A love letter to Stan Lee from Omari Newton

A love letter to Stan Lee from Omari Newton

"Let's lay it right on the line. Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. 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 evils they really are."
Stan Lee, 1968

The death of comic book legend Stan Lee has hit me pretty hard – mostly because I wouldn’t be who I am today without comic books in general, and Marvel Comics in particular.

Marvel Comics always felt guided by a sense of social justice reflective of the ideals held by Lee, one of their key creatives. The quote above – from 1968 – is a telling example of Lee’s progressive leanings, and might explain why his stories and characters resonated with a Black kid in the Montreal suburbs as much as they did.

Initially, I viewed comic books as a niche hobby enjoyed mainly by socially awkward Caucasians. I rarely saw other Black kids at my local comic shop, so I mostly kept my hobby on the down low.

 Stan Lee, pictured in 1988.

Stan Lee, pictured in 1988.

As I got older, I learned that a lot of Black people love comic books, particularly Marvel comics. From hip hop artists like the Wu-Tang Clan (whose nicknames were based on Marvel characters), to pro athletes who gave themselves monikers like Megatron and Spider-Man, and the millions of Black people who came out in droves, repeatedly, to make the Black Panther movie a box office smash: Black love for Marvel runs deep. While I can’t speak to anyone else’s reasons, I remember where my love for Marvel started pretty clearly.

As a Black kid growing up in Montreal, I often felt like a mutant.  Not only did I look different from most of my classmates, but I was just kind of a weirdo – a hyperactive kid with so much energy that I never stopped moving. I would bounce around on the balls of my feet rather than walk like non-Mutants did. In chairs, I’d rock myself back and forth, unable to sit still and focus for long periods. My hyperactivity was so extreme that a teacher suggested I be sedated with what must have been some early form of Ritalin.

I wore massive Steve Urkel glasses to compensate for my eyesight that was already failing in the second grade – and I was also born with polyps on my vocal chords that made me talk with an unnaturally deep, raspy voice that earned me the following nickname: Hoarse Mouth.

Needless to say, all of these traits didn’t make me the most popular kid in school. I was teased and bullied. A lot. And as a result, I was an emotional, shy, and socially awkward kid. Unable to fit in with anybody other than my beloved sisters, I withdrew into the welcoming world of cartoons, fantasy (Dungeons and Dragons!), and – most whole-heartedly – comic books.

Comic books were populated by characters who spoke to me. I empathized with characters like Bruce Banner and Peter Parker, nerdy weirdoes and social outcasts who, due to a twist of fate, were given the responsibility of extraordinary power. They weren’t cool, confident badasses; they were weirdoes and nerds who weren’t entirely sure how to deal with their newfound abilities. 

These were heroes reluctantly pushed towards duty because of the injustices around them – characters like T'Challa, an African king of high intellect and moral fibre who moonlighted as a super-powered being honour bound to serve his people first.

What always hooked me about Marvel’s heroes wasn’t so much their powers, as cool as they were, but the real people inside the masks and costumes – and I yearned to join them. I wanted to be a superhero, too.

While my status at the bottom of the elementary school social ladder made for a rough early childhood, it was a perfect superhero origin story. Having superpowers would be the answer to all of my young problems! Like a Black Peter Parker, I’d go from nerd to infamous hero who protected the city and earned the respect of his peers, almost overnight.

The only problem was, even as a kid, I knew the odds of getting bitten by a radioactive spider were pretty slim. First off, I was scared of spiders, and avoided them at all costs, so that option was out. A gamma ray accident at a top secret military facility seemed equally unlikely, given my lack of being in the military and my not knowing what a gamma ray was or where to find them… My superhero dreams would have been dashed before they started – were it not for the X-Men.

Like Black people, the X-Men were clearly born different. A genetic mutation made them freaks in the eyes of society, but enabled them to perform amazing feats. This was my ticket; I just needed my mutant superpowers to manifest themselves, because everything else was in place: I had the origin story, the bullies, even a cool superhero name (Hoarse Mouth). So I secretly prayed for my powers and waited, devouring comic books as research so I’d be ready when my abilities finally showed up. And then, amazingly, one day in the third grade, my superpowers manifested.

