STAN LEE

The face of su­per­hero cul­ture may be gone with the pass­ing of Mar­vel leg­end Stan Lee, but there is no risk of his work fad­ing into the pop cul­ture back­ground. Ted An­thony writes

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It be­came easy, in re­cent years, to dis­miss him as the wise­crack­ing grandpa of the Amer­i­can comic book, a past-his-prime gim­mick who cameoed along­side Earth’s angsti­est su­per­heroes in the high­gross­ing Mar­vel block­busters of the past decade. But Stan Lee, who died Mon­day, was far more than that. It’s no stretch to say that he helped re­draw the world of Amer­i­can ic­tion. And he cer­tainly made sure ev­ery­one knew it.

From the ashes of pulp mag­a­zines and the ra­dioac­tive raw ma­te­rial of post­war un­cer­tainty about sci­ence and power, he sum­moned - not sin­gle­hand­edly, but cer­tainly with­out par­al­lel or peer - a tex­tured, self-sus­tain­ing uni­verse of im­per­fect he­roes.

While Updike and Cheever were do­ing it in lit­er­a­ture, while Kubrick and Lumet and Penn were do­ing it at the movies, the fa­ther of Mar­vel pre­sented comic-book Amer­ica which meant, at the time, mostly ado­les­cent boys - with a pan­theon of deeply flawed pro­tag­o­nists who, de­spite their pres­ence in so many tales to as­ton­ish, were in many ways just like you and me.

These out­casts and mis­its rose to the alarm clock’s buzzing and slogged to work each morn­ing to get the job done, not in a fan­ci­ful Me­trop­o­lis or Gotham but on the ac­tual streets of New York City and in the im­per­fect Amer­ica be­yond it. For them, the strug­gle was the thing - no mat­ter whether the task was sav­ing the world, pay­ing the rent or try­ing to make ends meet as a free­lance pho­tog­ra­pher or a blind lawyer or an itin­er­ant stunt mo­tor­cy­clist.

Un­like DC Comics’ iconic he­roes, many of whom had been des­tined for great­ness as the last sons of doomed plan­ets, Ama­zon roy­alty or right­ful kings of the sea, the likes of Spi­der-Man, the Fan­tas­tic Four, Iron Man, the Ghost Rider and the In­cred­i­ble Hulk com­posed a cat­a­log of hu­man frail­ties - schmoes who in­ad­ver­tently, or neg­li­gently, wan­dered into the trafic of des­tiny.

Some mon­eyed, some work­ing­class, all neu­rotic, they had pow­ers thrust upon them by mis­for­tune or ques­tion­able choices. Their abil­i­ties were just as of­ten bane as boon. And some­times it was hard to tell the he­roes and the vil­lains apart. Sort of like real life.

This was in no small mea­sure due to Lee, who as Mar­vel’s edi­torin-chief wrote many of the books him­self dur­ing comics’ “Sil­ver Age” years of the early 1960s. With seem­ingly bound­less en­ergy and a stag­ger­ing va­ri­ety of voices, he breathed per­son­al­ity, am­bi­gu­ity and a com­mon nar­ra­tive into soon-to-be-beloved char­ac­ters.

“One of the things we try to demon­strate in our yarns is that no­body is all good, or all bad,” Lee wrote in a col­umn for Mar­vel’s March 1969 is­sues. “Even a shoddy su­per-vil­lain can have a re­deem­ing trait, just as any howlin’ hero might have his nutty hang-ups.”

It’s hard to over­es­ti­mate how ground­break­ing this phi­los­o­phy was in a na­tion that, with a tone set by pro­duc­tion-code Hol­ly­wood since the early 1930s, had spent three decades po­si­tion­ing largely un­am­bigu­ous he­roes at the cen­ter of its ris­ing mass cul­ture. Add gov­ern­ment ef­forts in the 1950s to de­mo­nize comics as the mind­de­cay­ers of Amer­ica’s youth, and to push pub­lish­ers back to­ward pablum, and you’ll have some idea what Lee ac­com­plished at the be­gin­ning of the 1960s.

Sud­denly here was Tony Stark, a ge­nius in­ven­tor with daddy is­sues (and, we would even­tu­ally learn, an al­co­holic nar­cis­sist) who ixed his lit­er­ally bro­ken heart by turn­ing him­self into Iron Man. Here was Peter Parker, a meek high-school nerd who had no clue how to han­dle the creepy abil­i­ties and hor­monal changes be­stowed upon him by the bite of a ra­dioac­tive spi­der on a class field trip. Talk about play­ing to your tar­get au­di­ence.

