December 28, 2009

Happy Birthday Stan Lee

Stan Lee turns 87 today having outlasted just about every pioneer, except one of the men who hired him back in the earliest days of his career, Joe Simon.

It’s difficult to express with words just how important Stan Lee is to comic book artists, writers and filmmakers of my generation. He’s one of those creative forces in the medium who influenced every facet of comic book creation and storytelling in the 20th century.

The story by now is of course legend: Stanley Martin Lieber, changed his name to Stan Lee and along with several notable artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, he created Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the X-Men, the Hulk, Thor, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, and many, many others.
But Stan Lee didn’t just create innovative super heroes and memorably flawed human characters, -he created entire cosmologies, a series of alternate realities that had a concrete continuity (characters referred to past events and interacted with each other often moving around and stepping into each other’s titles and storylines unexpectedly.) This may not seem like much, but anyone familiar with stories from comics’ “Golden Age” knows how limited and unreal early comic books were.

Years ago my dear friend, the cinematographer Joe Zizzo said to me on a movie shoot something that I’ll never forget:

Everyone invents and is invented by their own version of New York City, whether it’s Jules Dassin, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee or Stan Lee.”

And that’s the thing about Stan Lee; he placed Peter Parker in Jackson Heights Queens, the Avengers’ Mansion was on Long Island, the Baxter building was in midtown Manhattan.

Clark Kent lived in some made up New York called “Metropolis” but Matt Murdock lived in Hell’s Kitchen.

That’s what Stan Lee has given to the world: a posture toward speculative fiction that approaches the rich potential of novels with characters that could be standing next to you on a subway train. Lee’s characters had tough jobs, they paid rent. They had all of the trouble that most comic book characters, up until that time, were incapable of having.

There are two things I’d like to thank Stan Lee for that often go unmentioned:

Stan Lee challenged the Comics Code Authority and ultimately forced it to reform its policies by pushing for stories about serious topics (In the most notorious case it was a cautionary story about drug abuse in an issue of Spider-Man in the early 1970s.) When faced with a series of editorial changes that would have rendered his story about the perils of addiction meaningless, Lee defied the CCA and ran his story without the Comics Code Authority seal of approval on the cover.
-They’ve been on the defensive ever since thanks to Stan Lee.

Lee also introduced the practice of including an entire credit panel on the splash page of each issue. This meant that for the first time the writer, penciller AND the inker and the letterer were credited directly for their work.
-Comic books are far too labor-intensive an enterprise for anyone to go uncredited.

There isn’t enough space on the internet to list and assess this man’s contributions to his medium, so I’ll just say thanks and hope that another dear friend, Ian Fischer didn’t take it the wrong way when I cursed him under my breath for getting to take a picture with Stan Lee at a convention.

Happy birthday Stan.

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December 8, 2009

Happy Birthday Elzie

Elzie Crisler Segar 1894 – 1938

Today marks the birth of EC Segar, one of the most influential, if not the most influential comic strip artists of all time.

EC Segar was the mind behind Popeye, -a character that I, and many others believe, can be arguably called the first superhero of the 20th century. Needless to say Superheroes as we understand them today owe a great deal to Superman and the cosmology created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. After all, Superman is the character for whom all subsequent superheroes appear to be named. But it is important to note that Superman had a direct depression-era ancestor in Popeye the Sailor.

If we are to recognize that Popeye was among the first, it is important to look at what superheroes are at their core: Superheroes, regardless of their superhuman powers or abilities and resources are people who always fight back. Superheroes are people who fight back even when they are not physically able to overcome their adversaries. Superheroes are fictional characters who will risk life and limb to fight for others who cannot fight for themselves. Superheroes never quit. The psychological posture of the comic book hero was born of the Great Depression; an era when individuals (long touted as the strength of the nation) were again powerless against grinding poverty, joblessness and the banks. This era gave birth to the fictional defenders Popeye, Superman, and curiously, the equally fascinating -but very real- gangsters and criminals of the time, John Dillinger, Bonnie & Clyde. 1919’s Zorro, and even much older legends like that of Odysseus and Gilgamesh certainly preceded him, but there is something about Popeye that sets him apart from the earlier incarnations of heroes in world culture throughout history. There is a quality of “noble bearing,” –and a humility and human fragility that sets him apart from Hercules, Maciste and other “strong men” of earlier myths. Popeye was born poor, he was uneducated, he was working class, and in the earliest episodes of Thimble Theatre, (the strip in which he made his debut,) he was a drunk. Clearly by the look of his early uniform he was not necessarily a Navy man (this changed during World War II,) but more likely part of the Merchant Marine. He was a working man, with forearms bestowed upon him by a presumably hard, working life.

The Spinach and its accompanying leitmotif in the animated cartoons are incidental to an understanding of Popeye as a paradigm from which many of the later heroes were intentionally or unconsciously patterned.

Popeye’s real power was much simpler. He fought back. Popeye always fought back. That was his strength, his “super power” and ability: an attitude of resistance. Popeye never took it lying down; he never let a transgression go unanswered. At Popeye’s core is the very American idea of a man’s insistence on dignity, not enforced by a gun -but by his own hands. It’s important to recognize just how significant this was to Depression-era audiences and the generations that succeeded them in our nation like my own.

The idea of a man who always settled all accounts and went to bed at night unburdened by the spite of a lingering slight is of course at the end of it all, a simple “power fantasy.” Over the years, many critics of superhero fiction have dismissed superheroes wholesale, pointing to a certain “adolescent” obsession with “winning” and being right. I would point out that those desires embodied by Popeye and other characters are born of real disappointment, tragedy and suffering in the 20th century and that these characters are more than just pabulum manufactured to exploit the longings of children.

For my part, Popeye and Sinbad are the first heroes I can remember reading about as a child. What struck me, sitting in a Bronx apartment in the early 1970s as the entire borough seemed to be burning down around us week to week, was how much these two guys traveled, and how far... How nothing ever kept them down. It’s interesting that they were both sailors.

Happy birthday Mr. Segar, and thank you.
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