Exit Stan Lee

I didn’t grow up as a fan of Stan Lee.

In fact, it’s fair to say that as a kid, I didn’t “get” Marvel at all.  Weaned on Superman and Batman, I viewed superheroes as unflappable paragons of confidence, competence and moral certainty, whereas Marvel’s heroes were conflicted, insecure, short-tempered and at the end of the day not always even sure they were in the right.  On meeting each other, their first impulse was to trade punches; even when they cooperated, they bickered and griped.  More than that, Marvel the company was flagrantly, brazenly after my money.  Individual issues of their comics almost never told a complete story, being just chapters in sagas that had begun long before I showed up and would end…well, maybe never.  If you bought a Spider-Man book, you were apt to be presented with a guest appearance by Daredevil or the Human Torch or some other character in the middle of a story of their own; if you wanted to fully understand what was going on, you had to go buy their book, too.  Marvel wasn’t satisfied with just some of my money, they wanted it all, and even if I obliged, I probably still wouldn’t get a complete story.

A banner across the splash page of all Marvel books yelled, “Stan Lee Presents…”  putting a name to the mastermind behind this Machiavellian money-grab, doubtless a corporate mogul who sat like Uncle Scrooge in a vault piled high with quarters coaxed from the pockets of me and my pals and millions like us.   At this stage of the game, Stan wasn’t really writing stories for the comics, so I only knew him as that guy “presenting” everything, and I only “heard his voice” through his “Stan’s Soapbox” editorials, which often as not could be summed up as, “We’ve got another book out, so what are you waiting for? Go Buy It!”  There was just a shameless hucksterism to the guy that rubbed me the wrong way.  After about the hundredth time I saw Stan use the word to close out a column, I finally asked my Dad what “Excelsior” was, and he laughed and said, “Wood shavings!”  Somehow that fit my impression of this guy who was selling us a bill of goods.

stanlee

But then in the late 70s, things changed a bit for me when a series of paperbacks from Pocket Books reprinted the early adventures of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk and Dr Strange, and finally I got to “meet” Stan not as a publisher or promoter, but a writer.  That’s when I finally “got” the appeal of both Stan himself and the company he built.  Stan’s Spider-Man took a character that had never appealed to me beyond his cool costume and power set and made him dynamic and funny.  Early Spidey was almost like a parody of conventional superheroes: living in his aunt’s house instead of a mansion, dealing with homework deadlines between crimefighting missions and stuck repairing his own (lone) costume with a needle and thread.  Stan’s successors — writing the 70’s Spidey I saw on the spinner racks — had picked up the baton and doubled down on the misery and suffering while losing the (for me) crucial humor, Stan’s implicit message that even Peter Parker’s Job-like suffering was part of the over-arching. playful poke in the eye to staid, conventional superheroics. With Steve Ditko putting Spidey through insane contortions and Stan providing him with genuinely funny and rarely repetitive one-liners, the first 38 issues of Spider-Man (or anyway the 21 I got to read in those books) became favorites.

neighborhoodspidey

 

To really appreciate Stan’s contributions, though, you needed to experience the whole comic, not just the story itself.  The letter columns featured lively banter with readers who were clearly loving the opportunity to put in their two cents and see their names in print.  Some of the letters could even be harshly critical, especially of Ditko’s art, which is undeniably an acquired taste, but that didn’t stop Stan (in his “editor” hat) from printing them, anyway.  On the “Bullpen Bulletins” editorial pages, in the lettercols, in the cover blurbs and “editor’s notes” at the bottoms of panels as well as the word balloons and captions, the “voice of Marvel” was consistent in its convivial, inclusive, upbeat and playful approach, and the “voice” was Stan’s.

