Leonard Pitts Jr. in his home office, the walls of which are graced by three classic Marvel Comics covers, as reimagined by painter Alex Ross. Submitted by Leonard Pitts Jr.

Comic books. Whether you deride them as childlike “funny books” or laud them as sophisticated “graphic novels,” there’s no denying the art form’s impact on American culture, and the moneymaking machine they’ve become. Just ask Disney.

I got into them — particularly Marvel Comics’ Hulk and Spider-Man titles — at age 4, in 1983. They helped me learn to read, and influenced my interests in drawing, writing, and even musical composition.

Through the older Marvels of the ’60s and early ’70s, penned by author-editor Stan “The Man” Lee, I learned much about the culture of that day, albeit through four-colored glasses. The Civil Rights movement, hippies, the lingo, even a little about the Vietnam War. Oftentimes, the plight of the shy underdog bookworm (like myself) in the face of the bully, the superhero who wrestles with as many personal problems as he/she does with supervillains.

Lee’s comics offered a community to which people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures felt they belonged. Lee was the leader of this mini-universe, a pop culture priest-professor delivering sermons to a global classroom through his stories and monthly column, “Stan’s Soapbox.” Even reading those stories 20 years after their original publication, I felt a part of that community.

So did, it turns out, renowned syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.

Pitts on March 24 was guest speaker in my company’s regular “Newsroom Live” online series. When asked about authors he’d most wanted to emulate growing up, first on Pitts’ list was none other than Stan ‘The Man.”

Pitts, like Lee, is a writer with an audience of millions. His soapbox has many forms: his award-winning syndicated column, which I enjoy regularly when organizing the Sun Journal’s Opinion page; his books; his lectures — all means through which he shines a critical light on what’s wrong in this world, and champions what’s right.

Hearing that Pitts, like myself, identifies as a “Marvel Zombie,” my journalistic and comic book worlds collided, and I was moved to reach out to him and learn what it is about Marvel, and Lee, that inspire him.

“Superman was your dad. And Spider-Man was you.”

All characters have their origin story; Pitts’, with Marvel, started at age 10 in 1967, when his older cousin gave him a tall stack of comics. Pitts’ favorite among those was Amazing Spider-Man #44, the title of which he readily remembers: “Where Crawls the Lizard.”

“I was immediately hooked, and just fell in love,” Pitts remembered. “Plus frankly, as a bookish, nerdy kid, it allowed me to find my community. When I got into middle school, there were a bunch of us outcast kids for whom comics were sort of the bonding experience. We’d get together and talk about comics.”

What drew Pitts to Marvel, versus rival company DC Comics, publisher of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman?

“In the 1960s, if you were reading Superman, you might as well walk around with a big ‘L’ on your forehead,” Pitts said, laughing. “… They’re much closer in quality now, but back then there was no contest. Marvel was just where things were happening. Marvel was exciting, it was new. All these characters with all these human foibles and flaws, problems that you could relate to as a human being.”

“Superman was your dad. And Spider-Man was you.”

It’s clear after reading a few Pitts-penned paragraphs that he’s a well-read writer. And of all the characters in American literature he could choose as his favorite, that which ranks highest is Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker, as produced by Lee and artists/co-plotters Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr.

Pitts felt he was Parker, “this nerdy guy … who, when he put on the costume, basically got a personality transplant; becomes somebody else entirely.”

Pitts meanwhile recalls Lee as “a writer who was having a lot of fun with language; that was the first thing that jumped out at me.”

Lee’s colorful and alliterative wordplay was exciting. His works, along with those of Dr. Seuss and Beverly Cleary, were a far cry from the cloyingly simplistic “Dick and Jane” primers.

“God, that was deadly,” Pitts said. “‘See Dick run,’ ‘run, Dick, run.’ … This is what you learned to read from, and there was absolutely no joy in that. So to come across a writer that was having fun with the language, or having fun telling the story, was an eye opener.”

