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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Stan the Man (1922-2018)

FYI: This is a cross-post on both my book and movie blogs.

My phone beeped with the alert as I was in throes of writing. After effectively putting my fourth book to one side for the summer and early autumn, I was finally back at it. I was once again back in the zone—that strange mental space one enters after about fifty pages or so, where the characters take on distinct lives of their own and their story has developed its own self-fueling momentum. It is a time when you fight against distractions and become anti-social. You block out the outside world as best you can.

But suddenly there it was on my phone screen.

Stan Lee, the comic book writer and editor who co-created Spider-Man, the Avengers and the X-Men, dies at age 95

How sad yet fitting, for me personally, that the man who was the preeminent role model of my youth should pass away just as I was once again in a delightfully creative moment of my life. If only I had a fraction of the creativity of the many writers I admire. And their number definitely includes Stan Lee.

The first comic book I ever bought with my allowance money was an issue of Popeye the Sailor at a drug store in Pismo Beach, California. I soon moved on to the superheroes of DC Comics—names that still grace our screens and comic book stores: Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern. As oft told here, it was my best friend Eric who turned me on to the new comic books from a publisher called Marvel. Loyal by nature, I stuck with my DC titles for a while, and my pal and I engaged in a friendly rivalry over which were superior. Soon enough, though, Eric and Marvel had prevailed, and Superman, his female cousin, his super-dog and the rest of his growing family were left by the wayside. As an artist himself, Eric could see what was still opaque to me. The pencil-and-ink illustrators of Marvel had formed heroes with weight and stature and made them move and do battle in a way that was cinematic. It looked and felt much more real than the brighter-colored, two-dimensional panels of DC.

As the writer, I could tell there was something much more interesting going on with the stories. The heroes were not generic adults like Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. They had specific ages and lived in specific places—well, a specific place anyway. They all lived in New York City, and the city was geographically real and culturally alive. No generic Metropolis or Gotham City for Marvel. Rather than being consistently stalwart, Marvel’s heroes had problems and complexes. Peter Parker was miserable in high school, had a crush on a girl with no interest in him, and suffered constant guilt over his doting but elderly Aunt May. Reed Richards, who had graying temples and was a veteran of WWII, was a bookish scientist from somewhere posh. His unlikely best friend Ben Grimm was a tough, wise-cracking, street-wise guy. The heroes, their friends and families, and all the supporting players were real, identifiable people.

Lee and his most celebrated collaborator, Jack Kirby, were real people to us readers and fans as well. Because of Lee and Marvel, Eric and I wrote and drew our own amateur comic books. We talked endlessly of going to New York and working for Marvel. For years I wanted nothing more than to be Stan Lee. I took it as some kind of cosmic sign that he and I had the same initials.

The back of the comic books always had a newsletter or a “soapbox” written by Lee or maybe his secretary, Flo Steinberg. That’s right, we even knew his admin. Think of it as a prehistoric precursor to blogging. Not only did we know Lee and the others personally but, in what is apparently a New York thing (which future President Trump would take to new, more biting levels), everyone had a nickname: Jumpin’ Jack Kirby, Gentleman Gene Colan, Wild Bill Everett, Fearless Frank Giacoia, Jazzy Johnny Romita, Marvel-ous Marie Severin, Joltin’ Joe Sinnott, Fabulous Flo Steinberg.

When I wrote a fan letter asking for an autograph, it was only a matter of weeks before a sheet of Marvel stationary came back with Lee and Kirby’s signatures scrawled on it. When I submitted my own comic book script, Flo’s rejection letter was respectful and encouraging. When an official fan club was started, I was a charter member. Along with the badge and membership card came a round bit of flexible plastic that could be played on a turntable like a vinyl 45. That is how I got to know Stan Lee’s distinctive voice and would be able to recognize it instantly when it was heard in the eventual big-screen movie adaptations where, by contract, he always had a cameo.

The movies—the really good ones—were a long time coming (due to various legal entanglements), but they were worth waiting for. By that time, really great directors like Sam Raimi, Kenneth Branagh, Joss Whedon, Ryan Coogler and many others were the right age to have grown up as fans themselves or at least have a proper appreciation for the universe Lee et al. had created.

There were some hard feelings over the years about the way Stan Lee got the bulk of the credit for Marvel’s creative success and, in fairness, the collaborations did rest heavily on the illustrators. Lee and the artist would work out the stories in general, but the artists would come up with the detailed story panel-by-panel, adding the immediate dramatic touches. Then Lee would come along and add the dialog. Consequently virtuosos like Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Buscema, Johnny Romita and Jim Steranko definitely deserve equal credit. Yet there is something impressive about Lee’s consistent creative involvement with so many varied, diverse characters and the rich voices he gave them that make his contribution special.

In one of his soapboxes in the 1960s, Lee told of his excitement at meeting legendary French director Alain Resnais. The two became friends and even collaborated on possible movie projects. The Monster Maker got the closest to production but, sadly, was never made.

Lee also wrote about how he adopted the pseudonym (later legal) name Stan Lee for his comic book credits because he was saving his birth name, Stanley Martin Lieber, for his “serious” writing. Like many of us, he had youthful dreams of writing the Great American Novel. He never wrote his The Sun Also Rises or whatever it was he had in mind but, by the end of his 95 years, in addition to his amazing comic book output, he had been involved in numerous graphic novels and other books, including the memoirs Excelsior! The Amazing Life of Stan Lee (with George Mair) and Amazing, Fantastic, Incredible: A Marvelous Memoir (with Peter David).

Perhaps Stan Lee’s greatest creation was himself. The Onion had it pretty much right in its spot-on satirical headline: “Stan Lee, Creator of Beloved Marvel Character Stan Lee, Dead at 95.”

Stan “The Man” Lee has moved on to the great comic book beyond, where he joins his beloved Joan, his bride from 1947 to 2017.

Famously, Lee invariably ended his missives with the immortal catchphrase “’Nuff said!” While we are fortunate to have had him for nine and a half decades, when it comes to his imagination, humor and bringing joy to millions, there will definitely never be ’nuff said.

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