‘Excelsior!’ (Higher!) The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee’s Dream of a New Kind of Christian Comics

‘What If …’ Stan Lee had created a new Christian realm for comics?

Host of the Day1 radio network


Every time I hear Stan Lee’s famous battle cry, which in Latin means ‘Higher!’ I wonder: “What If …?” Long-time Marvel fans will recognize that as a classic comics series from the 1970s in which Stan Lee invited fans to dream of what might have been: Like the inaugural issue, What If … Spider-man Joined Fantastic Four?

I wonder: What If … Stan Lee had launched his line of Christian comics?

Outlandish? No! In fact, I had the honor of collaborating with Stan on plans for the series. The project never reached the stage of mock-up drawings for reasons I will explain. And, if you’ve never heard this story, that’s not surprising. Most of what is known about Stan Lee’s religious sensibility is that he believed in a benevolent God, was ambivalent about his own Jewish upbringing but had drawn many of his own core assumptions from religious realms. His all-too-brief foray into Christian comics is not mentioned in any of the main biographies of the man.

But I think it speaks volumes about the way Stan Lee saw the world—and the way so many people grapple with the deepest questions of faith and meaning.

So, let’s start with the most basic spiritual questions: Why are we here? How shall we live in this turbulent world? And, in the end: What matters? They sound so simple, yet they’re so hard to answer in real life.

When M. Scott Peck tried to answer those question in his now famous The Road Less Traveled, he started with three words: “Life is difficult.”

Mel Brooks needed only two: “Life sucks.”

And therein lies a realm shared by religion and popular culture these days. When I was younger, I would have described it as “a realm shared by religion and comic books”—but now comic books have expanded to dominate our popular culture from TV series to the world’s most popular movies and cultural icons.

I’m proud to say: I saw all that coming years ago. You see—I’m a comics geek, a Marvel Zombie, as the Marvel Comics cover recreations by my friend Lyle Tucker that hang in my Day1 office attest.

If this idea is new to you, let me quickly recap.

Think about Superman, who came from beyond with the power to save humanity, and whose early comic-strip adventures stressed overcoming the oppression of the weak with righteous justice.

Or consider the Amazing Spider-Man, whose powerful motto is, “With great power there must also come—great responsibility!” That line appeared in his very first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15. It was a virtual paraphrase of Luke 12:48, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

From Amazing Fantasy No. 15.

From Warlock to Thor, from Galactus to the Silver Surfer, examples of religious themes and characters in comic books are unlimited.

While thinking about all this, I ran across a fascinating bit of dialogue by Stan Lee in Captain America No. 101, pages 17 and 18, as Cap and his arch nemesis, the Red Skull, battled in typically rambunctious Jack Kirby panels:

Cap: “Not even the Sleeper will save you from paying for the crimes you’ve committed against humanity!”
Skull: “Humanity—bah! Men were all born to be slaves! They’re not worth your idiotic concern! Why should you care for them when they don’t even care for each other? Look around you! The world is consumed by greed, crime, and bigotry! Men are no more than animals, unworthy to—unhh!!”
Cap: “Tyrants have always scorned their fellow humans! But still the race endures—while the despots fall! And those who would grind us underfoot—can never hope to keep us from reaching our eventual destiny!”
Skull: “Can’t you see?? You’re an anachronism! You belong in the dead past!! The world—has no more use—for idealism—!”
Cap: “It’s you who are wrong!! The only true reality lies in faith—and in hope! The world is still young—the future lies ahead— It’s you who have outgrown the dream— You who are blind to the promise of tomorrow!!”

A few issues later, in Captain America No. 105, our flag-waving hero becomes an even more explicit evangelist as he battles Batroc (a French villain, as if you can’t tell from his dialog!) while a deadly bomb ticks away (page 20):

Cap: “Now out of my way, mister! I’m gonna try to reach it… and de-fuse it… or die trying!”
Batroc: “Die! Zat is a most unpleasant word! And, if you fail… even Batroc will be among zee victims! Zee bomb is yours, mon ami! My so-great speed will take me to safety… while you stupidly risk your life for zee undeserving masses!”
Cap: “There was another who gave his life for the masses… many centuries ago… And though he was the wisest one of all… he never thought of the humblest living being… as undeserving!”