Lee “is on this roller coaster ride, and he’s taking you with him, and he’s complimenting you along the way for your good taste … in having chosen Marvel Comics.”

“You didn’t go to comics expecting to get a sermon on being human.”

While Marvel stories of early ’60s were geared toward younger readers, as the decade progressed and those readers matured, so did the stories. Lee advocated the Civil Rights movement in tales like the “Sons of the Serpent” two-parter, in which the Avengers tackle a hate group, and he co-created two of comics’ first Black superheroes: the Black Panther and the Falcon. Joe Robertson was second-in-command at the Daily Bugle and a father figure to Peter Parker.

“That was kind of a big deal,” Pitts said, noting that writing those characters into books with mostly white characters “took some doing.”

“Let’s lay it right on the line,” Lee wrote in a 1968 Soapbox. “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.”

“You didn’t go to comics expecting to get a sermon on being human,” Pitts said. Lee “did that in the stories, and he did that in the Soapbox. And I thought it was very powerful.”

But Pitts admits that such messages had only “some subliminal impact” on him at the time, as a youth of color.

“I really wish I’d been more of an aware kid during the ’60s, because so much was happening over my head, but I wasn’t paying attention to it,” he said. He has a better memory of a 1969 story of the Fantastic Four aiding the moon landing that year than he does the actual landing itself.

Pitts recalled the King Family, who he called “the most white-bread singers you ever heard,” and who “made Lawrence Welk sound like James Brown.” The Kings had their own variety TV show, which Pitts had to watch along with his family, to his chagrin.

When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Pitts’ parents were distraught. Being more aware of the Kings than of King, 11-year-old Pitts thought one of the singers had died, and couldn’t understand the emotional outpouring. “My parents were furious with me,” he said.

Needless to say, Pitts’ social awareness grew by leaps and bounds in the years that followed. The Silver Surfer and Adam Warlock, Jesus-like characters who railed against a suspicious, conflict-ridden humankind, and Captain America’s disillusionment amid the Watergate scandal, resonated with Pitts.

He embraced the ’70s and ’80s X-Men stories by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, in which the team of mutants was feared and hated by humanity simply for being different. Not a far cry from the prejudice and violence endured by Black Americans.

“If we could just get beyond the fear”

The Black Panther took on greater significance in recent years in blockbuster Marvel Studios movies, and Chadwick Boseman was critically acclaimed for his portrayal of the Wakandan chieftain-superhero. Boseman’s untimely death last year from colon cancer sent ripples through the film and comic industries alike, and “Wakanda Forever” became a symbol of pride in a powerful and respectable character.

Boseman “put such a stamp on that character, and that movie is iconic at this point,” Pitts said. “He was T’Challa. He was the Black Panther.”

Pitts recalled photos parents posted to social media of their children holding funerals, with their toys of other superheroes surrounding that of their fallen friend.

“That was heartbreaking,” he said. “It was extremely unfortunate, extremely painful — for me as an adult, and I think doubly so for the kids, especially for the Black kids, for whom this guy had become such a powerful symbol of potentiality — of what they themselves could be.”

Lee — who Pitts credits being one of his earliest moral teachers along with his mother, Jesus and Martin Luther King — often referred to the divine potential of humanity, Pitts noted.

“This whole idea of humanity as being better than what we show ourselves to be was, I think, Stan’s animating credo in a lot of those books,” Pitts said. “This idea that humanity has this germ of something truly wonderful, truly divine … that keeps getting shunted aside by our greed, our racism, our misogyny, our fear.”

“That was a very powerful message for me,” Pitts said. “I still carry that to this day, this idea that we can be pretty darn good, we can be pretty darn spiffy, if we can just get over ourselves and get over these weaknesses of human character.

“I think the good in us could so outweigh the bad in us if we could just get beyond the fear; that’s what Stan taught me, and that’s what I still believe.”

Alex Lear has been a comic book fan for 38 years, a journalist for 22, and a Marvel freelancer for 13. He thinks it’s great when such worlds collide.

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