Stan established the “Marvel style” of comic book creation, which involved supplying an artist with a basic story idea (if even that) and letting the artist plot it out and make his own decisions about how to pace and structure things.  Then Stan would supply all the captions and dialog to flesh out the pictures on the page.  This allowed Stan and his small stable of artists to churn out an amazing amount of content on a monthly basis, compared to the established industry practice of having a writer put down every word as Step One, then provide detailed instructions to the artists on how to illustrate each panel.  Looking at those early books, you can see where artists like Ditko and Jack Kirby reveled in their new freedom to contribute their ideas, but over time these blurry lines between who did what would lead to hard feelings and feuds that played out publicly.

Probably the ideal collaboration, for me, came when Lee and Ditko teamed up for Dr Strange.  Providing a perfect complement to Ditko’s trippy other-dimensional landscapes and bizarre creatures were Stan’s brilliant spells, name-dropping arcane powers, demons, mages and worlds we couldn’t wait to learn more about, and expanding the scope of Strange’s universe by the mere power of suggestion.

incantations

Part of the fun of those early stories, for me, comes in the palpable tension between creators, the sense that artist and writer are pulling in different directions.  There are many times when it certainly looks as if, say, Jack Kirby drew a sequence with a particular idea in mind, then Stan came in and changed the tone and momentum of the scene entirely.  It’s fun to speculate on why he took things in a different direction; did he misinterpret Jack’s intentions?  Did he simply disagree and exercise his power of having “the last word”?  Did he make things better or worse?  People often compare the Lee/Kirby team to Lennon and McCartney, and while it’s far from a perfect analogy, I agree it’s spot-on in one regard: sometimes the pairing of two competing geniuses creates a magic that’s never recaptured after the team splits.

Probably to acknowledge the huge contributions of his collaborators, Stan broke with tradition and ran credits for every Marvel story, letting fans know who wrote and drew them, and for good measure who lettered and colored them, as well.  Just letting us know comics were in fact penciled and inked and lettered and colored pulled back the curtain on how these things managed to appeared on the spinner racks each month as if by magic.  Now when young fans got tired of arguing over whether The Thing could beat The Hulk, they could argue over who the best artist was.  More importantly to the industry, new generations of fans could start considering a career in making these things, themselves.

I confess I gave up buying monthly comics a long time ago, but I still go back to those vintage adventures often, and I find I keep purchasing them over again in new formats every few years.  I continue to be impressed with Stan’s writing, given that he still seems generally regarded as a promoter first, editor second and writer a distant third.  But as celebrated as his Spider-Man continues to be, it’s impressive that Stan wasn’t a one-trick pony.  He didn’t try to fit all his heroes into the Spider-Man mold, and he could write in different styles.  The Thing could be as funny as Spidey, but his humor came from a more tragic place.  It was well-nigh impossible to imagine Dr Strange ever making a joke, but he was every bit as entertaining to me for all his sober-mindedness.  And while Daredevil could sink into Parker-like depressions and even the old-school Captain America tended to mope about his dead sidekick, The Mighty Thor had a wonderful lust for life and couldn’t have been happier to be who he was.  (The arrival of cosmic threats that would have had Superman thinking, “I’ve never battled a foe so powerful…[choke!]…I may never see Lois and Jimmy again!” found Thor wading in with near-giddy enthusiasm: “At last a worthy opponent!”)  And since they were all different, things got interesting when these heroes crossed each other’s paths.

thinghulk

As noted elsewhere, this is probably Stan’s most enduring contribution: the concept of a cohesive, interconnected universe that lends itself both to stories of individual heroism and sweeping sagas on a cosmic scale.  If (for me anyway) a lot of the old fun is gone from the comics, it’s found a second life on the big screen, where Stan’s storytelling approach is playing out in blockbuster movies unfolding the saga of an interconnected universe that blends spectacle and emotional stakes with a pervasive sense of humor and fun.

Anyway, every story has to end at some point, and Stan’s ran on longer than most. He had a good run of 95 years and left behind a huge legacy that involves making people happy.  A fella can’t ask for much more than that.  And if I missed out on being a Marvel kid the first time around, at least now I can feel like a kid every time I read those old tales from Stan and Jack and Steve (and John, and George, and Marie and Bill and Joe and the rest of the Bullpen).  Thanks for that, Stan, and godspeed.

stanillo

Anniversaries and Hurricanes and Twisters, Oh My

Well, this blog is long overdue for an update again, so I’ll try to recap some recent adventures in digest form.

