Leaving The Bullpen

Monday, 12 November 2018

This is cheating a bit. Normally on this blog I write about television or film - hence the reference to the one-eyed god of Irish legend. Today I want to write about the passing of Stan Lee, the creative genius behind Marvel Comics and, as so many of the characters he helped to create are now perhaps best known through films I think I can use that as an excuse.

I grew up on Marvel comics. When I was, I think, seven I had a stay in hospital after having my tonsils out and my mother brought me copies of The Fantastic Four and The X-Men to read while I was in. A year or so later I couldn’t get enough of The Mighty Thor - to the point that I would dress up in a red cape and a plastic helmet and play out the character carrying a wooden mallet painted to resemble Jack Kirby’s version of Mjolnir.

So what was so great about the characters that Stan Lee created - often in collaboration with Jack Kirby, one of the greatest graphic artists of all time? Of course, Kirby’s contribution should not be underestimated, but as Steve Ditko was the artist for, arguably, Lee’s most successful creation - Spiderman - there has to be something in the qualities of the characters Lee created that transcended visual imagery. I’d like to look at why they appealed to people like the young me.

Firstly, perhaps, it’s significant that so many of the alter-egos of Stan Lee’s creations were a bit geeky or a bit awkward or physically weak in some way. Peter Parker (Spiderman) is a geeky teenager who majors in Science and is bullied by guys on the football team. Don Blake (Thor) is a lame doctor who walks with a stick. Doctor Strange is a surgeon whose hands are crushed. Matt Murdoch (Daredevil) is blind. Bruce Banner is a research scientist. I could go on. The point is that, when you’re a child, a teenager, an adolescent and - let’s be honest - an adult, you’re not always entirely secure in your body image. I guess that’s why men get so many junk e-mails for penis-extensions.

What Lee’s character’s communicated was the idea that whatever you thought your limitations were - physical, social or in terms of social class - there could be another aspect to you. An aspect through which you could be powerful and influential; in which you could make a difference in the world and in which you had the moral strength to face down what was wrong. Contrast that with the alter egos of superheroes like Batman (millionaire), Green Arrow (millionaire), Green Lantern (test pilot). See my point?

More than that, though, Lee’s heroes were often outsiders. They were people, or groups of people, who didn’t fit in. The classic example, perhaps, are the X-Men. Over the years these mutants were more often hated by the people they protected than they were praised, because they were different. The Inhumans were, as their name proclaims, a race apart from humanity. Even among the more mainstream heroes, The Hulk was always an outsider. Spiderman was often, as a result of the editorials of the Daily Bugle, misunderstood as a villain.

When you are growing up feeling that you don’t really belong is part of the growing up process. Often you feel that folk don’t understand you. Truth is, we often feel that as adults too. Stan Lee’s characters resonated with that sense of alienation I guess we all feel sometimes.

Perhaps none of that would make any difference but for one thing. Stan Lee chose to set his stories in the real world. Mostly in New York. Compare that with Batman (Gotham), Superman (Metropolis) or the Flash (Keystone). However fantastic the stories were, they had a root in reality. Sure, it may have been a tenuous root but, when you’re a boy trying to deal with the whole process of growing up; of feeling awkward, of finding your body isn’t what you want it to be, of feeling insignificant, of feeling that you’re an outsider, these stories spoke to you. That they did it in terms of real places somehow made them speak all the louder.

So farewell Stan Lee. There have been times when I have done what is right, whatever the consequences. Maybe I did that because there’s a bit of me  that believes that even I - with all my weaknesses - can be a hero. Maybe it doesn’t take a cape and a helmet and a decorated mallet, but maybe, when you’re a kid, that’s a start. Whatever the case, thank you Stan for being part of my life. Back in the day every Marvel comic had an editorial page called ‘Bullpen Bulletin’ that reported events in the creative backroom of Marvel Comics. Today you left the Bullpen for the final time. I hope your spirit, though, lives on.