Clearly, bad guys generally have a hopeless opinion of humanity and are out only to save their own butts—and maybe make loads of money and oppress some people in the process. Captain America, on the other hand, embodies the religious ideal of truth, justice, self-sacrifice, altruism, and hope.

‘Maybe the Red Skull was right after all?’

Unfortunately, Captain America’s brand of righteous optimism has virtually disappeared in today’s comic books, which frequently feature anti-heroes whose moral code consists only of self-protection and greed, let alone violence. So maybe the Red Skull was right after all?

This absence of altruism in comic books troubled The Man himself, Stan Lee, during the heyday of his ill-fated internet venture, Stan Lee Media (SLM). Sure, some of the work he did the last decade or so of his life may have veered a bit from this righteous ideal at times (I’m looking at you, Stripperella!). But in the spring of 2000, I heard through the internet grapevine that he was thinking about launching a line of, believe it or not, “Christian comics.” So I contacted SLM to see if I could help, sending my resume and a copy of a devotional book I’d written, with a cover letter explaining clearly, unequivocally, and of course humbly why I should be the one to help them out with this unusual project.

More than just waving a ‘Jesus Flag’

To my utter astonishment, I soon got a phone call from Stan’s then-Vice President for Creative Affairs, Tony Pastor (who was frequently heard as a voice on animated TV series and the son of a popular Big Band leader)! Tony explained that Stan—despite his being a self-proclaimed non-practicing Jew—had a long-held dream of creating a “Christian comics line” populated by heroes possessing strong moral codes and perhaps even a supernatural connection with God. He said they weren’t interested in “raising the Jesus flag,” but didn’t want a secular approach either—they hoped to employ some sort of middle ground approach, not unlike the “Touched by an Angel” television series. They had a distributor lined up and the series would be “widely marketed.”

Naturally, I was jazzed! The opportunity to work with Stan Lee on a comics series that reflected my own beliefs? Unbelievable! It was a dream come true.

The new line would be founded upon one character Stan created, a super-powered angel named Gabriel. He’d written a plot for the first story that Tony sent to me for my thoughts. Since this character was Stan’s property, I can’t go into details, but a whole line of comic books would eventually spring forth. I sent back a four-page review with comments regarding this supernatural character and the page-and-a-half plot Stan had written, as well as some questions to discuss and possibilities to explore for the expanded line.

Tony called back soon after to tell me that he and Stan were blown away and wanted further ideas regarding SLM’s Christian comics line. So, of course, I did, sending a several-page proposal. Summarizing the discussion Tony and I had had, I wrote, “Our goal is to develop a line of comics products promoting positive values, personal faith, biblical truths, and strong morals through compelling characters.”

I explained that—at least so far in the comics industry—there were secular comics and there were “Christian comics.” The former dealt with life without a foundation of faith and, in order to avoid offending anybody, secular comics had pretty much ignored God. On the other hand, most so-called “Christian comics” tended to be so narrowly focused that they ended up preaching only to the choir, so no matter how good they were, the majority of young people wouldn’t give them a second glance.

“It makes sense for SLM to lay claim to a middle ground—creating and producing adventures based on a biblical worldview without preaching a chapter-and-verse theology,” I wrote. “This approach would promote belief in God, the example of Christ’s life, the reality of supernatural conflict, strong moral values, and an altruistic lifestyle. Our stories would be fully compatible with the Bible and religious tradition, but without painting ourselves into a corner theologically. The goal of this approach—a goal that’s urgently needed today—is to open young minds to the reality of God, to build a strong case for faith and morality by example, without being preachy or dogmatic. It can help launch youth of all ages on a quest for truth and a personal relationship with God.”