It was recess and I was heading outside to hang with my sisters and not say much to anyone else (the latter being my tactic to avoid being bullied) – but then, inexplicably, a kid from my class invited me to play football.

I’d never played sports before, but I always felt more comfortable running than walking because of the weird toe-walking-bounce thing that resulted in a weird, shuffle-bouncy-walking motion that I still have to this day.

I was shy and really nervous, but having a kid invite me to do anything was a big deal and I didn’t want to mess it up, so I accepted his invitation.

I got out on that football field and had no clue what to do – but at some point, someone handed me the ball and told me which direction to go, and running as fast as I could was an instinctual response.

What I did not for the life of me anticipate was I was able to run exponentially faster than everyone else on the field.

Now, I know this sounds stereotypical, and kind of ridiculous: a Black guy who could run really fast, but it’s true. I was fast: fast in a way that nobody could lay a finger on me, let alone tackle me.

I was also pretty coordinated and discovered that I could jump unusually high – much higher than most of my classmates (I’m guessing thanks to years of walking on the balls of my feet). The combination of these things enabled me to excel at almost every sport I tried, pretty quickly.

I’d found my superpowers: speed and agility. Being good at sports transformed me from the shy nerdy guy with the weird-ass voice who walked on his toes, to the popular star athlete. It unlocked popularity for the first time in my life.

Sports went on to be a major part of my life for the rest of my youth. My unlocked superpower enabled me to be a starting corner back on a provincial winning football team, win a bronze medal in the 200-metre sprint at a provincial track meet, and compete as a starting player on the number one ranked high school basketball team in Montreal. My social life took a dramatic turn in a few short years, going from bullied nerd to popular jock – and unlike most stereotypical jocks, I made a point to be gracious and humble towards everybody. 

 Stan Lee at the Captain America: Civil War premiere.

Stan Lee at the Captain America: Civil War premiere.

I learned this from Professor Xavier, leader of the X-Men. The character had been created in 1963, in the midst of America’s civil rights movement, and is said to have been inspired by Dr Martin Luther King. Professor X taught his students to practice hard and carry themselves with humility and integrity, and I followed his lead. I vowed to use any status or power gained from my “superpowers” to advocate for others, and in my senior year of high school, when I left the pitch for the stage and screen, I took those lessons with me as a performer.

Comic books are mainstream now, something I never could have imagined as a nerdy kid. Despite their popularity, Stan Lee and Marvel Comics will always be so much more than mainstream escapism to me. They have a place in my heart as a captivating refuge from the harsh realities of my rough early childhood. I’ll always see them as one of my first manuals on proper ethics and morality.  

I, like so many kids of all races and religions, am lucky to have found Marvel Comics when I did.  We’re all lucky that their creator used his modern mythology to teach kids valuable lessons about acceptance, tolerance, and the value of speaking truth to power and that as the ambassador of the Marvel Empire, he was a kind a gregarious figurehead.

Rest in power, Uncle Stan. Excelsior!

Editor’s note: Omari Newton has voiced the character of the Black Panther for multiple Marvel animated projects. He wrote about his experience as a member of what he called “the Black Panther fraternity” for YVR Screen Scene. –SF

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Omari Newton is a creative force who has made a mark in multiple cities across Canada: in Montreal, where at 19-years-old he won accolades for his performance in Athol Fugard’s ‘My Children! My Africa!’ with Black Theatre Workshop, Canada’s oldest Black theatre company; in Ottawa, where his play ‘Sal Capone’ will run in the second half of the National Arts Centre’s 2017-2018 season; and in Vancouver, where he’s straddled the screen and theatre worlds as an in-demand actor (‘Continuum’), producer (‘The Shipment’), playwright (‘Sal Capone’), and teacher. Social justice issues are important to Omari – he writes about them on his Facebook page, Visible Minority Report – and are central to his work in the arts. Omari writes about social justice issues – and how they intersect with the entertainment industry – for YVR Screen Scene.

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