him enhanced perception. Black Panther was an African king, of a nation which was far more technologically advanced than anything in the West. The X-Men were mutants who were hated and feared by society. They functioned as a metaphor for whichever minority the writer wished to project onto them, from race, to sexuality, to, in the recent Logan movie, immigrants in general. These characters were jumbled up together, offering a crazed milieu of language and preoccupations and striking visual imagery.

Lee had taken the Platonic form of superheroes, they way they encapsulate one idea perfectly, and injected real life drama into them. By doing so he made them relevant. Any kid reading a comic could picture themself as the weedy, geeky Spider-Man. He allowed people to feel they could act like superheroes, rather than just look up to them. The relevance he provided was not just emotional. It was political. By making them like us, the comics implicitly suggested we could be like them.

This was reflected in his Stan's Soap Box, a little comment section he'd tuck away in the comic, written in his rhythmic splashy style, which would regularly kick back against racism and discrimination. "Let's lay it right on the line," he wrote in 1968, "Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today."

Years later, towards the end of this life, he put out a video making a similar point. "Those stories have room for everyone, regardless of their race, gender or color of their skin. The only things we don't have room for are hatred, intolerance and bigotry." This was moral instruction, but of the best kind. It opened doors, rather than closing them.

It wasn't perfect, by any means. The Marvel universe was still overwhelmingly populated by white male protagonists, even if they were varied within that context. But this attitude, and the bizarre, super-serum-injected sense of genre multiculturalism, embedded itself into the DNA of the Marvel universe. When I was growing up in the 80s - decades before a female Doctor Who was a twinkle in a BBC producer's eye - a black female character called Storm was already leader of the X-Men. It continues in Marvel comics today, where a half-black half-Latino kid called Miles Morales wears the Spider-Man costume and one of the most popular current characters is Ms Marvel, a Muslim teenager in New Jersey.

Now that these characters have gone mainstream, out of the comics page and onto cinema screens across the world, they have taken that cultural mechanism and spread it to places his books would never have reached. The recent Black Panther film, starring an almost all-black cast and directed by an African-American, took $201.8 million in the US alone in its opening weekend, making it the fifth biggest opening of all time. It's the the of financial performance which fundamentally recalibrates Hollywood's calculations about the viability of future projects.

One of the reasons that's possible is because of the flawed characters at the heart of these superheroes, the fact that the drama does not lie in their costumes, or their antics, or even their identity, but in their personality and the tiny tragedies that Lee injected into each of them as a driving motive.

This is now Stan Lee's world and we just live in it. It's a welcoming, open world. We have a lot to thank him for.

Ian Dunt is editor of and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Jo Johnson resignation: It's getting hard to see how May will win that vote

Transport minister Jo Johnson resigned from government this afternoon, sabotaging an increasingly confident government plan to secure a deal with the EU.

He did so in devastating fashion, with a video online and a savage blog post, in which he branded the current situation "a failure of British statecraft on a scale unseen since the Suez crisis". He is now the latest high-level advocate for a second referendum, in which he makes it very clear he'd back Remain.

On the face of it, it's just one more name in the no lobby when the vote gets to the Commons Chamber. But it's hard to resist the feeling that this marks a quite fundamental shift. That's not because this is one of a series of planned resignations, although it may well be for all we know. It's because of something that happened moments later.

His brother Boris put out a tweet, expressing his admiration for his younger sibling and highlighting their shared despair over the current situation.

In reality, they are on exact opposite sides of the divide. Jo doesn't like the deal and veers back to Remain, his brother doesn't like it and veers to no-deal. But their fraternal relationship makes the current state of play extremely arresting. Both pillars of the Brexit divide are now making it perfectly clear they will reject the deal.

Wavering Labour MPs with Brexit constituencies will pay careful attention to the way Tory Brexiters are insisting they'll vote no. It gives them cover to do the same while keeping their voters onside. For moderate Tories, who want to stop Brexit but are squeamish about risking transition, the sight of a high-profile resignation on their wing of the party will stiffen their resolve.

And then there's something less concrete but potentially just as powerful. That blog post really is very robust. He lays out in crushing detail just how deadly and rotten the status quo we're about to enter into is. A possibly endless transition, towards an uncertain destination, where we take on European rules but lose all influence.

