Stan Lee, RIP

I was saddened to read of the death of Stan Lee yesterday.  Lee, who died at the ripe old age of 95, was the driving force behind Marvel Comics and the creator of countless characters — good guys and bad guys both.

stan2blee2bolder2bimageDuring my teenage years I was a huge fan of superhero comics.  (They weren’t called “graphic novels” back in those days.)  There were DC Comics — home to Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman — and Marvel Comics.  DC was the established brand, with by-the-book heroes who were red, white and blue, fought the bad guys, and won; Marvel was the feisty challenger that featured characters who struggled and at least seemed aware of some of the challenges of real life.  Most comics readers of that day stayed true to one brand or another.  I was a Marvel guy, and ate up the characters created by Stan Lee — with the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Iron Man, Spider-Man, and the X-Men being my favorites.  I read the new issues as they came out and hunted around Columbus trying to find old issues so I could read through the back stories and fill out my collection.  Eventually I had a decent collection, but as I got older and we started a family I found that I had less time for old friends like Reed Richards and Peter Parker, and the collection got sold.

The interesting thing about Lee is the astonishing amount of his output, and his genius at coming up with new superheroes and supervillains.  For a time during the ’60s, he was the principal writer for multiple titles for Marvel, including flagship vehicles like The Fantastic Four and The Avengers.  He came up with dozens and dozens of great hero characters like The Thing, great villains like Dr. Octopus, and — even more interesting — other characters like Galactus who were neither good nor bad in their intentions to humanity, but just living their lives in the cosmos, even if it meant that they needed to devour worlds to keep going.  Lee and his artists — Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who had dramatically different styles, were my favorites — had an assembly-line approach that required them to write and draw on a virtual around-the-clock basis to bring out new comics every month.  Somehow they did it, and it is astonishing that they were able to avoid schlock and produce high-quality issues month after month.  Lee’s work during the ’60s was one of those periods of great artistic outburst that become the stuff of legend.

Stan Lee later became known for self-promotion and cheesy cameos in the countless Marvel movies, and he ended up fighting with his fellow creator Jack Kirby about who was responsible for creating what back in those early, glory days of Marvel Comics.  His story confirms, once again, that creative people aren’t perfect — they’re people.  But his later actions can’t take away what he did during the ’60s, and what the characters he created meant for comic book readers like me.  RIP, Stan Lee.

 

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At The Heart Of Town

I worked for a while today at the Stonington Public Library. It’s a nifty little facility with free wireless, a good reading table, and a really excellent book selection for its size. And, like most small town libraries, it’s at the center of it all. While I was there, numerous people stopped by to pick up a book, chat up the friendly librarian, and talk about what’s going on.

Libraries are one of those civic institutions that hold towns together. Stonington has a really good one.

At The Blue Hill Fair

Yesterday we ventured over to the Blue Hill Fair in Blue Hill, Maine.  It’s a big deal locally, and we paid a visit to get our taste of small town America.  The Blue Hill Fair has everything you’d expect to see in a local fair, from livestock and quilting and produce contests — like the impressive array of bright green vegetables shown above — as well as the kind of vomit-inducing rides that you remember from the fairs you went to in your childhood.  Who doesn’t recall their first ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl?  (And for that matter, isn’t it hard to believe that Tilt-A-Whirls are still out there, motoring away and causing people to go careening from one side of the ride to the other?)  The Scrambler was there, too, but no sign of the notorious Rotor.

We also watched a fine performance by the Red Trouser Show, put on by two long-time friends who now make their living traveling the circuit and performing at fairs and functions across the globe.  These guys were great, both in terms of their juggling, tumbling, and acrobatic efforts and in their witty banter and ability to get the crowd into the show.  It was a great reminder of America’s vaudeville past and how a simple performance by two people equipped with flaming torches and a ladder can create a memorable experience.

In addition to the elements of your basic small town fair, however, the Blue Hill Fair has something extra.  Because author E.B. White spent a lot of time in this part of Maine, the local lore is that the fair that is a key part of the story of Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web is based on the Blue Hill Fair.  As a result, near the livestock exhibitions you can find a little pen with a dozing pig — two of them, in fact — sporting a blue ribbon because they are “some pig.”  No sign of Charlotte or her web, however.