Here was Bruce Ban­ner, a mil­i­tary sci­en­tist who tried to save some­one from one of his test blasts and ended up locked in a bat­tle with his own an­gry, de­struc­tive id - hardly an in­ci­den­tal nar­ra­tive in an era when psy­chother­apy and self-help were sharply on the rise. And here was Matt Mur­dock, blinded in a hor­ri­ble ac­ci­dent by ir­ra­di­ated waste, prov­ing ev­ery night with pre­ci­sion radar pow­ers, as Dare­devil, that dis­abil­ity isn’t nec­es­sar­ily des­tiny. And here were the X-Men, mu­tants and per­pet­ual out­siders whose strug­gle to ind a place in the main­stream on Earth has been var­i­ously framed as a para­ble for race re­la­tions, an­ti­Semitism and the Red Scare.

Even Steve Rogers, whose Cap­tain Amer­ica was the most Su­per­man-like of the bunch, had de­mons. He was the skinny kid re­jected by his World War II draft board who wanted so badly to fight that he vol­un­teered to be a guinea pig for a “su­per­sol­dier serum” that would turn him into the ul­ti­mate ighting ma­chine.

Cap­tain Amer­ica de­buted dur­ing the war years when Mar­vel was still called Timely Comics, but Lee and his team up­dated the story for the 1960s by giv­ing Rogers even more ghosts: He lay frozen in ice for nearly two decades af­ter falling into the sea, and awak­ened out of time in a fast-chang­ing, morally murky world he barely rec­og­nized or could nav­i­gate.

There was an­other, less-no­ticed cor­ner where Lee was equally ground­break­ing. As Mar­vel’s ed­i­tor, in an age be­fore com­put­ers were in ev­ery pocket, he worked tire­lessly to de­velop a re­la­tion­ship with his au­di­ence.

He talked about stuff be­hind the scenes and cu­rated a tallish tale of a wacky, col­le­gial stu­dio of writ­ers and artists who might do just about any­thing in their pur­suit of good sto­ries. His reg­u­lar col­umn, “Stan’s Soap­box,” talked di­rectly to read­ers in a way that pre­saged the kind of ac­cess to celebri­ties that Twit­ter, Face­book and In­sta­gram af­ford to­day.

Many felt Lee didn’t share enough credit with such comics pi­o­neers as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who worked along­side him in those early years as he de­vel­oped the “Mar­vel Method” of story de­vel­op­ment. Fair enough. But part of Lee’s ge­nius was his abil­ity to be a mas­ter of col­lage.

Like a Bob Dy­lan or a Gene Rod­den­berry, Lee took cul­tural threads - el­e­ments al­ready afoot in so­ci­ety - and con­structed his own quilt. While his source ma­te­rial was some­times de­riv­a­tive, what he stitched was some­thing new un­der the sun.

And within his emerg­ing pan­theon of white male angst, Lee was of­ten an en­thu­si­as­tic cham­pion of pro­gres­sive views about race, if not al­ways gen­der. The now-fa­bled Black Pan­ther irst ap­peared in a Mar­vel comic book in 1966, be­com­ing one of the ear­li­est main­stream su­per­heroes of African de­scent, though it took un­til 1973 for him to snag a mar­quee spot in a comic en­ti­tled “Jun­gle Ac­tion.”

“None of us is all that dif­fer­ent from each other. We all want es­sen­tially the same things outta life,” Lee wrote in the pages of Mar­vel Comics in Feb­ru­ary 1980. “So why don’t we all stop wast­ing time hat­ing the ‘other’ guys. Just look in the mir­ror, mis­ter - that other guy is you.”

Marve lisa cal­i­brated com­mer­cial jug­ger­naut now, its sto­ries drown­ing in the mer­chan­dise that am­pli­ies them. It has been dis­missed as mass-pro­duced sto­ry­telling for a mass-pro­duced age. Yet some­how, among the things Lee man­ages to leave be­hind is a lin­ger­ing sense - snake oil, maybe, but po­tent none­the­less - that with Mar­vel’s tales, still, any­thing might hap­pen.

Be­cause, as Stan Lee knew well be­fore Amer­ica did, we still want our fan­tas­tic, un­likely su­per­heroes to be just like us. Or, more saliently, we want to be­lieve that we can be just like them.And who knows what they might do to pre­vail be­cause, af­ter all, who re­ally knows what we might do? Maybe we can be he­roes, sure, but the rent’s still due on the 15th.

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