Ever upwards with the master of STEM role models

diversityMuch heralded for his imagination and contribution to entertainment, a recently deceased writer deserves more credit for bringing people into science and technology, Stuart Nathan argues

Earlier this month we lost a man who may have created more engineers and scientists than anybody else. But he wasn’t himself an engineer or scientist, and he probably didn’t even do it deliberately. His name was Stanley Lieber, but the world knew him better by the pseudonym he adopted in 1942: Stan Lee. He wrote comics, and he passed away at the age of 95 on 12 November.

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Stan making one of his offbeat Marvel film cameos (speaking to one of his creations). Image: Marvel Studios, Disney

Regular readers will know my long-running interest in popular culture and how it portrays scientists and engineers. It’s this which was the key to Stan Lee’s success as a recruiting sergeant for STEM. Although in the foreground his characters were bold and colourful superheroes, his innovation was to attach as much importance to the civilian identities of his four-colour crusaders as to their costumed personas. Reacting against the somewhat cardboard cutout superheroes that populated the comics of the 1930s and reasoning that no matter how thrilling the adventures of Superman and Batman might be, they would be more engaging with more fully rounded personalities behind them, Lee (or as he would no doubt prefer to be called, Stan) took a very different tack in writing characters.

Stan was one of the creative forces behind Timely Comics, later renamed Marvel. I suspect that many Engineer readers will not know how comics are created. These days, a writer generally produces a script for an artist that looks very much like the script for a film or TV series, even down to stipulating the “camera angle” from which a scene is viewed. This will generally describe the layout of panels on a page and detail everything that appears in them. But at his peak in the 1950s and 60s, Stan was working on so many titles that he couldn’t possibly do that. Instead, he would supply the artists with an outline of the plot and let them decide how it would appear in the available pages of each issue. The completed pages would then be returned for him to provide dialogue for the characters.

This means that Stan’s biggest contribution was usually the characters themselves, also created in collaboration with artists. His first comics for Marvel featured the Fantastic Four, created with Jack Kirby (who had previously created Captain America in collaboration with another writer, Joe Simon). The Fantastic Four were explorers led by all-around scientific genius Reed Richards, a rocket scientist who also dabbled in particle physics and chemistry as plot required.

This was followed by Spider-Man (with Steve Ditko), whose alter ego, Peter Parker, was a schoolboy chemist. Other characters from Stan’s writing desk included the Incredible Hulk (another Kirby co-creation), who when not green, strong and stupid was nuclear scientist Bruce Banner; Iron Man (with Kirby among others), otherwise engineer Tony Stark; Ant Man (Kirby again) and his alter ego, particle physicist Hank Pym; and the X-Men (yet again, with Kirby) who were led by scientist Charles Xavier.

We on The Engineer and our readers have often bemoaned the lack of STEM role models in popular culture, but Stan was creating such role models 70 years ago

One notable thing about all of these characters was that they were unapologetically enthusiastic about their interest in science and technology; these were not pitiable nerds, but clever people who make their living pursuing their interests. They had character quirks and were not always admirable: Banner and Richards could be obsessive, Stark was self-centred, and Pym displayed alarming hubris, but these were relatable flaws and Stan and his collaborators sprung stories from them. In short, they were the sort of relatable fictional role models that we so often say STEM needs. Aimed at a slightly older audience than previous comics, Marvel titles caught their readers at the impressionable age of their early teens (again accidental, Stan just reasoned that they had more pocket money to spend on comics) and while their enthusiastic readers might have first been attracted to their science lessons because they thought they themselves might acquire supernatural powers, many of them became enthused by their studies and went on to careers in science and engineering.

Oddly, we don’t know why so many of Stan’s characters were engineers and scientists. I asked friends at Marvel comics if they knew of any time he’d spoken about it, but they couldn’t find any reference. Speculation has ranged from his wartime service in the U.S. Army Signals Regiment, where he certainly would have come into contact with many STEM practitioners, to a simple liking for superhero origin stories involving science gone wrong (another Stan and Jack innovation; previous superheroes were either born with their abilities, like Superman, or were rich enough to effectively buy them, like Batman).

Like his characters, Stan was not perfect. Many of his collaborators (most notably Kirby and Ditko) felt that they had been deprived of proper credit for their co-creations, and legal disputes continue to this day, especially since the characters have become the wellspring of hugely profitable blockbuster films.

But Stan deserves credit for realising that representation matters: as the saying goes, if you can’t see it, you can’t become it. We on The Engineer and our readers have often bemoaned the lack of STEM role models in popular culture, but Stan was creating such role models 70 years ago. And this recognition of the importance of representation was no accident. Realising in the 1960s that all of the Marvel cast were white and that this was not acceptable, Lee and Kirby created the African superhero Black Panther (incidentally, with another relatable scientist character, the young female gadget-inventor Shuri, although she was created by a different writer/artist team) whose inspirational power as a role-model was underlined by last year’s successful film, in which Shuri even becomes a STEM ambassador to inner-city children. It’s notable that the Science Museum chose Black Panther to show as part of its programme to mark Black History Month earlier this year and that the British actor who played Shuri, Letitia Wright, has herself taken part in STEM events.

In recent years, the comics industry has become the target of right-wing campaigners who feel that they have become too “politically correct” and not “escapist” enough. Stan never had any truck with this argument, even using a regular soap box column in his comics to point out that his heroes stood for the downtrodden and disadvantaged in society and that bigotry of any sort was antithetical. With great power, he famously argued, comes great responsibility, and Stan’s characters (which were also Jack and Steve’s characters) always used their powers – whether supernatural, technological or intellectual – to benefit humanity. A fitting message for the thousands if not millions of scientists and engineers he helped inspire.

It would be to remiss not to mention that Stan was also a great salesman, and his greatest product was in many ways himself – a brash catchphrase-spouting character he created as a kind of fairground barker to promote his products. One legacy of that was his ever present cameos in the recent Marvel films, in which he revelled in bringing his characters and the messages inspired to new and wider audiences. One of his most frequent catchphrases was “Excelsior!” – the motto of his native New York state, and the Latin for ever upwards. It’s also a fitting epitaph. As we say of the recently deceased in our shared secular Jewish faith, his memory is already a blessing. Excelsior, Stan, and thank you.