I suggested that this “middle ground” be wide open, so that the products could be used by a range of religious denominations and faiths, from conservative to mainline. I added, “Perhaps Stan himself has already provided the impetus behind this product line with his famous battle cry, ‘Excelsior!’”

My proposal concluded: “Stan Lee’s comics and characters actually played a major role in helping me form my own morality and values. It’s time to return to that approach—yet with characters and stories that appeal to the sensibilities and interests of today’s youth.”

Of course I had loads of questions about how it would all actually work, and unfortunately this project frequently went to the back burner of SLM’s various activities at the time. But Tony would call every month or so through that summer, assuring me that Stan “adored” my proposal and thought I was the guy to make this happen.

The next step was a conference call with The Man himself. In the meantime, Tony wanted more thoughts on distribution, which I provided in a follow-up memo. I wrote, “It’s vital that we pitch this as Stan Lee’s baby. To tell his story of concern about the lack of appropriate role models in youth-oriented entertainment. To share his dream of creating compelling, entertaining comics for children and young people, based on a foundation of faith in God, biblical truth, positive morality, and supernatural reality.”

Before long we had that conference call—and there I was on the phone with my hero, Stan Lee, to talk about everything. He was just about ready to go for it!

And then, crickets.

The last contact I had with Tony Pastor was in November 2000. If you are a true Marvel fan, you can hear the ominous music rising with the mention of that particular month. By December 2000, SLM had imploded in the larger dot-com bust that claimed so many internet enterprises at the same time. My dreams of working for Stan Lee died with SLM’s tragic demise.

In a December 2000 email to me, just after SLM collapsed, Stan wrote that he hoped to restructure his company and bounce back again in the next few months, adding that this “Christian comics” project is “dear to my heart.”

Alas, it never happened. But one nice outcome of all this was the opportunity to correspond regularly with Stan for many years afterwards, up until he passed away a few years ago. Anytime I dropped him an email, he would respond almost immediately with positive encouragement.

Stan also invited me to come visit him at his new film and television production company, POW! Entertainment, the next time I was in Hollywood—and, while attending a religious media conference there in January 2005, I gladly took him up on that offer, and enjoyed our brief time together immensely. (See the photo below.)

Can you imagine how my 10-year-old self would have felt if someone had told me that that would ever happen?

Care to read more?

DISCOVER THE INSPIRATION OF DAY1: Day 1 with host Peter Wallace is the voice of the historic Protestant denominations. Through sermons, blogs, and video & audio resources, Day 1 proclaims God’s hope for a hurting and divided world. Formerly “The Protestant Hour.”

ENJOY PETER’S NEW BOOK—A GENEROUS RECKONING: Come back soon for David Crumm’s interview with Peter Wallace about his new book of daily inspirational reading, A Generous Beckoning. That is scheduled as an upcoming Read the Spirit Cover Story, so please stay tuned if you already are signed up for our weekly email updates about new stories. If you’re not getting our free email reminders, please click on the link in the top right of our website. Meanwhile, you can go to Amazon right now and get your own copy of this new book that’s terrific for reading during Lent—or anytime throughout the year. (And, for comic book fans? There are several meditations in the new book that mention the history of comics.)

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  1. Pierre Comtois says

    Great story, Peter! I agree with you about the sad state of today’s comics. We really need new comics that inspire such as those you almost produced with Stan. Like you, I think a big part of my own upbringing was inspired by the Marvel Comics of the silver age but in my opinion, those silver age Marvels, as pinpointed by you with those quotes, overall, WERE Christian comics! All you and Stan needed to do was duplicate that style with just a tad more emphosis and you would have had your framework for Christian comics!

  2. Chris Bishop says

    Amazing… I wish there were more to know about this. I’d dearly love to know what all Mr. Lee wanted to do. Christian comics as a whole fascinate me. I don’t think that the whole medium should be Christian, or even that those that have tried so far worked very well, but I love that people keep trying. It’s an amazing challenge to make modern faith fit in with classic comic concepts, but it can be done! I’m waiting for someone to get it right, and I really would have loved to have seen The Man’s attempt.