Monday, November 12, 2018

Stan Lee (1922 - 2018)

This is my enduring image of Stan, and from
the time when I was most enamored of him.

What the hell do you even say? Where do you even start? Ninety-five years. A long life—a charmed, stone-cold lucky, twice over, fairy tale roller coaster of a life—a living reward for a body of creative work that is worth billions today. He died knowing he was beloved, lionized, and canonized the world over. We should all be so lucky.

Stan Lee’s career spans the whole of the comic book industry from its modest origins to the mega-billion dollar Marvel franchise he helped to create. I can’t parse this. It feels like the end of something. Earlier this year when Steve Ditko passed, I knew that there was one shoe left to drop. It doesn’t seem fair to this Spider-Man fan to have to mourn both of his creators in the same year. But Stan Lee was not just Spider-Man’s creator, although if that were all he ever did, it would certainly be enough. Stan was an architect of Cool, the self-styled "Homor of the Comics," the kind of creator that contained multitudes. There's a lot to unpack. Please be patient with me.

They do NOT make 'em like this anymore.
The years that make up the Silver Age of Comics was a rare and wondrous zeitgeist in America, a kind of perfect storm of societal tensions and self-imposed idyllic propaganda. We were locked in a fight against the evils of Communism, in a time of mythic middle-class prosperity, with so much civic and social unrest, and an emerging media in the form of television which brought all of this into our living rooms and also to a head in 1968 as the horrors of Viet Nam became conversational fodder on the evening news. Everyone was nice, and everyone was also very ugly. It was the Mad Men era, the Age of Camelot, Route 66, The Beat Generation, and the Cold War. And it was also the birth of Marvel Comics.

I know, DC kicked off the Silver Age with the re-invigoration of The Flash. It gets the credit. But Marvel changed the game. Timely/Atlas went from producing sci-fi monster comics and westerns to creating some of the most iconic and unique characters in contemporary fiction. Marvel comics were not like other comic books. They had a tone, a style, and an outlook that was singular to them. There was no way that DC could replicate it, though they have surely tried over the years. And while DC’s comics took place in different parallel universes—and let’s be up front about why this was so; they owned the intellectual properties of several publishers that they put out of business, and so, these worlds were essentially the dead husks of former publishing rivals—Marvel comics all took place in the same place: New York City. The cultural center of America, it was large enough that there was a vast canvas to tell each hero’s story, and also small enough that it wouldn’t stretch credulity to have Doctor Strange run into the Fantastic Four if the story called for it. It was a shared world before anyone knew to call it that. Characters gleefully crossed over into each other’s books and back again with alacrity and abandon. And sales. Because, you know, that was Stan’s focus for many years.

He wasn’t just a creator; initially, he kept his budding super hero comics publishing operation going by force of will, by the strength of his infectious personality. No one would ever say that Stan wasn’t a born salesman, the kind that could sell ice to Innuits. Back in the beginning of it all, it was surely necessary. As soon as he could hire more help, he did, and there is this period of perfervid creativity from roughly 1960 to 1966 where Stan and his teams of artists weren’t just coming up with characters and comic book series—because that’s enough work, in and of itself—but Stan was supervising stories, writing dialogue for multiple books, guiding plotlines, and coming up with characters, ideas, and concepts for multiple comics, every month, for years, in addition to all of the business duties and all of the sales, marketing, and promotion.

He made deals for ancillary merchandise, for media tie-ins. He licensed toys and t-shirts. He put tiny Marvel comics in gum ball machines. In the late sixties, he managed to get the Fantastic Four, Marvel’s flagship comic, on Saturday Morning Cartoons, courtesy of Hanna-Barbera. Closer to home, he found an advertising agency to produce limited animation “moving comics” of several Marvel series, including Captain America, the Hulk, Iron Man, and Namor, the Sub-Mariner, that were later picked up and syndicated throughout the 1970s. For a company that was publishing Kid Colt, Outlaw ten years ago, this was a big deal.

By the end of the sixties, Stan Lee had positioned himself as the gatekeeper of this emerging comic book empire, its champion and its defender, its mouthpiece and its Dutch Uncle. He had become “Smilin’ Stan,” the author of “Stan’s Soapbox,” a monthly editorial column that ran in every issue of Marvel comics, allowing him to pitch and pontificate at will about whatever was on his mind or on his plate at the moment of press time. Stan was a part of the Marvel comics experience as he became the face of the company.

Spider-Man was Stan's favorite creation.
I’ve written elsewhere that my first comic book was a Spider-Man comic, and while it wasn’t written by Stan “the Man” Lee or drawn by “Sturdy” Steve Ditko, it wasn’t very long before I’d re-discovered those early gems for myself, thanks to a series of full color pocket book paperback reprints of classic Silver Age Marvel comics: Three volumes of Spider-Man, which I read until the spines cracked in half, and the Fantastic Four collection, which reprinted the first six issues of the series. The Hulk paperback was similar. These books were ground zero for the Silver Age, and they bore Stan’s name on the cover as well as inside. This was the man who was now making appearances on television, talking about comics, and in particular, Marvel comics. This was the guy doing voice-over introductions the Saturday morning cartoon Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends.  So my earliest experiences with Stan Lee are me attempting to reconcile the writer of the comics and the cheerleader for the company. It was a weird realization for me, and I was not old enough to appreciate how much work went into that persona that he cultivated.