And those of you who remember the story in Charlotte’s Web will recall that the wily Charlotte enticed Templeton, the rat, to accompany Charlotte and Wilbur to the fair by promising him gluttony beyond compare due to the food available along the midway.  If Templeton had been at this year’s Blue Hill Fair, he would have been a happy camper — you could find every imaginable kind of fair food there, from fried dough to funnel cakes to cotton candy, caramel apples, and bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

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The Back Page Of The Sunday Comics

The other day Kish and I were wandering through a thrift store. On a shelf stuffed with old Saturday Evening Posts and long forgotten board games, I saw this Dondi puzzle.

Dondi? I haven’t thought of Dondi in years. For those of you who never encountered the little guy, he was a “goody two shoes” type who appeared on the back pages of the Akron Beacon Journal Sunday comics section. Dondi was one of those darkly colored, continuing story comic strips that had a more serious bent — like the severe-looking, judgmental Mary Worth, who always seemed to be meddling in other people’s lives, or Brenda Starr, Reporter, the glamorous, starry-eyed journalist who never seemed to actually sit down at a typewriter.

I never actually read any Dondi comics, because it was one of those back pages strips. I read the front page, with Peanuts and Dagwood and Blondie and Beetle Bailey, and would read back past Andy Capp and The Lockhorns and Cappy Dick, but Gasoline Alley was as far back as I would go. The last pages of the Sunday comics were forbidding territory, with strange adult themes. If Dondi was placed back there, with all of that drama and angst, that told you all you needed to know.

What kid would want to read that stuff? It would be like telling your Mom on a fine summer day that instead of playing outside with your friends you wanted to sit down with her and watch The Days Of Our Lives or As the World Turns.

Writer On The Edge Of Forever

Harlan Ellison has died.  An Ohio native, a graduate of the Ohio State University, and a prolific writer who had a long and productive career, he will always be remembered — by me at least — as the genius who came up with the idea, and wrote most of the screenplay, for one of my all-time favorite Star Trek episodes:  City on the Edge of Forever.

city-edge-foreverCity is generally considered one the finest episodes from the original Star Trek series.  It told the story of Edith Keeler, a gentle, peace-loving woman who lived during the Great Depression, helped the unfortunate, and dreamed big dreams.  When Dr. McCoy is inadvertently injected with a drug that induces a psychotic episode and finds a time portal, he goes back in time and interacts with Edith in a way that somehow changes history, prevents the formation of the Federation, and leaves the Enterprise leadership stranded on the planet with the time portal.  Kirk and Spock use the portal to try to fix the damage and also go back to the Depression era, where Spock attempts to build a primitive computer from vacuum tubes — or, as he puts it, “stone knives and bearskins” — to learn what happened and Kirk falls madly in love with Edith.  When Spock determines that McCoy somehow saved Edith from death, and thereby created a universe in which her pacifist leadership delayed America’s entry into World War II and gave Nazi Germany time to win the race to build atomic weapons and capture the world, Kirk has to make the excruciating decision to allow the woman he loves to die.

When he does so, and he and Spock and McCoy return to the planet with the time portal, a heartbroken Kirk says “Let’s get the hell out of here” to end the episode — which legend says was the first time a curse word of any kind was broadcast on American network television, and the censors let it go because it punctuated the episode perfectly.

It turns out that the City episode was a point of great contention between Ellison and Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek who thought producing the episode as Ellison wrote it would just be too expensive.  Ellison wasn’t happy with the changes that were made and asked that a pseudonym be listed as the script writer, but Roddenberry kept Ellison’s name on the episode — which then won Ellison a Hugo Award.  Ellison was still fighting, and writing, about the episode years later.

RIP, Harlan Ellison, and thank you for an impressive body of work that just happens to include an all-time classic idea.

A Tale Fit For Aesop

You may remember reading one of Aesop’s fables when you were a kid.  Aesop was the ancient Greek — believed to have been a slave on the island of Samos — who lived around 600 B.C. and wrote short tales, often involving sentient animals, that always imparted a simple, direct moral lesson.

rat-for-rat-info-page-on-website-14-15Some of Aesop’s best-known efforts include the Fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant, in which the industrious ant works hard and saves for the winter while the shiftless grasshopper messes around and ends up starving (moral: look ahead and be prepared, or pay the consequences), or the Fable of Belling the Cat, where mice have a meeting to discuss how to protect themselves against a predatory cat, decide someone should put a bell on the cat so that the mice will know when the cat is approaching, and then realize that no mouse would be capable of attaching the bell (moral:  it’s easy to propose impossible solutions and harder to come up with remedies that actually can be accomplished).

