Saturday, November 17, 2018

Why It Matters

I decided to treat myself on my milestone birthday so I bought two books: one by Harlan Ellison and one about him. The first was Harlan’s last book, Can and Can’tankerous, which I noted had an error. The Latin phrase Omne ignotum pro magnifico (“Everything unknown is taken as grand”) was written as Omne ignotum pre magnifico. It was, of course, obviously the publisher’s fault, not Harlan’s. I imagine him turning in his grave, shouting foul epithets at the proofreader for having made the author look illiterate. The second book was A Lit Fuse, a biography of Ellison by journalist Nat Segaloff. I was only 49 pages in when I stumbled across a reference to “Martin O’Dell” whom Segaloff credits as the creator of Green Lantern and an inspiration for Ellison. There’s only one problem: there is no such person as “Martin O’Dell.” Green Lantern was created by a Jew, not an Irishman, and that man’s name was Martin Nodel. I know because Marty Nodel was a friend of mine, just as I know he never received his just due in life and apparently not even now in death.

I was reminded of an interviewer who asked my favorite short story author. I replied O. Henry, which was a pseudonym for William Sidney Porter, a master of the short story form and particularly of the use of irony within it. I was grated to read the piece and see the reporter, who had also claimed to be an author, had turned the American O. Henry into an Irishman named O’Henry. How could any writer be ignorant of O. Henry and then perpetuate that ignorance in print for other readers?

Likewise, it bothered me to see Marty not get the recognition and respect he deserved, just as it bothered me to read Bill Maher’s self-absorbed diatribe against the late Stan Lee in particular and comic book readers in general, printed only days after Lee’s death. For God’s sake, he hasn’t even been buried yet. In his column Maher says: “The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess.” Smartass snark may be this comedian’s calling card but there’s a reason for the saying not to speak ill of the dead – primarily because they can no longer defend themselves. But those of us left behind can. “The guy” had a name, Billy-boy – Stan Lee. And he created more than two characters: he was responsible, along with a few other talented artists, for creating dozens of characters that have gone on to spawn a multibillion-dollar franchise that has provided jobs for thousands of people and entertainment for millions. What have you done lately, Billy-boy? 

Maher then perpetuates the myth that “comic are just for kids” writing in his blog “when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures.” Actually, the comic books Stan Lee wrote in the ‘60s, while also read by children, found their primary audience among college students and young servicemen fighting overseas. The boys getting shot at in Vietnam didn’t have iPhones to watch movies on; they wanted quick disposable entertainment and comic books fit the bill. They didn’t want novels like War and Peace; they wanted something they could read from beginning to end in 20 minutes because they never knew when the next bullet might have their name on it. They wanted escapism from the hell they were living in every moment and Stan Lee gave it to them. I know Maher tours around the country; has he ever entertained our troops overseas, as other comedians like Bob Hope did? Just wondering.

Maher bemoans that “some dumb people got to be professors” and “pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature.” He closes by saying “Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.” Wrong, Billy-boy. Trump could only get elected in a country that doesn’t think reading is important. Now let me tell you why comic books, and other storytelling, are important.

Ellison, Nodel, Lee, and yes I’ll even include myself in this list, all share one thing in common: we’re all creators of fictional worlds and characters. We’re storytellers. We’re purveyors of imagination. The stories we tell — whether in comic books, films, novels, or whatever media we choose to express them in all serve as forms of escapism. They do more than entertain: they also serve a much more important function, especially when they comprise the childhood of so many. Childhood is an informative yet ephemeral period. It’s a finite, brief time in every individual’s life during which the foundation of who that person will become is laid. Children learn values and morals from the stories we tell; values and morals they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives. Every decision they make, every situation they encounter will be viewed through that prism formed in childhood. The authors who write these stories seldom get the recognition they deserve but their influence is profound and widespread. They deserve to have their name spelled correctly and to be quoted correctly, and for their work to be transcribed accurately; especially when done so by fellow authors and even more so by those who claim the mantle of journalist. Yes, they won’t complain after they’re dead but we owe it to posterity to be accurate and to give them their due so future generations will know who O. Henry was, who really created Green Lantern, and what quotes Harlan Ellison actually wrote.

Ironically, on the back of Segaloff’s biography there’s a quote from Ellison — the one he wanted as his eulogy — “For brief time I was here, and for brief time I mattered.” That’s true of all writers. That’s why accuracy is important. After all, even though the first president of the United States is long deceased we still want future generations to know about President Gregory Washington.

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