Saturday, April 27, 2013

Excelsior Indeed!

It's difficult for me to recall with any degree of clarity, but I am pretty sure my first exposure to comic books would have been the Marvel Westerns, like Kid Colt, the Two-Gun Kid, and my favourite, the Rawhide Kid. I have a vivid image of sitting in the back seat of our bronze International Harvester Travelall while Dad ran into a tiny shop with (now vintage) soda signage on it, coming out with whatever we needed, plus a comic book for me. I never thought to ask why not a superhero book, but I know the answer: the old man loved westerns, movies at least, with their stoic heroes and uncomplicated morality. Fantasy stories, whether based on science or fairy tales, was never his cup of tea.

I would come to superhero comics on my own later, at first put off by the continuing narratives, but eventually coming to cherish them. I read both Marvel and DC, but as a child one of the biggest differences discernible between the two publishers was the unmistakable omnipresence of creator, writer, editor-in-chief, and main promoter Stan "The Man" Lee.

In addition to creating or co-creating almost all of the first wave of Marvel superheroes including Spider-Man, the Hulk, Iron Man and the X-Men, he was also the face of Marvel Comics as an entity. You would see his name on the masthead, or in the credits, or often in an introductory note, and once you had read that comic 3 or 4 times, you might drift over to the news page to Stan's Soapbox, where his tireless self-promotion bordered on mania, but still felt genuine in spite of all that. Stan's relentless positivism and eccentric expressions like 'Excelsior!' and the 'Mighty Marvel Manner' made reading his rants a true delight, and I am sure he was instrumental in developing my love of vocabulary.

Stan's characters are often cited as being a real leap forward in comics due to their insecurities and 'hang-ups', something he felt distinguished Marvel comics from his Distinguished Competition. When he first pitched Spider-Man, he was told by the publisher he was crazy: the main character can't be a teen ager, you can't name him after a bug that scares people, and you can't possibly give him problems! He's a superhero!

Peter Parker only got his shot because a poorly performing magazine called Amazing Fantasy was getting cancelled, which meant no one cared what might go into the final issue. So Stan plugged in a story about a high schooler bitten by a radioactive spider, hang ups and all, featuring art by Steve Ditko, and it resonated with fans and ended up selling out, and the rest is history. Pretty good for a guy who wrote his first comic script in middle age, huh?

After all the comics, cartoons, t-shirts, posters, lunch boxes, action figures, television shows good and bad, it is hard to imagine a more important single contributor to pop culture than Stan Lee. What he didn't affect directly, his creations and his bold new approach and belief that everything is worth trying has influenced countless other artists, writers and publishers.

Decades later, there is now a generation of fans of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner that did not discover them in comic books, but through television or blockbuster movies. They are only finding out after the fact that the guy making all those cameos is none other than their creator, Smilin' Stan Lee.

Fenya and I had the great privilege to hear Stan talk at the Calgary Comic Expo this afternoon. Despite turning 90 years old in December and having recently undergone cataract surgery, he was still clearly ecstatic to be among his fans. He fielded questions from the audience (of all ages) for almost an hour, telling stories from the earliest days of Marvel Comics right up to the trials of being a committed cameo artist, like being told by wardrobe to put on these jeans, this white shirt, and these white sneakers, and being unable to convince them it's a waste of time because that's what you're wearing.

When I booked the tickets over a month ago, I told Fenya I had booked a photo-op with Stan Lee, and she immediately said, "Cool! Too bad I don't have any Marvel t-shirts to wear..."

I was a bit surprised, to say the least. "I didn't think you'd be interested," I confessed.

She cocked her head to the side, the way a dog might to acknowledge some nonsense you are saying to him. "Dad, it's Stan Lee!"

This obviously made me extremely proud.

Despite having a reserved time for our photo op, we still ended up waiting in line for over an hour, and since it was the end of the day, our feet were aching lumps at the end of numbed legs by the time it actually started moving. We killed the time by talking to the nice Jedi couple in front of us, and remarked that when nonagenarian legends run a bit behind schedule, you just need to accept it, which we did, albeit with grimaces transfiguring our expressions.

When we were finally ushered into his presence, it was a fairly rushed affair, where the previous subjects would be moved out while you simultaneously maneuvered into position. After the Jedis moved on, Fenya and I swooped in; despite being at the end of a day at least as long as ours, Stan smiled graciously and greeted us warmly. With very little time to waste, I thanked him and said, "Stan, could I trouble you to point at the camera like you're saying 'Face Front True Believers'?"

It was fairly boisterous in there but he raised his hand with a finger outstretched, and said, "I'm sorry, you wanted...?"

"Face front, true believer?" I said trepidatiously. The photographer's arm was beckoning us, but Stan's face split with a toothy grin, and he nodded. Thanking him profusely, we exited as gracefully as we could, which wasn't all that graceful, but was at least swift and efficient.

Catching up to the Jedis a moment later, all 4 of us were grinning madly. "Totally worth it!" beamed Miles, "The time and the money!"

I nodded in agreement. "My feet don't even hurt any more."

Mile's green-skinned partner's eyes widened; "Omigod, you're right!"

Sure, the pins and needles came back, but not until well after we had picked up our photos. Who would have thought that meeting a living legend would have such therapeutic effects?

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