Stan The Man!

Oh, this week... with everything else going on, did we have to lose this guy? Say what you will about all the convoluted history of Marvel Comics, and who did what, and what got "lost"(stolen) from people like Jack Kirby and others, there was never a better spokesman for the comics community than Stan Lee.

Yes, he had a hand in creating some of the most iconic and enduring characters in popular fiction (that's what comic books are , by the way. You don't need to be three hundred pages by Philip Roth to be literature... you just need someone to actually read you. And, boy, did we read his stuff over the last forty-something years). He created superhuman characters that were sometimes all too human. A Spiderman who could save the city but had trouble paying his rent. An Iron Man who was as addicted to booze as he was to heroism. A Mister Fantastic who could solve any problem on a chalkboard but had trouble figuring out the heart of an Invisible Woman. A big, rock encrusted Thing, who felt he was so ugly that he could only let himself find love with a blind sculptor who didn't need to see him. She could feel the heart of the man beneath the ugly surface. On and on the creations went... hundreds of characters... and he would hand them off to his "bullpen" to tell the stories. This was a time when people didn't work from home, no Internet, so everyone worked in the Marvel offices in a constant tornado of creativity.

He didn't create Captain America (I see him showing up in tribute pictures again and again). We can thank Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for that. But what he did was figure out how to bring him into the sixties, into the present, and by making him a man out of time, make him relevant again. A character that was meant to stand for everything that is right about America dragged out of an ice cube and thrust into the most tumultuous period in our history. Eventually, it got too much for him, and Cap lost faith in our government, handed in his shield, and took to the road as "Nomad", in search of the real spirit of America, a cowboy on the saddle of a motorcycle figuring out how to find his faith again.

And, yeah, he found it. And he found friends and allies and enemies. Nick Fury, Dum Dum Dugan, The Black Widow, The Falcon, Sharon Carter, Arnim Zola, Baron Zemo, The Black Panther, The Red Skull, and The Avengers. Pulling him out of the ice and then putting him in charge of the Marvel Universe's first superteam was a master stroke. Frank Miller put it best ... "It was a voice that could comand a god. And does."

And the X-Men... "Nobody will buy a comic book about racism!" ... sure they would... Stan knew he just had to dress it up with wings and lasers and and angry old man  with magnetic powers who'd taken too much shit for too long and wasn't going to take any more.

But what sets Stan apart, to me, from all other creators, is not the characters. Not the Titles. Not the prodigious output. Not the track record of how many of his characters occupy desk space in our cubicles today...

What Stan created... was fandom.

I remember reading a Marvel Comic when I was maybe 8 years old, in the barber shop around the corner (where, if I was lucky and sneaky, I'd get a peek at the cheesecake shots in the Police Gazette). I think it was The Mighty Thor. The Art was Kirby, the style was as bombastic as a song by Queen.

But what really grabbed me was the letters page...

The letters pages in Old Marvel Comics always started out like "Hey True Believers!" We were all members of The Merry Marvel Marching Society or F.O.O.M. (Friends of Ol' Marvel). Stan talked right to us. Right to me. If you were a kid in a barber shop reading a story about scrawny doctor who found an enchanted stick that could turn him into the God of Thunder, you read that page and you felt welcome. Imagine what it felt like to have a letter printed there. You felt part of a community. You felt not so alone.

Maybe for the first time, you felt cool.

And for all the bombast and bold type, Stan didn't take his heroes too seriously, and he let that trickle down to the stories... everyone had a nickname. Shellhead, Webhead, Matchhead, Winghead, Hornhead, Green Jeans, The Ol' Canucklehead, Stretch, Slim, Chuck, Baldy... the first time they met, OF COURSE THEY'D FIGHT, but then it was beers and schwarma for everybody!

And we'd check in, week after week, month after month, as the stories piled up and the world built and the universe grew and more people showed up. Luke Cage, Rick Jones (the universal sidekick), Shang Chi (because why couldn't Fu Manchu's grandson look an awful lot like Bruce Lee?), The Ghost Riders, The Iron Fists, The Kingpin, Electra, Bullseye... Oh, the villains... so evil... until they weren't... my favorite X-men run was when the Professor "died" and he left the team in Magneto's hands, because there was no one he new better, and trusted more than his greatest adversary. Boy, Chris Claremont put him through the wringer for a couple of years, but the stories were great. Storm, Forge, Kitty Pryde, Colossus... You didn't have to be a stern jawed, uptight white guy to be a hero any more. You could just be... who you were. Even if you were a broken mess like Bucky Barnes, The Winter Soldier or Hank Pym or "Snap" Wilson... redemption was just one issue away.

I look at this forty years down the line. I live in a very diverse neighborhood and you know what I saw on Halloween? A whole lot of black kids, dressed up as The Black Panther... a superhero who looked like them for a change.

Wakanda forever, indeed.

Thanks, Stan.

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