That is the reality. It will take years to get a trade deal, if indeed it ever happens. And the time in between, whether it is by an extended transition or the use of the backstop, will be a horror story of legitimate democratic outrage: rule taking without any input.

The way MPs vote on the deal will be a key moment in their career. Like the Iraq vote, it will be brought up next to their name for as long as they're in politics. When they look at these stark arguments, they might wonder whether it really is in their long-term professional interest to back the government.

That thought becomes particularly dangerous when there are senior figures, on both sides of the Brexit divide, who are clearly not bluffing when they commit to resisting it.

Just as Theresa May thought she could see light at the end of the tunnel, part of it caved in. These things fluctuate almost on a daily basis, but tonight the good money is on her losing that vote.

Ian Dunt is editor of and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

Week in Review: Things are about to go all wibbly-wobbly on Brexit

We're seemingly trapped in a time loop on Brexit talks, where each week starts with rising optimism about a deal before shifting into pessimism. Then the same things which people briefed would happen last week are briefed to be happening next week and the process begins again.

It's not like Groundhog Day, because that had a sense of hope to it. It's like the bit of Groundhog Day where he tries to commit suicide over and over again copied and pasted across the entire duration of the film.

But at some point soon, it seems, Theresa May is actually going to come back with some kind of deal. And then things are going to get very strange very quickly in Brexitland. The ground will not stay still beneath your feet. It will slip and slide. The assumptions you'd adopted over the last two years will prove extremely treacherous. Allies might not be allies anymore. Enemies might not be enemies. And battlelines will be adopted on the basis of predictions which no-one can make with any confidence.

Part of the reason it'll get so weird is because it's not really about the deal at all. The deal is a patchwork of nonsense. The real debate is about what'll happen next.

Imagine parliament votes down the deal. No-one really knows how this would turn out. It could lead to no-deal Brexit, or a second referendum, or a general election, or market panic and a hasty small-scale re-negotiation designed to make it more palatable.

Some Remainers will think the damage-limitation of the deal would be preferable to that kind of roulette wheel. Some will be high-stakes gamblers willing to put all their chips on a People's Vote. It's the same for Brexiters. The question about supporting the deal or not is really about what kind of gambler you are. 

Even if the deal passes, we are still within the realms of thick unpredictability. Forget all the talk about the backstop legal status or who decides when it ends. The crucial characteristic it has is its purpose. It is an insurance policy in case the final trade between the UK and the EU fails to achieve frictionless borders.

That's interesting, because the only way to achieve frictionless borders is soft Brexit. May's plan to do so involves a sci-fi customs partnership, which won't happen, and membership of the single market in goods, which is not available. So it follows that either she or a future British prime minister will need to upgrade their offer if they are going to avoid a border in the Irish Sea. And the only upgrade available is full customs union and single market membership.

It is this dynamic which upsets so many hard Brexiters about May's plan. The prime minister's problem is that it alienates them without going anywhere near far enough to bring in Remainers or soft Brexiters. After all, things could shake out as soft Brexit. Honestly, they are likely to. But you've no guarantees. And the government is going out of its way to claim otherwise.

This weird situation could serve to totally flip the existing relationships we've grown accustomed to over the last couple of years.

Parts of the business community are likely to swing behind the prime minister. They will see the deal for the promise of slow national decline that it is, but they might prefer that to the chaos option of voting it down in parliament, especially if they think there is a chance of leaving without a deal at all.

Similarly, Brussels will suddenly change rhetoric once a deal is agreed. They are likely to harshly dismiss calls for a second referendum or another round of negotiation. A deal will have been done, they'll swing behind it and adopt a take-it-or-leave it attitude. For Remainers, many of whom have come to admire Barnier, this is going to smart.

The establishments which Remainers had recently learned to treat as allies - the business community and Brussels - are likely to suddenly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with May. Meanwhile, the hard Brexiter enemies will be the only people alongside them calling on MPs to reject a deal. Things are going to get really, really weird out there.

Enjoy the deathly Groundhog Day period while you have it. Have a herbal bath. Watch your favourite movies. Because once it's over, things will be very mucky and horrible indeed.

Ian Dunt is editor of and the author of Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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