First up, Laura and I celebrated our 25th (!) wedding anniversary at the end of August with a trip to Boston, marking our first trip together away from the kids in 15 years.  (Thanks to Laura’s mom for minding the home front!).  We’d had vague plans to return to Nova Scotia, where we honeymooned way back in nineteenmumblemumble, but with all we’ve had going on this year, plans just never came together.   It’ll happen one day, though.

Anyway, Boston’s always been on our “someday” list, and it turned out to be a very enjoyable visit.  Of course, we took the Virginia heat with us: highs were in the 70s before we arrived and after we left, but the entire time we were there, the city suffered record heat (upper 90s). That seemed fitting, given that our wedding day was also a sweltering record-setter, but such was probably small consolation to the people of Boston.  (Sorry, folks).  The heat wave meant the Bunker Hill monument was closed to visitors out of safety concerns (it’s basically a giant chimney) but it was still an interesting place to see, especially since I’d just read James Nelson’s account of the battle, With Fire And Sword, earlier this year.  Other than that, we got to see all the historic sites on our list, including a walking tour of the Freedom Trail with a costumed guide and a visit to “Old Ironsides” herself, the USS Contitution.   Then we just concentrated on attractions that would keep us  indoors, like the truly remarkable Museum of Fine Arts (where I fell in love with Van Gogh’s Houses At Auvers) and the very impressive Public Library, where a free tour highlighted the architectural genius of Charles Follen McKim (who I was interested in from his designs of NY’s old Pennsylvania Station and the Agricultural Building at the 1890 Chicago World’s Fair, as featured in Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City) and murals by John Singer Sargent.   And of course we fit in a lot of great seafood, though we broke the rules a bit and skipped the Italian restaurants;  all that heavy fare just didn’t appeal in the heat.

library

We skipped the rental car and used Lyft, which quickly started adding up, but once we got a gander at what passes for urban planning in Boston, we were happy not to have to navigate those byzantine streets, deal with the crazy drivers or try to find a place to park.  Between that and staying at an AirBnB, this was our “Internet Age” vacation.

On our return, we celebrated Grace’s 10th (!) birthday, another reminder of how fast life’s speeding by.  Grace continues to be a source of great joy in our lives, of course, and I think she had a good time on her big day, which she shares with her fish, Ballou (who’s only 1).

Then it was time to start fretting about Hurricane Florence, advertised as the worst weather event since Noah gathered the animals.  In the end, it bypassed us completely in favor of hammering the crap out of the Carolinas.  We spent one night camped out downstairs in the room furthest from any trees, but about 2AM I woke up to dead silence and a general feeling of foolishness.  VCU closed for two days out of an abundance of caution so I got a four-day weekend, but all we ended up with were intermittent showers.

twister

Just when we thought we were in the clear, though, what was left of the storm swung North and sparked seven tornadoes in the Richmond metro area, an unprecedented occurrence here. The most powerful of them touched down about two miles from our house in the parking lot in front of our favorite pizza shop, damaging a gym and flipping over a car before crossing all six lanes of Hull Street and demolishing a furniture store and a flooring warehouse, the latter sadly resulting in a fatality.  Good Minnesotan that she is, Laura’s twister radar was up and she crammed herself, the kids and several visitors into the laundry room until things died down, while I obeyed VCU’s (seemingly endless) alerts and stayed put in my office.  For once I was glad it’s in a basement.

Anyway, that should bring us more or less up to date.

