Monday, November 12, 2018

From Excelsior to ‘Nuff Said


Stan Lee died today. I’ll leave it to others to pen his obituary and enumerate all of his accomplishments during his 95 years of creative fecundity. Not since the death of Walt Disney has the entertainment world lost a true giant whose imagination would excite and entertain successive generations during his lifetime and beyond.

Instead, let me tell you about the Stan Lee I knew. Not the 17-year-old who went to work for his cousin’s husband, Timely Comics comic book publisher Martin Goodman and ended up running the company. Not the man who would, along with legendary artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, create a pantheon of superheroes uniquely endowed with human flaws that came to be known as the Marvel Age of Comics. Not the aspiring novelist who ironically ended up at one point writing an entire line of monthly comic books devoted to those creations. Not the man whose comic book characters became known around the world and now fill the screens of televisions and movie theaters. Not the savvy marketer and millionaire businessman attending corporate meetings in a three-piece suit and Italian loafers. No, the Stan Lee I knew wore white sneakers.

Despite his aspirations, Stan was at best a mediocre writer but his true strength was as a marketer. He was the greatest marketing genius since P.T. Barnum and his hyperbole put the 19th century showman to shame. His monthly “bullpen” column in every Marvel Comics publication in the 1960s and 70s began with the phrase “Excelsior” and ended with “’Nuff said.” The catchphrases became Lee’s personal trademarks. But for all the grandiose hyperbole, Stan was a warm, self-deprecating, down-to-earth man. He would show up at comic book conventions in a sweater and sneakers, just like his young readers, and sit on the floor with them. They would ask him questions and he treated both the questions and the questioners with a degree of respect children were not used to hearing from adults. As far Stan was concerned, there were no dumb questions or childish comments: he knew his young audience paid his bills and that he was an ambassador for his brand. If the kids had been Marvel Comics fans before meeting Stan Lee, they became acolytes afterward.

Stan Lee changed the comic book medium by writing superhuman characters that nonetheless had human flaws and frailties. They could save the world but still had to pay the rent at the end of the month. The Amazing Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Invincible Iron Man – like the ancient Greeks and Romans, Stan created an entire pantheon of gods who nonetheless squabbled like humans. That innovation brought the readers running to Marvel.

My young adult science fiction trilogy, The Adventures of McKenzie Mortimer, reveals the influence of Stan Lee — the alliterative teenage protagonist (think Peter Parker): a nondescript boy gifted with great power who must learn that with it comes great responsibility; and a school bully (think Flash Thompson). I even credited Stan in the acknowledgments.

I’ll close my remembrance of Stan Lee with a personal anecdote. In mid-December 1975, a three-day comic book convention, MiamiCon, was held at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. By the last day, the crowd had thinned and a bunch of us — Stan Lee, artist Jack Kirby, Capt. Marvel creator C.C. Beck, young fan (now artist) Dan Reed, and a younger version of myself were seated around a table, rather bored. Beck, the oldest among us, had brought his guitar with him and someone suggested we sing. Yes, sing. The greatest comic book creators of the 20th century meshed with the voices of the next generation of artists and writers, setting back the music industry by at least 40 years. Too bad no one had the foresight to record this classic moment…

Actually, I did. As a teenage reporter for my college newspaper I was carrying my trusty Panasonic tape recorder to record interviews with comic book creators that later became an award-winning series of articles (which you can read in my book Cub: The Story of a Boy Reporter. Now that’s a plug worthy of Stan himself.) The tape begins with me asking Stan for an introduction to the songfest, which he proceeds to do, introducing all of us in his adjective-laced, bloviated, hyperbole-filled fashion. At the end, 20 minutes later, you can hear Dan and me asking Stan for jobs that Marvel, as an artist and writer respectively. Well, Dan asked to be a page, LOL.

About a dozen years later, I ran into Stan at a convention in Atlanta and told him about the tape. I promised to send it to him. I forgot.

About six years later I ran into Dan Reed, for the first time in 20 years, in Southern California. Dan was now a professional comic book artist, and had even realized his dream of working for Marvel Comics. I told him about the existence of the tape and I promised to send him a copy. I forgot.

In 1993, I bumped into Stan and his wife Joan at the San Diego ComiCon. The topic of the tape came up (Stan had an excellent memory). Chagrined, I promised to mail it to him. This time I actually did send a copy to Stan in New York in care of Marvel Comics and while I was at it, I mailed a copy to Dan. A year later, I got a letter from Marvel Films in California. There was a Spider-Man head drawn on the letterhead with the word balloon reading “Hi Keith!” I thought it was the usual promotional junk mail a lot of us in the industry get. But as I read it, I realized it was a handwritten letter from Stan. It said, “Many, many thanks for the tape you sent me. I got a big kick out of it even if it took a year to get it -- and even if it undoubtedly set music and recording back a few decades! With all my very best wishes -- and much appreciation. Excelsior! Stan.”

