The Marvellous Stan Lee
Unless you’ve been living on Mars, or perhaps in another galaxy, you’ll be aware that comic legend Stan Lee has just died.
I’m not a huge fan of comics, nor the recent film versions, but having read a bit more about him I am now certainly a bigger fan of Stan.
He started writing for Timely Publications in his late teens (don’t you just hate people like that?!) and churned out all sorts of tales - crime stories, horrors, westerns - for its youthful audience. But Stan - real name Lieber - was so embarrassed by the duo-syllabic family fare he wrote that he refused to use his real name, signing his work instead with the ‘dumb name’ of Stan Lee.
20 years later, he decided he’d had enough. That’s the thing about writing: nobody gets into writing because they saw it advertised at the local Jobs board; they do it because they enjoy it, because, as I think Tony Jordan once said, they “Have secrets they want everyone else to know”.
However, when you’ve been coerced into producing watered-down, sanitised versions of what you really want to write, unsurprisingly that enjoyment can fade. So no wonder Stan wanted to pack it in.
BUT then his wife suggested that, as a swansong, he should write the characters he’d always wanted to write. So he did, and in 1961 Lee launched the Fantastic Four, and his life - and that of comics - changed forever.
Superhoeroes until then had been very black & white, well-adjusted, fine upstanding civilians who would often remind us of manners and courtesy during each episode [I’ve just recalled a Batman & Robin episode from the 50s in which the Batmobile parks on the street, but Batman still takes time to put change in the meter, whilst reminding Robin of their obligation to society]. And then along came Stan’s new wave of Super-But-Normal heroes, crime fighters with very human foibles and hang-ups. Spider-Man had awesome powers of agility and sixth-sense, but he was bad with women and worried about dandruff. Many of them had lost their parents and, despite being adored by the whole population, felt lonely and lacking a family.
These were groundbreaking, ‘real’ heroes that readers - and later filmgoers - could relate to. They were more interesting characters.
And writing is character.
You may think it’s about storyline. But those storylines are defined by the characters, because without their foibles, shortcomings and maniacal urges there would be no story.
I’ve met people who haven’t watched Game of Thrones because they say they’re not into ‘swords and dragons’, but it’s not really about that. It’s about politics and race and religion. As are The Lord of the Rings, The Sparhawk Books, Magician and many other fantasy novels. (And, of course, most great books; Dickens has great characters). For me it’s not so much the grander traits, like Joffrey’s sadistic tyranny, but the smaller details like the “A Lannister always pays his debts” motto that makes it seem so realistic.
And that’s what Stan gave us. Fantastical, absurd, magical heroes who were yet, still, ‘human’.
I saw Stan Lee in person when I was working on the first Captain America film at Pinewood (if you’re not aware, he had a brief cameo in almost every Marvel film that was made). He just had a cheerful, likeable air about him. And many who’ve worked with him or just been around him have talked about his enthusiasm, charisma and heart. Something I guess most ‘influencers’ (to use topical parlance) have in spades.
He also, whenever asked, would proclaim that Luck is the greatest super power. Interesting, as I’m sure Stan would say he was very lucky himself….. but then, I firmly believe you make your own luck. As a great golfer once said: “The more I practice, the luckier I get”. Stan Lee was surely a fine example of how smiling and being enthusiastic and charismatic somehow makes you lucky. Something maybe I could try.
Hmm, yeah, well, maybe tomorrow…