So, the last of the quadrumvirate that created the Marvel Universe is gone. News reports say Stan Lee, the face of Marvel comics and the co-creator of scores of comic book characters, died on Nov 12 in Los Angeles, the United States of America.
Don’t believe the news reports. Lee has just gone to join his fellow warriors in Valhalla – the creators’ Valhalla – where the brave and the bold, where those who create worlds, go to rest.
True believers, a term Lee coined for the legions of Marvel fans, may be able to picture Lee floating in out-of-this-world habiliments as he engages in badinage with the astral forms of the other members of the quadrumvirate: Jack Kirby, Bill Everett and Steve Ditko.
Lee, Kirby, Everett and Ditko were my friends – friends who wove a web of thrills, spills and chills in my childhood and teenage years. The strange thing, however, is that none of them knew me.
I call them friends because they, or rather the unforgettable characters they created and the astonishing, fantastic and incredible stories they spun, were a part of my early life. And, to a much lesser extent, still are.
In earthly terms, Stan Lee, who co-created my favourite character Spider-Man with Steve Ditko, died on Nov 12. The media went wild with the news. Ditko, however, was found dead in his New York apartment on June 29 this year and many, including me, did not learn of it until later.
I wasn’t shocked at their passing, for Stan was 95 and Ditko 90. Both had, I believe, lived well, although Ditko did not enjoy the fame and fortune that Stan amassed.
In the 1960s and 1970s, comics were one of the few escapist pleasures for young people. And no one gave me as much pleasure as the writers and artists working for Marvel Comics, whose chief writer and editor was Stan “the man” Lee.
Television had just entered Malaysian homes in the mid-1960s but it would be years before it would enter mine. And the smartphone was ages away. Comics, however, were regular guests. You see, I could not afford to buy any, so I would borrow them from friends.
Sometimes I would go to the bookstall at the railway station or the News and Periodicals Book Store, smile sheepishly at the owner, pick up a comic book, and, standing, read as much as I could before he shooed me off.
I think I bought my first comic, an issue of Spider-Man, in 1967.
There were times in my younger days when I had wished I was Spider-Man or Dr Strange, another favourite character co-created by Lee and Ditko. I would imagine having some fantastic power with which I would right all the wrongs in the world, or, at the very least sock it to the big schoolmate who loved to shove my face onto the ground while playing rugby. Fantasy, sure. Escapist, sure. But, hey, it made life interesting.
Although I had read a few Superman and Batman comic books, I was unable to empathise with them. One was an alien, the other super rich. But Spider-Man was something else. He was not only a teenager like me, he was, like me, human and fallible.
And I loved the unique artwork of Ditko and the fabulous drawings by John Romita Sr who took over when the former left Marvel after a disagreement with Lee.
Peter Parker, the alter ego of Spider-Man, was a high school student who was puny, who was pushed around, who was afraid to talk to girls although he so wanted to, and who had money problems. And Parker had a sense of humour, even wit, when he donned the costume. In fact, I enjoyed the wisecracks as much as I enjoyed the story and action.
Spider-Man saves people and defeats super-powered villains, yet finds it difficult to cope with normal life.
This was the turning point in comic book history –imaginative characters with real emotions, ordinary problems and deficiencies, despite possessing immense powers.
Today, characters from comics continue to make the lives of many children, teenagers, and even adults, that much more fascinating. The characters – many of whom have become regular fixtures of Hollywood – are captivating not just because they have all sorts of powers but because they have emotions and problems like you and I.
And we have to largely thank Lee, Kirby, Ditko, and Everett for this, although many others such as Romita Sr, Roy Thomas, John Buscema, Frank Miller, Gene Colan, Peter David, Chris Claremont, Walter Simonson, Bill Sienkiewicz, Roger Stern, JM DeMatteis, Neal Adams, and Jim Steranko, contributed immensely to the establishment of the Marvel Universe and the acceptance of comics as a respectable medium.
Bill Everett’s role in the growth of Marvel and comics in general is largely unrecognised. He created the Sub-Mariner, the first anti-hero in 1939, and later co-created, with Lee, the popular Daredevil. Everett needs to be credited with moving away from the “black and white” characters of earlier years to the first “grey” character: Namor the Sub-Mariner, the king of the seas, who doesn’t think of himself as a hero and who doesn’t care what others think.
Everett died young, aged 55, in 1973.
Jack Kirby died aged 71 on Feb 6, 1994, after creating or co-creating a host of characters, many of them familiar today to movie goers, such as the X-men, Thor, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, the Black Panther and the Fantastic Four.
Kirby and Ditko had problems with Lee who was seen as claiming or hogging all the credit for the success of the characters and Marvel Comics, but that is another story.
As much as I loved reading the stories, I loved reading the credits and the fan page that Lee introduced. His sense of humour, alluring alliterative prose and grandiloquence added to the joy.
Where else can you find such pulse-pounding, pulchritudinous prose as “by the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, begone!” or “by the Seven Rings of Raggadorr!” or “I summon the spells of the Omnipotent Oshtur” but in the works of Lee, and specifically Dr Strange?
Ditko’s fertile imagination and surrealistic style created stupendous otherworldly creatures and wondrous realms into which Dr Strange phased in and out at will. I am a fan of some of the numerous other characters Ditko created for other comic companies, including Captain Atom (with Joe Gill), The Question and The Creeper.
Lee would engage his fans in the letters/editorial page at the back of each comic book and he had this uncanny ability to make you feel you were part of Marvel.
One of the many readers whose fan mail was published in an issue of the Fantastic Four (issue 17) was a guy called George R R Martin. Yes, he of Game of Thrones fame. Of course, back then he was an unknown youngster who was thrilled to have his letter published.
Lee created the “No Prize” which he would give to anyone who could explain mistakes, raised by other readers, in the story and thus get him and other writers off the hook.
Staying in Malaysia, I was intrigued by this “No Prize” and often wondered what it was. One day I found out that the “No Prize” was just that, and that it was a joke of sorts from Lee to the readers: the winner did not get any prize. Yet, fans would write in with suggestions or explanations and ask for a “No-Prize”. What a salesman.
No wonder Lee was able to sell the idea of making movies with these marvellous characters to Hollywood. No wonder he was able to sell this fantasy to a world reeling from strife – in the international arena, in the office and even in the home.
He used to write “Stan’s Soapbox” in the editorial pages which I never missed. The brief column was full of his usual bombast but now and then he would write stuff that would make you think and reflect.
For instance, in one “Stan’s Soapbox”, in 1968, he wrote that racism and bigotry were among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. “But, unlike, a team of costumed super-villains, they can’t be halted with a punch in the snoot, or a zap from a ray gun. The only way to destroy them is to expose them – to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are.”
Now, the man who piloted Marvel to success is no more; the top three artist-creators who helped create this marvellous universe are no more. But, although the quadrumvirate is gone, their legacy lives on in the characters they created. The way movie-goers are lapping up the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel, and comics, can only go up and up.
I imagine Smilin’ Stan in Valhalla looking at us mortals buying comics and watching Marvel movies, and saying a hearty “Excelsior!”, one of his favourite expressions.
In the immortal words of Stan “the man” Lee: ‘Nuff said.
A Kathirasen is executive editor at FMT
The views of the writer do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.