Excelsior, Stan Lee. ‘Nuff said.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Peeling the Label

Americans love labels. On the food they buy, on their nametags at gatherings, and apply to themselves: it’s all about identification. Labels are designed to answer the question before it’s asked: What’s on the inside? Who are you? I’m a vegetarian; smoker; non-smoker; German; American; Russian; Southerner; Midwesterner; tourist; citizen; Catholic; Jew; Protestant; white; black; Asian; Latino; teacher; longshoreman; doctor; lawyer; hawk; dove; conservative; liberal; Democrat; Republican. People create their own self-identity based on their sense of who they are -- their beliefs, or what they do, or the culture they come from -- to establish their own sense of individuality and then, ironically and paradoxically, seek others who are like them. This is known as tribalism: a desire to align oneself with others of similar beliefs or backgrounds.

We all want to feel unique and special, which is why we strive to express our individualism. Yet subconsciously we realize the insecurity that comes from standing apart from the crowd. So while we want to be unique, we need the support and validation from others like us. Maybe I’m a vegetarian while most people aren’t, so that makes a statement about me and makes me somewhat more special or unique among others, yet I can still point to millions of vegetarians to prove choosing to be one does not make me weird or completely outside the mainstream. I can wear labels that establish my individuality while at the same time validating their legitimacy by pointing to all the others wearing the same labels.

This works so long as the label accurately represents the contents. If the label says “beef” but the package contains chicken, then obviously the label is worthless because it doesn’t accurately describe the contents. The same is true if the label changes from “salmon” to “seafood” to “something that came out of the ocean.” In this case, the label may be so vague that it encompasses things you wouldn’t want to include had they been specified.

While we think of physical labels as being attached adhesively to products, the opposite is true when it comes to the descriptive labels people apply to themselves. The problem is, people become emotionally attached to the labels they have chosen to describe themselves and their beliefs. If your religion, political party, or nation moves away from the values you previously shared with it, you’ll most likely find it difficult, if not impossible, to walk away from the label. “My country right or wrong,” “My party right or wrong,” “My faith right or wrong.” The flaw with tribalism is that we feel compelled to stick with the tribe, no matter what the tribe does.

This is where morality must trump tribalism. We know right from wrong. If someone in your family commits murder your first instinct is to protect them. The family member is part of your tribe: you stick together because of loyalty derived from familial love. But then you must confront the moral dilemma because you know murder is wrong and aiding and abetting murder is not the right thing to do. Yet many people would find themselves unable to walk away, just as they might be unable to walk away from a religion accused of pedophilia, or their own nation accused of war crimes or other atrocities. They are so invested in that label, and the tribalism behind it, that they turn a blind eye or rationalize the fact that label no longer represents the once shared values.

Compared with other countries, the two major political parties in America until recently have been relatively indistinct. Both parties were centrist parties, albeit the Democrats slightly to the left of center and the Republicans slightly to the right. In the 1976 presidential election, there was little to distinguish conservative Democrat Jimmy Carter from liberal Republican Gerald Ford. In succeeding elections, as the Republican Party moved more to the right so did the Democrats, still leaving little sunlight between the two major parties. Both Democrats and Republicans believed in and supported American ideals -- free speech; freedom of the press; democracy; the rule of law; the Constitution; and the sanctity of the electoral process. The fundamental bedrock precepts of American democracy were never held to be political issues by either party.

That changed in 2016  with the election of Donald Trump. But because of tribalism, Americans who wear the Republican label identify with Trump as he is the leader of their party, and take any criticism of Trump as a personal attack on themselves. “My party right or wrong.” But Americans who call themselves Republicans have to ask if the label still fits. We all know what the Republican label once stood for, just as we know it never represented trillion-dollar budget deficits; trade wars; nationalism; xenophobia; fascism; racism; anti-Semitism; misogyny; putting children in cages; or expanding executive authority to include the power to repeal constitutional amendments by executive order. The Republican label has always stood behind America’s intelligence agencies, including the FBI and CIA, and has been the political party most suspicious of, and confrontational with, America’s longtime Cold War enemy Russia. The Republican brand of years past would never sully itself by conspiring with Russians; by giving secret intelligence to Russian agents in the Oval Office; or by supporting Russia and its leader Vladimir Putin over the American intelligence services, as Donald Trump did in Helsinki. As Donald Trump leads the Republican Party further and further from the American ideals and beliefs upon which it was built, Americans who have long identified themselves as Republicans must ask if they can continue to wear that label when it no longer accurately describes their own beliefs.

When the label changes from “salmon” to “something that came out of the ocean,” you can continue buying it but you’re not eating salmon. And there are a lot of scummy, really sickening things on the ocean floor. It’s hard to walk away but there are times when you have to. Times when you must put the label aside and examine if what someone is selling you matches your ideals and beliefs, regardless of the name they slap on it. You’re not abandoning the Republican Party; they’ve already left you. Now you must decide: Do you vote them out of office and then form a new party that more accurately represents your beliefs, or do you vote for a party that now preaches hatred toward your fellow citizens and seeks to divide Americans? Are you willing to put country before party? Or will you wear the label to the grave no matter what it may come to represent, or how far it may stray from your own beliefs and ideals?

The only label you should wear this Tuesday on election day is the sticker that says “I voted.” And when you enter the voting booth, the only label you should bring with you is not “Republican” or “Democrat” but rather “American.” And when you pull the lever it should be because the candidate shares your beliefs and morality, not because he or she slapped an “R” label on their back.