Stan the Man

 

From charlesskaggs.blogspot.com

 

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.

 

From bigmouthmag.wordpress.com

 

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!”

 

From comicvine.gamespot.com

 

The Bash Street King

 

© DC Thomson

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the passing of the American comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson.  Most famously, Wrightson was the creator of the DC Comics strip Swamp Thing, about a mutant superhero who was half-human and half-vegetable and who inspired my twelve-year-old self when I was “drawing monsters on the covers of my school jotters – the more shambling, squishy and barnacled the better.”  Sadly, another comic-book artist who had a big impact on me has just died too, though one from a different time and place and one who appealed to me when I was a different age, a kid of seven or eight years old: the Lancastrian artist Leo Baxendale.

 

Actually, by the time I got around to reading Baxendale’s most famous creations, he’d already stopped drawing them.  But even though they were being drawn by other artists, Baxendale’s style endured, as did the spirit he’d originally invested in them.  And it was that spirit – in equal parts surreal and anarchic – that was his biggest contribution to British comics, which’d tended to be conservative and staid.  Baxendale helped to blow the cobwebs off them.

 

Hired at the age of 22 by DC Thomson (as opposed to DC Comics), the publisher based in the Scottish city of Dundee, Baxendale spent the 1950s working on one of the company’s two most famous comics – the Beano, which, like its stablemate the Dandy, attracted a weekly readership of two million children in the immediate post-war era.  In February 1954, he launched a strip about some riotous schoolchildren called When the Bell Rings, which two years later was retitled The Bash Street Kids and which still appears in the Beano today.  When I started reading comics at the start of the 1970s, The Bash Street Kids became my favourite strip for a good few years.

 

One nice thing about The Bash Street Kids was that unlike other groups of youngsters in popular British culture up to that point, such as those in Ronald Searle’ St Trinian’s cartoons or Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, both of which were set in boarding schools, these ones were unmistakably working class and received their schooling in an urban environment – similar to the experiences of most kids reading the Beano at the time.  Baxendale drew the characters in an eccentric, even slightly grotesque fashion, whilst imbuing them with a refreshing, forward-looking rebelliousness.  The result is somewhere between Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl.

 

When I started reading the strip, the clothes and facilities already seemed old-fashioned: the teacher’s cane and mortar board, the wooden desks with their inkwells, etc.  But the irreverent, at times anti-authoritarian mentality of the kids seemed bang up-to-date.  I could imagine at least three of them, the skull-and-crossbones-wearing Danny, the silent and oddball Wilfred (whose habit of always wearing his sweater right up to his nose can’t have been hygienic) and the aesthetically-challenged but sensitive Plug, getting seriously into punk rock when they were older.

 

© DC Thomson

 

Baxendale devised other enduring strips for the Beano, including Minnie the Minx, a female version of the Beano’s most celebrated strip, Dennis the Menace.  First appearing in 1953, a year before The Bash Street Kids, the eternally Tomboy-ish Minnie was once admiringly described by her creator as ‘Amazonian’.

 

He also masterminded two strips set in the American Wild West – despite its location in the un-Western setting of Dundee, DC Thomson had something of an obsession with the Wild West and the most famous strip in the Dandy was the one about the strapping cowboy Desperate Dan.  These were Little Plum, which also made its debut in 1953, and The Three Bears, which became a spin-off from Little Plum in 1959.  Probably not anthropologically accurate, Little Plum was (and still is) a sweet and eccentric strip detailing life among a decidedly suburban Red Indian tribe, whose tepees come equipped with televisions sets and refrigerators.  It was somehow inevitable that in the 1980s, ‘Little Plum’ was the nickname that Britain’s music critics sneeringly gave to Ian Astbury, singer with rock / goth band The Cult, who had an embarrassing obsession with Native American mysticism.

 

The Three Bears featured a family of three anthropomorphic and rather pudgy grizzly bears who spend their time trying to steal food from the local retail outlet, Hank’s Store.  The stories frequently ended with Hank chasing the pesky bears and peppering their butts with shot from a blunderbuss.  The Three Bears appeared in a Beano annual as late as 2015, but in an era more attuned to concerns about animal cruelty, I doubt if Hank was still using his blunderbuss on them.

 

Throughout its history, DC Thomson had been famous, if not notorious, for its conservatism.  This included an aversion to its employees being in trade unions and it can’t have been a relaxing or sympathetic environment to work in with weekly deadlines hovering like vultures.  In 1962, a stressed-out and physically-ailing Baxendale quit – “I just blew up like an old boiler and left” – and during the 1960s and 1970s he worked for other publishers like Oldhams Press, Fleetway and IPC on comics like Wham!, Smash!, Buster, Valiant, Lion, Whizzer and Chips, Knockout, Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun.

 

Possibly his most famous creation from this period was Grimly Feendish, a comic villain billed as ‘the rottenest crook in the world’ who bears a slight resemblance to Uncle Fester in The Addams Family.  This inspired the song Grimly Fiendish by the punk / goth band The Damned, which got to number 21 in the UK singles chart in 1985.  As late as 2005, Feendish popped up among a plethora of other characters from 1960s / 1970s British comics in the six-issue Albion series, Alan Moore’s curious tribute to the comics of that era.

 

From kazoop.blogspot.com

 

In the 1980s, Baxendale waged a lengthy legal battle against DC Thomson over the rights to the characters he’d created for the Beano, a battle that ended finally with an out-of-court settlement.  He used the proceeds from that to set up a publishing house called Reaper Books.  Incidentally, two decades earlier, at the time of the Vietnam War, Baxendale had published (and ultimately lost a lot of money on) an anti-war newspaper called the Strategic Commentary – one of whose subscribers was none other than the celebrated linguist and activist Noam Chomsky.

 

As I’ve said, Baxendale’s creations were joyfully anarchic and surreal.  It’s telling that in the 1980s when four young artist-writers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Chris Donald, Simon Donald, Graham Dury and Simon Thorp, devised the anarchic, scatological and massively popular adult comic Viz and started satirising the famous British children’s comics that’d gone before them, there wasn’t much they could do when satirising Baxendale’s famous Beano strips other than make them even more surreal.  Little Plum became Little Plumber and The Bash Street Kids became The Posh Street Kids.  Meanwhile, The Three Bears were parodied as The Three Blairs (with Tony, Cherie and Leo Blair trying to steal from Gordon Brown’s store) and as the ultra-weird The Three Chairs.

 

Compare that with the brutal treatment that Viz meted out to the strips in the more cautious and traditional Dandy, like Desperate Dan (parodied as Desperately Unfunny Dan), Winker Watson (Wanker Watson), Korky the Cat (Corky the Twat), Black Bob the faithful Border Collie (Black Bag the Faithful Border Binliner) and Bully Beef (Biffa Bacon, with the Dandy’s schoolboy bully replaced by a Geordie psychopath who butts head, busts noses and breaks teeth).  Brilliantly, when DC Thomson threatened legal action in the 1990s, Viz retaliated by printing a strip called DC Thomson – the Humourless Scottish Git.

 

I suspect that the leading lights in the ‘British invasion’, i.e. those comic-book artists and writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Gibbons, Steven Dillon and Grant Morrison, who crossed the Atlantic in the 1980s and helped revitalise the comics scene in the States, were greatly inspired in their early youth if not by Baxendale himself then by the characters he created.  Indeed, Moore said as much in 2013: “We started out ingesting the genuine anarchy of the Beano, when Baxendale was doing all that wonderful stuff, and then we moved on to American comics.”

 

© Rex Features