Monday, November 12, 2018

True believer

I had a complicated relationship with Stan Lee, who died today at the age of 95. Even as a kid, I knew that his exuberant cheerleading for the Marvel Way was something that everyone around him would roll their eyes at. I had figured out the inside joke that was the No Prize and knew that his favorite buzzword "Excelsior!" was just his way of being bombastic at the same time as he was exercising his vocabulary (a habit I picked up from him and am still prone to.) If we'd actually had a relationship, Stan would have been the weird uncle that everyone laughed with (or at) but actually didn't mind having around for Thanksgiving.

As into the comic world as I was, I also knew that as much as Stan seemed to be the godfather of Marvel Comics, Jack Kirby had also been just as influential in the creation of the Marvel universe and most of the key characters that inhabited it: the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Inhumans, Black Panther, Galactus, and the character that would go on to become Lee's favorite and exclusive writing property for many years: the Silver Surfer. Kirby became the comics creators' favorite upon his death, as it became popular to draw a comparison between Kirby's departure from Marvel and that of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (the creators of Superman, who had been exiled by DC), especially when the question of creators' rights in a work-for-hire world was raised. Stan, editor-in-chief and soon publisher at Marvel, was dismissed as the huckster, while Kirby was the genius. As much respect as I had and still have for Kirby, I felt badly for Stan that he had been relegated to the role inhabited by so many of us, the secondary people in comics: the writers. The way their relationship was often presented was that Kirby was the real creative force and Lee simply animated the characters; as if Kirby created the puppets and wrote the script and Stan simply flapped his hands in the window to make them come alive.

But the fact is that they did come alive in his hands and as much as Kirby is properly lauded for his remarkable imagination, it was Stan Lee who made The Amazing Spider-Man into Marvel's most popular title, not least by focusing on social issues of the day, such as the Vietnam War and student activism, as well as the personal lives of the characters in the book. It was Stan Lee who created the first African-American superhero when he and Gene Colan created The Falcon in the pages of Captain America. It was Stan Lee who broke the back of the execrable Comics Code Authority, by insisting that his story about Harry Osborn's drug addiction be published without the CCA seal, proving that the censor was outdated and served no purpose for the more mature readers of modern comics. Goofy uncle that he was, Stan's social consciousness resonated with me and I felt that he saw the world the same way I did; those dark eyes glistening from his mop-haired, pornstached caricature on the Stan's Soapbox page. Take heart, true believers!, he said. And I did, because I knew that he was one, too. He believed that stories could change people's outlook on the world, even if those stories were full of colorful costumes and onomatopoeic sound effects. I could feel the stress of someone trying to go to school, hold down a job, and protect the streets of New York at the same time. I could wonder over the anguish of a man who could lead his people without being able to utter a word. I could imagine the pathos of a being who had been responsible for guiding a force of nature to the deaths of billions. I could feel these characters and these stories and knew that I wanted to do something like that.

Stan was later levered away from being the face of the company to essentially being its mascot. He was, again, the weird uncle kind of shuffled off to the side, still cheerleading, but no longer leading. Comics were a serious business now, worth real money, and stockholders and corporate boards were the ones who owned the soapbox. But I'll never forget sitting down in a room with Stan and a couple dozen other people at a convention and listening to him tell us stories about how they meant real money back when he helped build the company into the monstrosity it became. That real money was about jobs and paychecks and paying the rent, not only on their homes, but on the building where the studio was housed. He talked about how they would occasionally get letters essentially saying "You guys suck!" and he'd tack them up on the walls because at least they were getting letters, which meant that somewhere, someone was reading. Of course they were, Stan. We read and we never forgot. We always knew who you were.

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