“Then he told them many things in parables…” – Matthew 13:3a
“When there’s an authentic mystery, as opposed to just a question being asked, that’s what makes you lean forward.” – J.J. Abrams
Part 4 – What Are You Trying To Do?
Roddenberry stands in a long line of science-fiction and fantasy storytellers who, by housing their message in a less familiar and often future-oriented environment, are trying to confront how unreasonably comfortable we become with how things are and where they seemed to be heading. Using everything from Earth-dwelling superheroes to space cowboys, these writers remind us of our potential as they prophetically paint a picture of what could be. In many ways, it is only one step removed from what Jesus was trying to do as he told parables.
Unlike sci-fi and fantasy tales, Jesus’ stories were set in familiar surroundings, helping the listener identify with the characters. Over time, some storytellers have expanded the environment in which these types of tales are told. However, the ones who hope to effect change have held onto one very important element: creating characters with which people can identify. When it comes to creating relatable characters, one of my favorite writers is Stan Lee, the father of modern comics.
At age forty, he was riddled with all the concerns of many middle-aged men. He had worked most of his life in the same job. Unlike most forty-year-old men, his employer happened to be a comic book publisher. He was bored at work and wanted something else for his life. It no longer felt like it was what he wanted to do because of the limitations his employer put on him. In many ways, his life was full of the mundane problems of many of the characters he would later create. Before he quit his job his wife told him he should write the book he wanted to write. After all, what would his employer do, fire him?
So, he wrote the comic he wanted to write – one aimed at a more literate audience with more complex storylines and characters. Fantastic Four #1 hit the stands on August 8, 1961, and changed the face of modern comics. The new way he handled the storyline and characters made them more relatable, which was very important considering what he wanted to do with his comics. You might think superheroes are just about as far removed from being relatable as one could imagine, but in the way Stan Lee had started writing them, they are not.
Our ability to relate well to many of his characters begins with the kind of names he gave them. As The Big Bang Theory’s Raj Koothrappali pointed out in an episode entitled “The Excelsior Acquisition,” Stan Lee frequently used alliteration in naming his characters. In interviews, he says it is simply because of his bad memory and the mnemonic device made it easier for him to remember character names while he was writing multiple stories over the same period of time. It seems to me the names actually play a larger role.
Intentional or not, in much the same way it helped him remember, the alliteration of many of his character’s names also make the characters more immediately identifiable to the reader. From Peter Parker (Spiderman) to the editor-in-chief where he worked, J. Jonah Jameson, Jr., Stan Lee created a long list of characters with whom we can identify. It is important that he did because part of what he wanted to do with the characters was teach us something his father taught him: “The most important thing is to do the right thing.” Of course, their names alone are not enough.
Stan Lee helps us relate to the characters and helps us lean in to the stories by showing us the person behind the mask, showing us that the heroes are vulnerable in a very relatable way, creating superheroes with human flaws and mundane problems. From a web-slinging superhero with the everyday struggles of most high schoolers to the heroic yet overly self-absorbed, alcoholic Iron Man, his characters reflect just enough humanity to keep us connected while staying safely enough removed to teach us moral lessons without feeling we are being bashed over the head with them.
Some of our overly enthusiastic Christian friends probably need to learn to take advantage of this kind of subtly and vulnerability, and do a little less bashing. It might just help people relate better to their message and be more willing to lean in and listen.
It’s important to understand, this doesn’t mean we should weaken the lesson we are trying to teach. Stan Lee didn’t back away from making moral lessons clear. As was said of him when he accepted his National Medal of Art & Humanities from then President George Bush, the stories in his comics “celebrate courage, honesty and the importance of helping the less fortune…”. So, when Uncle Ben tells young Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility,” if you are familiar with the New Testament, it is very much might remind you of Luke 12:48, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” It is a clear moral lesson set within the craft of storytelling where the lives in the stories can serve as a metaphor for our own lives; we can hear the words of a concerned uncle coaching his adopted son and, rather than be offended by the preachiness of it, we can hear the truth in it.
In the way Stan Lee makes his characters so human and so relatable and then uses them to teach morals, he teaches us that each of us can be a hero even in the midst of our human frailties. In many ways, Jesus tried to teach us the same thing when he said, “no greater love has anyone than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.”
In his own words, Stan Lee wanted to teach us “if you treat other people the way you want to be treated, then there can’t be anything bad in the world.” Roddenberry wanted to show us a vision of a better world where we didn’t use race, sex, nationality and any number of other things to treat some people as if they had less value. Dr. King wanted us to learn to love one another and to live into our nation’s creed that all people are created equal. They each knew what it was they wanted to do, knew their message could be difficult to hear for some people and understood the value of metaphor in inviting others to join in their prophetic visions of what the world can and should be.