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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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.

Rogue One

I learned today that there’s a new movie coming out later this year that will tell the story of some other characters in the Star Wars universe.  It’s called Rogue One, and the trailer above makes it look pretty cool.

I have no problem with introducing new characters, and new worlds, and new concepts into the Star Wars franchise.  The Star Wars universe is vast, and its about time that we got to see some different parts of it.  Years ago, after the first Star Wars came out, Marvel Comics bought the rights to tell interstitial stories about what happened in the time between the movies, and there have been countless Star Wars novels.  I haven’t read any of them, but I’ve heard that at least some of them are pretty good.

I’m all in favor of fleshing out the galaxy far, far away — especially if produces more good sci-fi films.

A Serene Voyage To Nerdsville

Last Sunday I was walking home from work when I encountered a Segway tour of downtown Columbus.

It appeared to be a bespectacled family of four that was rolling along by the Statehouse, with the Mom holding her Segway handlebars in a death grip.  Even though the devices weren’t moving at a pace much faster than a good, brisk walk, all four of the riders and the guide were wearing bicycle helmets and appeared to be protected against any imaginable possibility of injury in the event of, say, a Segway collision where the rider is hurled six inches to the ground.  As I walked past, the little group was stopped on one of the Statehouse sidewalks, but after the guide had finished his spiel they went  gliding serenely and silently away in the direction of the Ohio Theater, looking for all the world like peculiar moving statues.

And I thought:  nerds.  Or, as Ogre might bellow in Revenge of the Nerds:  “NERDS”!

I’m sorry, Segway.  Your device might be a self-balancing, gyroscopic technological wonder, and another great leap forward to a future where humans don’t have to move a muscle, but helmeted people on Segways is the most infallible nerd indicator since the development of Dungeons and Dragons and the premiere of Star Trek:  Voyager.

I hate to admit it, but I would never don a helmet and take a Segway tour of Columbus, or anywhere else, because it would provoke a severe case of ipsenerdophobia.  True nerds need a refined sense of self-awareness, as a kind of defense mechanism to avoid putting themselves into obvious nerd situations, and a Segway tour sets my nerdar jangling at peak frequencies.  As a geek who wears glasses, read comics into my college years, and likes science fiction, I’ve got more than enough nerd tendencies as it is.

The Presumed Adventures Of Bibleman

Last week I was getting into my car at a public parking lot.  The person in the neighboring space had parked too close, so I had to squeeze into the front seat past the door.  As I did so, I looked down inside their car and saw a magazine called Bibleman, with a stern looking guy in a superhero costume on the cover, in the back seat.

Bibleman?

IMG_2914It turns out that there was a kids’ video series called Bibleman that was produced for a number of years.  I never saw it or heard of it, but it’s obviously a more recent effort to get kids interested in the Bible; the modern successor to those boring Davy and Goliath TV shows and Bible Illustrated comic books.  But I found myself wondering:  what does Bibleman do?

Given Bibleman’s outfit, he is obviously a fighting hero.  If he draws upon the Old Testament, he could go around armed with a sling and some smooth stones, or perhaps a staff that allows him to part the water when necessary.  The Old Testament was full of smiting and suffering and turning people into pillars of salt, so Bibleman beating the snot out of evildoers would fit right in.  (And, if Bibleman ever got to the Song of Solomon, he might have even more diverse and interesting adventures.)

Of course, no good hero can be without supervillains to defeat against all odds.  I’m guessing that Bibleman’s arch-nemeses were Mr. Sin and Foul Temptress, both of whom were agents of Satan — who was never seen but who clearly was always pulling the strings behind the scenes as part of some dimly perceived master plan.  Mr. Sin would find people during their moments of sloth and weakness and sweet-talk them into straying from the path of righteousness, and Foul Temptress, using her Forbidden Fruit ray, would try to entice the faithful into listening to rock ‘n roll or wearing immodest clothing.  And, given the unalterable norms for fighting heroes, did Bibleman have a youthful sidekick — perhaps Commandment Boy?

Sea Monkeys And The Backs Of Comic Books

Recently I was reminded of the backs of comic books — and therefore of sea monkeys, which always seemed to be on display on that crucial advertising venue focused, with laserlike precision, on a very precise demographic group.

I’m speaking, of course, of nerdy boys who like to lounge, and read comic books, and dream a bit. That demographic group was highly credulous bunch. After all, we were reading about superheroes, and the unlikely romantic exploits of ever-youthful students at Riverdale High School, and even importance pieces of literature boiled down to Classic comics form. Of course we were gullible and ready to believe just about anything that we saw on the last page of those comic books, even if all of the ads seem to have been mysteriously frozen in time around 1949.

Hey . . . could those tantalizingly displayed X-ray Specs actually work? Gee, I really could use that device that lets you throw your voice into a box the next time I play a prank on my sister Cath! How would I look with a “van dyke” beard?

The most evocative of all, though, were Sea Monkeys. There they were, lounging in front of an undersea castle, improbably wearing crowns and smiling for the illustration. Okay, they probably didn’t wear crowns, but what were those things? If you bought sea monkeys, what would you get?

Then one of your friends made the plunge, saved money from his newspaper route, and sent in for the sea monkeys. When he got them you and friends went over to take a look . . . and it was just brine shrimp in a fishbowl. No castle, no crowns, no happy smiling scaled creatures.

When you realized what sea monkeys were, and that you couldn’t trust everything you read on the back of a comic book, everything changed a bit.

Doonesbury And The Dispatch

Recently Doonesbury featured a series of strips that addressed a Texas abortion law.  Our local newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, decided not to carry the strips.  That decision caused some controversy, and the Dispatch‘s editor wrote a column explaining the reasoning for his decision.  In essence, his argument was that the Doonesbury strips in question really didn’t fit on the funny pages.

Of course, the Dispatch has every right to control its content and to decide whether, and if so where, to carry Doonesbury.  As the Dispatch‘s editor points out, some newspapers carry Doonesbury on the op-ed page precisely because it frequently includes political content; the Dispatch has chosen not to do so.  But Doonesbury is not the only comic strip that is addressing more adult themes.  Bloom County did so, Funky Winkerbean has done so, and so has For Better or For Worse — among many others.  The daily comics, like so many other aspects of our American culture, have become a lot more diverse, and a lot less predictable, over the past few decades.  That change has occurred because many comics artists chafed at the artificial constraints that tradition imposed on comics strips, and wanted to write and draw about topics that were more relevant to their lives.

The reality is that the comics pages found in most American newspapers are no longer just the home for the hilarious hijinks of Nancy and Sluggo and the Peanuts gang, or the soap opera stories of Mary Worth or Rex Morgan, M.D.  If you read the comics, you’ll find strips addressing American life from many different perspectives — sometimes humorous, sometimes pointed, sometime poignant — and often with a message.  I think that change has made the comics pages a much more interesting read than they used to be.