I thought of old Aesop when I read this news story about a rat that somehow got into an ATM machine in India.  The rat crawled into the machine in the northern Indian town of Tinsukia, wasn’t detected by security cameras, gorged itself on $18,000 worth of Indian rupees — and then died.  It’s not clear whether the rat was killed by the ink and chemicals on the banknotes it chewed, or whether it became so bloated that it was unable to get out of the ATM after its feast.  In any case, the dead rat was discovered only after the ATM stopped working and technicians were sent to investigate.

Now, there’s a tale fit for Aesop!  But since he’s not around any more, we’ll have to come up with our own moral for this story of the money-loving rat.  How about:  “Gluttony is its own punishment”?  Or:  “A taste for money should only be indulged in moderation”?  Or:  “A rat with money is still just a rat”?

Revisiting Ulysses

These days, there is a Ulysses S. Grant renaissance.  I’ve talked to a lot of friends who are reading — and raving about — Grant, the new Ron Chernow biography of the former Union Army General and President.  And now the word is out that Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio are in discussions to team up on a new film about Grant that is in development.

ulysses_s_grant_by_brady_c1870-restoredIt’s a good example of how perceptions of historical figures can change, and quickly.  During his lifetime, Grant was credited with being essential to the Union victory in the Civil War and was a popular President, and as he was dealing with the cancer that would kill him he wrote an autobiography that was immensely popular and helped to provide funds for his family after his death.  But the narrative soon flipped, and Grant’s reputation changed in the years after his death.  His generalship was called into question, and he was viewed by some as a drunkard who knowingly butchered his men, coldly calculating that the Union was better situated than the Confederacy absorb the losses.  He was presented as a kind of know-nothing President whose two terms were marked by corruption and endless scandal. Only Grant’s autobiography, The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, maintained its reputation, and has been consistently regarded as one of the finest examples of autobiography in the English language.

The reevaluation of Grant began with the publication of Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses:  A Life of Ulysses S. Grant in 2016 and became broader and deeper in 2017, with the publication of Grant.  When two talented biographers turn to the same subject in a two-year period, things are bound to be shaken up, and that is exactly what has happened.  I read American Ulysses, an excellent book, and I think anyone who does so will inevitably come away with a greater appreciation for Grant.   I understand from friends who’ve read the Chernow biography that readers of that book reach the same point.  (Richard got me the Chernow book for Christmas, and I’ve been saving it for some summer reading, and then I’m turning to Grant’s autobiography.)

American Ulysses tells the story of a decent, good, unassuming man who came from humble beginnings and never lost his sense of personal humility.  He struggled with alcohol, moved from the Army to a series of civilian jobs that were marked by business failures, but rejoined the Army at the outset of the Civil War and seized the opportunity that conflict presented.  Through determination, careful planning, and a willingness to make calculated gambles, he won a series of crucial battles in the western theater, lifted the spirits of the North during the early days of the Civil War, rose rapidly in the ranks of Union generals, and eventually became general-in-chief and was transferred to Virginia, where he met, and defeated, Robert E. Lee.  To be sure, there were some battles he deeply regretted — something he confessed in his autobiography, which tells you something about his character — but his Civil War record is remarkable.  President Lincoln viewed Grant as essential to the Union victory, and Grant’s comrades in arms, like fellow Ohioan William Tecumseh Sherman, shared that view.

With a fresh look from a modern perspective, Grant’s presidency also has been reassessed.  He was incredibly modern and enlightened in his policies about native Americans and Reconstruction, and principled and resolute in his willingness to defend the rights of “freedmen” who had just recently escaped the chains of slavery.  Unfortunately, Congress didn’t always share his views.  And while there were scandals in his administration — as there seem to be in most presidencies — Grant’s personal integrity was not touched and his primary failing was in faithfully trusting friends and colleagues who ultimately lacked the same integrity that Grant possessed.

His life is an amazing journey, and one in which he traveled widely — to Mexico during the Mexican War, to the west coast of the United States during the gold rush, and then around the world after his presidency — at a time when the primary means of transport were horses, trains, and steamships.  Through it all, he never seemed to hate his enemies, and generally viewed the world with keen interest and a gentle, forgiving eye.  When I put down American Ulysses, I thought that Grant was a person I’d like to know and call my friend.

It’s interesting now, more than 100 years after a public figure’s death, their legacy can be revisited and their reputation greatly revised.  In Ulysses S. Grant’s case, it’s well deserved.