“Our asylums are full of people who think they’re Napoleon…”

For no particular reason, I started wondering today about all those portraits of historical figures standing around with their hands thrust into their vests or jackets.  It’s an affectation most often associated with Napoleon Bonaparte, but you see it everywhere in old paintings.

napoleon

So I looked it up and, at least according to Wikipedia, it has a name: “Hand in Waistcoat.”  Supposedly, the gesture goes back to ancient Greece, where Aeschines declared that speaking with one’s arm outside one’s toga was bad manners.  He consequently delivered his orations with his hand inside his toga, and it caught on.  The pose made its way into some classical statuary and when the 18th century rolled around, it became a sort of “shorthand” for artists trying to suggest that their subjects were statesmanlike and well-bred in the Classical tradition.  Or something.  After a while it got to be so ingrained that it even carried over into photography, which is what got me started thinking today; I saw a photo of Generals Sherman and McClellan striking the pose in a Civil War-era photograph.

generals_w_lincoln

I guess it’s all a matter of perception.  Personally, I think it looks kind of rude: what sort of personal business is that person taking care of with their hidden hand?  Do they have eczema or psoriasis? Why would you want to suggest that the statesman in your image has something to hide?  But then, different cultures and generations look at things in different ways. Take for example table manners:  here in the States, it’s generally considered rude to rest your arms on the table at dinner, but in other cultures it’s far worse to keep them out of sight in your lap.  Who knows what’s going on down there?

As a kid, I always assumed one of two things was going on in those “hands in waistcoat” portraits: (1) the guy in the picture had a deformed hand and was self-conscious about it or (2) the artist was no good at drawing hands, so he cheated.  Of course both perceptions were colored by the fact that I was a wannabe artist myself; many of the faces I drew ended up with an improvised mustache or beard when things started going south (if it was a man’s face, I might even get away with it).  For me, it was always about hiding mistakes.  But okay, thanks to the internet, now I know there was a legitimate reason for the hidden hand, and the subject probably actually stood that way for the artist.

Posterstalin

Then again, we are talking about Wikipedia, so who knows? As Michael Scott of “The Office” says, Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.” I decided maybe it would be best to keep digging for some kind of corroboration.

So I looked around and found numerous sites that “reveal” the “truth” behind the gesture.  According to these sources, the hidden hand signifies membership in the Freemasons, the ancient and mysterious fraternity that by virtue of (1) having some members who played important roles in world events (and shhh! many others that didn’t) and (2) keeping many of its ceremonies and traditions secret, must therefore of course be EvilOne site I found at least tried to keep its “exposé” more or less academic in nature, but it still turns on a shaky hypothesis: “Considering the great importance of this gesture in Masonic rituals and the fact that all of the elite were either part of Freemasonry or knew of it, it is simply impossible that the recurrence of this sign could be the result of a coincidence.”   Notice the inclusion of the phrase “…or knew of it.”  So just hearing about Freemasonry made you as “bad” as a member.  Imagine a similar line of logic in court:

Prosecutor: “Sir, have you ever beaten your wife?

Defendant: “No, I have not.”

Prosecutor: “Have you ever heard of men beating their wives?”

Defendant: “Yes, I have.”

Prosecutor: “Your honor, let the record show the defendant admits he is no stranger to wife-beating!”

The other sites that delved into the “secret” meaning of the “hidden hand” felt distinctly more on the fringe of the Web, veering deeply into “tinfoil hat” territory with claims that it not only signifies membership in the Freemasons (aka “The Illuminati”), but that said membership constitutes allegiance to Satan, which explains how those folks got powerful enough to have their portraits done in the first place.  These sites go further by including photos of even modern-day celebrities caught with “hidden hands” that prove their own Satanic connections: Tom Hanks is spotted cradling one hand under the opposite armpit, Obama is caught tucking a folded speech into the breast pocket of his coat and so on.  Basically anyone photographed putting away a pen, checkbook or pair of glasses, tucking their tie back in place or scratching an itch is a servant of Satan, assuming their politics don’t align with the webmaster’s.  I think I’ll forgo providing those links, but they aren’t hard to find if you feel like living in a Dan Brown novel, or Fox Mulder’s basement office.

