It might be a stretch to describe Marvel Comics supremo Stan Lee, who died last week at the very venerable age of 95, as the Walt Disney of the comics world. But he was surely the Disney of the Silver Age of Comic Books, which ran from the late 1950s to the beginning of the 1970s. (The Silver Age came after a period when the medium had been in decline thanks to the rising popularity of television and the stultifying, neutering self-censorship imposed by the comic-book industry in response to crap psychologist Frederic Wertham and his scaremongering 1954 volume Seduction of the Innocent.)
The Marvel Comics superheroes Lee co-created with talents like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, such as the Hulk, Avengers, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, are now as deeply embedded in the popular consciousness as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and the rest of Disney’s iconic creations. Mind you, it’s helped that in the last 20 years or so the Marvel characters have transferred with amazing success from the medium of comics to the medium of blockbuster movies.
When I was very young, it was difficult in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to find American superhero comics. Only occasionally would I pick up an issue of Superman that’d somehow drifted all the way from the USA and crash-landed in the racks of the newsagent in my local town, Enniskillen – just as the baby Superman himself had drifted all the way from Krypton and crash-landed in Smallville in Kansas. However, that changed in the early 1970s when Marvel founded a British-based publishing arm called Marvel UK, which led to titles like Spider-Man Weekly, The Avengers and the Mighty World of Marvel (with strips featuring the Hulk, Daredevil, X-Men, Fantastic Four and so on) suddenly offering brash competition to more traditional British fare like the Beano and Dandy on the kiddies’ shelves of the nation’s newsagents.
I’d known that Marvel UK was run for a couple of years by Dez Skinn, whom I’ve written about before in this blog. But I didn’t know that before Skinn one of its overseers had been none other than Neil Tennant, later to become the witty singer of the Pet Shop Boys. According to Wikipedia, one of Tennant’s tasks when transferring American-drawn comic strips onto pages destined for British shop-shelves was “indicating where women needed to be redrawn more decently”.
I was too young to figure out why, but I soon realised I preferred, say, the awkward, nerdish and accident-prone Spider-Man to the clean-cut, chiselled and scoutmaster-like Superman. Yes, Stan Lee and his collaborators had hit upon the idea – obvious now, but revolutionary back then – that the most attractive superheroes are the most human ones. They might be god-like in their strength, athleticism and sensory powers, but to be interesting they have to have the same foibles and insecurities that us ordinary mortals have.
But I didn’t like everything that came out of Marvel’s stable of superheroes. I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for Captain America or for the Fantastic Four. (That said, I’ve always been haunted by a Fantastic Four story, simultaneously phantasmagorical and baffling, where the Thing takes possession of giant bulldog and escorts it along a twisting bridge into a weird, swirling alternative dimension, before they end up in a gothic castle battling android copies of Dracula, the wolfman, the mummy and Frankenstein’s monster. Stan and the gang must have been on LSD when they dreamt that one up.) On the other hand, while my partner has always strongly objected to Iron Man on the grounds that his human alter-ego, Tony Stark, is a playboy arms dealer, I felt sorry for him as a kid; because unlike other, more glamorously-attired superheroes in the 1970s he had to wear a dorky-looking tin suit.
In fact, the less that the Marvel characters adhered to the conventional superhero format, the more I liked them. I was fascinated by Doctor Strange because his adventures didn’t take place in a vaguely science-fictional world like most superheroes’ did, but in a world that unashamedly embraced magic, demons and the supernatural. Also, I loved Ka-Zar, who wasn’t really a superhero but a muscular Tarzan-like character who’d been reared by a sabre-toothed tiger in the Savage Land, a dinosaur-infested lost world underneath the Antarctic. Ka-Zar had first appeared as a comic-book character in the 1930s, but Lee and Jack Kirby revived and updated him in the mid-1960s. (Lee happily confessed to never having read the originals.)
Perhaps Marvel UK reasoned that British readers were slightly less enthused by superheroes than American ones because a fair number of its comics were actually based on literary franchises – or on cinematic ones, like Planet of the Apes and Star Wars. One Marvel UK comic called Savage Sword of Conan first introduced me to pulp-writer Robert E. Howard’s brooding sword-and-sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian; while another had the self-explanatory Dracula Lives and in addition to Bram Stoker’s aristocratic vampire featured the vampire-hunting Blade, later to be the subject of a not-very-good movie trilogy with Wesley Snipes.
And I seem to recall one comic – maybe it was Mighty World of Marvel? – containing a strip called Master of Kung Fu, about a deadly assassin called Shang-Chi whose father is none other than Sax Rohmer’s literary Chinese super-villain Fu Manchu. (Shang-Chi becomes a reformed character and starts working with Fu Manchu’s nemesis Nayland Smith.) Not only did Master of Kung Fu cannily update Rohmer’s novels to cash in on the 1970s’ craze for martial arts, but it also managed to subvert their notorious racism by having a Chinese character as the hero.
The more I think about it, the more I understand that Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics, through Marvel UK, introduced me to a whole fascinating universe of stuff when I needed it, i.e. when I was a youngster desperate to have his imagination stimulated and empowered. Now I accept that Lee was no saint. There were rows and bitterness between him, Kirby and Steve Ditko over character ownership and who got credit for what. Alan Moore once commented: “I really don’t have a great deal of respect for Stan Lee… when you start in the industry you find out that Jack wasn’t jolly and you find out why; and you find out that Steve wasn’t sturdy and you find out why; and you find out why Stan was smiling.” Still, as the master showman who kept Marvel on the road, he was a big formative influence on me.
Accordingly, whenever I’ve watched a Marvel superhero movie in recent years and spotted the nonagenarian Lee making his customary cameo appearance in it, I’ve reacted almost as if I’ve just bumped into an old friend. “It’s Stan,” I’ve felt like exclaiming. “It’s Stan the Man!”