Friday, December 28, 2007

Happy 85th, Stan!

You know, I have a bit of a confession to make. I used to think Stan Lee was, well...lame. I mean, to be fair, it was the 90s, and my primary exposure to his writing was 'Ravage 2099', but...I thought Stan Lee was lame, and untalented, and kind of an embarrassment to a comics industry that had come a long way since the Silver Age. I thought the reason he was hailed as such a great writer in his heyday was because guys like Neil Gaiman and Peter David weren't around yet, and that we had such great, sophisticated writers now that it made Stan Lee into a relic.

I'm sorry, Stan. I was young and stupid, and I hadn't actually read a lot of those old comics. I've spent the last year or so, now, reading what has become a whole bookshelf of classic Marvel, and it's made me realize that Stan Lee was brilliant. He managed to be self-aggrandizing without being obnoxious, a combination that's much harder than it looks; the gentle, almost self-mocking humor of his captions, the bombastic next-issue summaries, even the little footnotes where he'd say that he would have covered the page with word balloons, but with art like this, he knew when to sit down and shut up...Stan Lee sold his stories, his persona, his characters, and he knew exactly how to charm you into believing his line. He made you feel special and discerning for having the good taste to enjoy his writing, and while his brand of hype always promised more than it delivered, it never made you feel like you were getting cheated afterward. It's a trick that modern-day editors show every day that it's very easy to fail at, and fail spectacularly. Even the nicknames he gave himself and his collaborators were part of that same charming hucksterism; "Dashing" Don Heck, "Gentleman" Gene Colan, Jack "The King" Kirby, "Jazzy" Johnny Romita, and Stan "The Man" Lee. (Cribbed from Stan "The Man" Musial, no doubt, but charming nonetheless.)

I love his dialogue. For all that I believe Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby contributed greatly to the classic runs of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, I don't think either one of those series would have become as great as they did without Stan Lee presenting vivid portraits of them through their speech. Even today, you can take the tails off of the word balloons in an issue of the Fantastic Four, and you'll know who's talking; Doom's megalomaniac ranting, Johnny's youthful exuberance, and of course, the Thing. "Natcherly! The idol of millions ain't no weak-kneed pantywaist!"

Did he benefit from working with some of the best artists in the industry? Unquestionably. Spider-Man wouldn't have been Spider-Man without Ditko, and the rest of the Marvel Universe wouldn't have been the same without Kirby. But that's the nature of a collaborative medium. Lee and Kirby made each other better. It wouldn't have been the same without those many wonderful artists, but it also wouldn't have been nearly as good without Stan Lee. It certainly wouldn't have been as much fun.

So, having become older and wiser, but not yet as old and wise as the man I'm lauding, I say, "Happy 85th Birthday!" to Stan (the Man) Lee, a great writer and a legend in his own lifetime. Thanks for all the great stories!

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