At this point I’m sorry I even asked, since thinking too long about hidden hands apparently paves the road to madness.  Now we’re right up there in “Paul is Dead” territory in terms of Diversions for People with Too Much Time To Kill.  In fact rather appropriately, I came across a photo of McCartney himself with “hand in waistcoat,” this time on a website claiming the gesture is a signal between intelligence agents (“spooks”), which of course would include McCartney’s post-“death” double, right?

mccartney-hand

Anyway, I’m not sure I know a lot more now than when I started, at least about the true origins of the hand-in-waistcoat pose.  I have learned something about the internet, I guess, but it’s nothing new (or good).  In the end, I’m writing off the “hand in waistcoat” as just another goofy fad, which after all is one thing society is really good at.  If you think about it, the practice of smiling for the camera is just as random and nonsensical (and started only after photography had been around for a long time).  As idiotic traditions go, it’s certainly not as bad as “throwing up signs,” “planking,” clumsy DIY Photoshopping to reduce waistlines or “selfies” in general (let alone taking photos of your food!).

One can only imagine what future historians will make of “duck lips.”

monaduck

 

Wait, Facebook is Evil?

From the “Well, Duh…” department comes the shocking news that Facebook is in the business of selling information about their users to anyone and everyone willing to pay for it.  Somehow an awful lot of folks seem not to have realized that with Facebook, they’re not the customers, they’re the product.  Whatever.

I bailed on Facebook back in December of 2013 after enduring nearly two years of shouting wars between theists and atheists and Conservatives and Liberals, pleas for Farmville resources, invitations to Candy Crush tournaments, passive aggressive rants (“I hate it when people act one way to your face and another way behind your back”) and the resulting, pathetic pandering from sychopantic “friends” (“I hope you’re not mad at something *I* did!”), clever daily witticisms obviously borrowed from a quote generator, selfies designed to “prove” how much more wonderful and happy everyone’s life is than yours, brow-beating missives like “if you really love America/freedom/justice/God, you’ll copy this post to your wall, but sadly 90% of recipients won’t”, supposedly cute videos of cats and brats, friend requests from people I either didn’t know or had spent years trying to forget, and desperate pleas from individuals and business to “Like me, like me like me.”  In short, it wasn’t my thing.

This was mercifully well before the last presidential election, so at least I didn’t have to put up with all the “fake news,” but that didn’t stop me from hearing about it from friends and family still on board.  That’s a whole other level of evil, as far as I’m concerned; the insidious weaving of a false sense of “community” wherein all manner of patently false information can be passed off as trustworthy and reliable, because “the media” won’t tell you the truth, but of course your “friends” will.

But with Facebook, who needs real news?  With 1000 virtual “friends”, who needs any real ones?  With an on-line life that’s all smiling selfies, who needs a real life that can be boring, or frustrating, or sad?

I made it a point to vanish quietly off of Facebook, with no fanfare or goodbyes.  The first time anyone noticed was months later, when Laura’s sisters asked, “Where’s David’s page?  I want to send him a birthday greeting.”  Because who sends real cards or letters any more?  No wonder the last Hallmark card I saw cost $8 (!!!).  They probably sell about 10% of what they used to.

By bailing before the election, I also avoided the spectacle of users un-friending each other over their politics.  I know people who were unfriended not only because of who they supported, but in some cases because despite being for the “right” candidate themselves, they’d failed some test of purity by not cutting ties to all their friends on the other side.  Honestly, if I’d wanted to hang out with a lot of cliquish, thin-skinned narcissists, I’d have found a way to stay in high school.

Anyway, now the bloom is off the rose on this online paradise with the “revelation” that Facebook doesn’t give a hoot about  you or your friends except insofar as you can make them a buck.  Experts are divided over what that’ll mean for the company; is Facebook in trouble?  Are its days numbered?  Frankly, I doubt it.  Like cigarettes or liquor or opioids, you can hate what you’re addicted to, but you’re still addicted.  Facebook isn’t going anywhere, and when the furor dies down, folks will still be where they are today: living fake lives to impress fake friends and reading fake news, because it’s easier than facing reality.  After all, we live in a country where even the President would rather spend all hours of the day and night venting his spleen on social media than slogging through the boring, downer details of a job like…I don’t know…Leader of the Free World?