In the 1980s, the whole dust-up over creator’s rights reared its head, yet again, in an industry that has always operated by the seat of its pants, opting for work-for-hire vouchers instead of salaries and 401K plans. Considering that the whole of the comic book industry was invented by bootleggers and pornographers, it’s a wonder everyone wasn’t paid in cash and Canadian whisky. In the center of the maelstrom was Jack Kirby, who loudly and legally alleged that he did everything at Marvel comics and Stan did nothing. Marvel’s response was to change the appearance of every single character that Jack alleged he created. Dick move. Stan was, by this time, out of the publishing picture, in Los Angeles, making deals on behalf of the company.

All Jack really wanted was his original art back from Marvel. The problem was, over the years, they had become rather cavalier with the original artwork (some of it stacked up, got ruined by dripping air conditioners, or was used to level out wobbly furniture). Some of it was given away, as gifts to visiting dignitaries. Some of it was simply taken. And why not? Back then—in the sixties and seventies—these were considered production materials, less valuable than the photographic plates and color separations used to print the comics and the merchandise. It wasn’t just Marvel, either. DC had a similar problem with piles of artwork that they were routinely destroying. You can read about this modern day atrocity here and realize that Marvel wasn’t much better.

With Electric Company Spidey, circa 1975.
In any case, a lot of people felt that if Stan and said to Marvel, “Give Jack his artwork back,” they would have given him what they could and that would have been that. But Stan didn’t do that, and ever since then, there’s been a controversy, if not an outright rivalry, that remains a brightly stoked fire of contention between comic book fans. This is both an over-simplification on the part of comic book fans, who are, as a general rule of thumb, a cowardly and superstitious lot to begin with. Thankfully, in the last few years there has been a reasoned push-back against that simple narrative, that Stan threw Jack under the bus for love of money and the various corporate overlords that have owned Marvel comics from time to time.

The focus of the pushback is simple and direct: whatever else Stan may have done, or didn’t do, or didn’t do well enough, he was the voice of Marvel comics. When the cool kids tell Peter Parker to give our regards to the atom-smashers, that’s Stan’s version of teen-age rebellion. When the Thing accuses Reed Richards of being reckless with his experiments, and that’s why he’s a monster, that’s Stan’s penchant for melodrama on full display. That wacky syntax. The S.A.T. practice test vocabulary. Pop culture references. Yiddish kvetching. Catch phrases. “Excelsior!” Stan’s gift of gab and his patois of argle-bargle were often imitated but never really duplicated. He wrote in first person hyperbolic. It’s the stories—the dialogue, the operatic emoting, the passion and the pettiness, the immediacy, that were all a part and parcel of the Marvel comics formula. To suggest otherwise connotes a facile misunderstanding of what made Marvel so great, so different, so unique.

One of the best things Stan ever wrote.
Heroes with problems. A family that is constantly bickering. A team comprised of egos so massive that they can’t stay together for very long and have to recruit new members. Royalty and Usurpers overconfident and arrogant about what they are owed, what they are due. Defusing tense life-or-death situations with humor. Love. Loss. Betrayal. “With Great Power There Must Also Come—Great Responsibility.” Core concepts that resonate to this day in the movies that are based on the Silver and Bronze Age of Marvel comics.  That was Stan. That was what he brought to the mix. If you doubt that assertion, then I invite you to do this: get a copy of Fantastic Four #48 out. It’s a famous one. Now go get any copy of the New Gods. Read them both. Or if you prefer, pick up Amazing Spider-Man #11 and any issue of Hawk and Dove. I love Kirby and I adore Ditko. But, as creative and clever as they were, Stan was the better writer. And his instincts were better, too. Ditko wanted to make the Green Goblin a nobody, just another one of the many opportunistic villains in the Spider-Man stories. Stan insisted that the Goblin’s identity be someone close to Peter Parker, because that made for a better, more dramatic story. And he was right.

Yes, the art is very important. All comic book art is. But the words matter. Comics are a fifty-fifty combination of words and pictures. Stan Lee was the Word of Marvel Comics. The Silver Age Word made Flesh. No one else could have done what he did the way that he did it.

I only met him once, quickly. It’s not a good story, per se, but it’s my favorite story because it happened to me. It was at a Dallas Fantasy Fair (where else?) in 1986, and he was getting onto an elevator with Tom De Falco and a bunch of Marvel editors and other muckety-mucks. I saw him walk by me, and in a twinkling, I went from being a sixteen-year-old stuck-up comic book elitist-hipster-asshole-in-training to an eight-year old Spider-Man fan again. I blurted out, “Stan, may I have your autograph?”

Stan stepped out of the elevator, grabbed the pad I was holding, smiled at me, and said, “Absolutely not,” as he wrote his scrawl on the paper. I smiled back, and I spared a glance over his shoulder, as his entourage held the elevator for him, each of them with resigned looks on their faces. You could tell, from looking at De Falco, that Stan did this shit all the time and they had to just wait for him as he pressed the flesh. But he patted my arm and was gone. I yelled “thank you!” after him, but that was it. An instant of kindness, and I never got to tell him thanks for everything. But I am positive he knew, just as I am positive that there are a hundred thousand stories just like mine. That was who he was, for decades. I am pretty sure that’s how he will be remembered, as well.

Rest in peace, Stan Lee. Thank you so much for everything. For all of it. It always meant something to me. It always mattered, and it still does.

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