But that’s another app, right?  One I never even tried.  I leave Twitter to the Twits.

This Old Man Rant brought to you by the specter of an impending birthday.  Keep your frisbee off my lawn.

 

A Post About A Post

Recently, as I was walking across campus to my car, I found myself fascinated with a telephone pole I’d passed hundreds of times without giving a second glance.  It stayed in my thoughts on the drive home, so the next day on the walk to the office, I stopped to take a picture.

 

pole

 

What struck me was the thought that there’s a whole generation of students on campus who, if they stop to look at this pole at all, probably have no idea why it’s densely covered with rusty old staples.  Of course, back when I was a student here, in the primordial past of the early 80s, the pole was covered with handbills, broadsheets and assorted missives from about two feet off the ground up to the 7-foot mark, all of them fastened on with those staples.  You can see where some folks finally gave up on trying to drive in staples on top of staples on top of staples, and resorted to hammering their messages up with nails.  Located in a high traffic area between lecture halls, this was a popular pole.

I remember tons of papers plastered on poles at every corner of campus, ever changing and yet always pretty much the same.  “Come to the big party,” they said. “Don’t miss this awesome band.” “Buy my car — cheap!”, “Join our club.” “Vote for me.” “Roommate needed.”  “Have you seen my dog?” “Would you like a puppy?” “Used textbooks for sale.” And on and on.  I remember homemade ads with amateurish doodles and murky black and white photos, duplicated at corner print shops on paper that came in colors like “canary yellow”, then tucked under someone’s arm in a thick stack, with a fully loaded stapler in one hand to engage in the 20th century version of “self-publishing.”

One flyer you could always count on was the one that read, “Let me type your term paper. ”  Back then, typing was a relatively rare skill, one you could use to drum up a few extra bucks.  In my Freshman year, I had to take a typing test before I could sign up for Journalism classes; if I’d failed, I’d have had to pay for a Typing class.  Today, there’s no way anyone could show up at college without typing skills; kids are texting before they’re out of diapers.

At the bottom of the homemade “typing” ad would be a carefully scissored fringe of  “contact info” tags to tear off and take with you until you could get to someplace with a phone.  I mean, it’s not like your phone cord could stretch all the way out to the sidewalk, right?

This set me to thinking about all the things that were once so ubiquitous, but somehow at some point just faded away entirely, things I never paid much attention to until I noticed they were gone. Typewriters, for one.  Pay phones.  Rotary dials.  Fax machines. Fotomats. Is Kinkos still around?  So many things that filled a need no one has any more. Nowadays you can post your announcement to the Web instantly and reach more people than you would have with a thousand broadsheets stapled to a thousand poles.  Every club, band, school, neighborhood, hobby or perversion is represented on Facebook or Twitter or Craigslist.  You can offer up your old couch at 1PM and have it gone by 1:30.  Progress, right?  Why look back?

My problem is I’ve always been fascinated by ephemera, all that printed matter tied to a specific moment in time, briefly accessible or even ubiquitous, then consumed, discarded and forgotten: comic books, pulp magazines, newspapers, event posters, and the like.  These homemade handbills would be the ultimate example of that: briefly relevant (to someone, anyway) but soon just an outdated, fading, rain-sodden eyesore left fastened to a pole.  Now there’s just the staples left, but every one of those staples held a story, once.  Did someone decide to go that concert and end up meeting the love of their life? What happened to the previous roommate, anyway? Did that search for the lost dog end in relief or sorrow?  And what about the people who pounded in those staples; students before and after me?  What twists did their lives take after that moment at the pole? Did they graduate or drop out?  Are they alive or dead?

While I was standing there, pondering the mysteries of these phantoms and taking a picture of a cluttered-up telephone pole with my cell phone, my boss walked up behind me and said something that put it all into perspective.

“Shouldn’t you be at work?”