I know parents who tell their kids about metaphors and meaning way before those concepts are useful. Maybe they’re hoping it'll prepare them for the exams they fear, which often amount to preparation in turn for a job they’ll come to hate. I was lucky - my mum and dad told me stories instead. Mum’s adventures in Italy working as a nanny for a Jewish family who came to Britain to flee the Nazis. Dad’s escapades dispensing rail warrants during national service, one reason I came to love the Bilko show - resentment of the army made up for by the opportunities it presented to the nimble of thought. It taught me that school, and systems like it, could be gamed.
The books of legends I devoured gave me a feel for the epic, the magical, of right and wrong and the ways they can be thwarted. Comics had crossed my path, but at that point I’d enjoyed them - humour stories mostly - without them making a real impact. And then I encountered superhero comics. All of the stuff about justice, and honour, that moved great heroes like Thor and Lancelot to do greater things to make the world right - it was there in the glorious stories of costumed adventurers living in a world more or less like our own. There was even a superhero version of Thor, and a kid who called out Shazam - the initials of Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury - to transform into a champion.
The first superhero comics I came across were from DC. I was ill, at my gran’s place in Devon, and to occupy me she opened up a trunk of comics collected by one of my uncles. Whatever delirium I was experiencing was heightened by those four-colour beauties, even more when the first I read turned out to be a parallel world story with two versions of each character. The effect was kaleidoscopic, but it was Marvel I turned to when I started buying comics of my own. Something about the characters registered more. Like me, they were flawed.
It wasn’t just the heroes, and what they got up to, brilliant though it often was. John Buscema’s art on The Avengers had a vital urgency that felt indefinably right; Jack Kirby’s depiction of the noble and stoic Black Bolt was Shakespearean - a mute king and his court; the intense emotions and cosmic scope of Jim Starlin’s hero Adam Warlock were dwarfed only by the ideas underpinning his story; Jean Grey’s tragic transition from her early role as Marvel Girl before becoming first Phoenix and then Dark Phoenix in Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s classic run on X-Men. I was buying many of my comics second hand, imports from the last decade I hoovered up at random, piecing together my particular version of the Marvel universe. And I got to know the names of their creators thanks to the Bullpen Bulletins that would appear in every issue. They were put together by the man at the heart of it all, Stan Lee.
Those promotional pieces were brilliant. They presented creators like Rascally Roy Thomas and Ring-A-Ding Romita hanging out in a clubhouse for grown-ups. The truth was probably more Made Men from what I gather, but I was 12 and excited by hints about forthcoming stories that would shake the foundations of this or that character. Sometimes there’d be word of new heroes to come, like The Human Fly (a rare disappointment from the House of Ideas). And it was all written in the breathless carnival barker tone that James Ellroy does so well at public events.
Stan Lee was a huckster, a shill, a hustler with a heart of gold and a tendency not to give his collaborators the credit they deserve. But he loved his characters, and Marvel, and knew how to connect with kids through stories that looked tacky to some but often featured a wider vocabulary than the newspapers read by those who looked down on them. Stan’s Soapbox was the centrepiece of the Bullpen Bulletins. Here’s a chunk from one he wrote in 1968, the year Martin Luther King was shot:
"Racism and bigotry are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today. But, unlike a team of costumed supervillains, 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 the insidious evil they really are."
Stan was talking about the legacy of World War Two and the history of his family. Like many who shaped the evolution of American comics - Will Eisner, Max Gaines, Bob Kane, Julius Schwarz among them - Stan Lee was Jewish. His experience growing up in an immigrant family shaped the publications that went out with his name on, never mind how much work he put into them. That’s stuff for another day, and Stan was like us all of his time. The morality that came across in the comics he had a big hand in creating is pretty straightforward, and it’s notable that very few of the characters created since Marvel’s 60s and 70s heyday have taken off with the public.
The Marvel films we watch feature heroes from that earlier era. Captain America, Iron Man, The Hulk and others are characters whose very simplicity - the core of each can be captured in a handful of words - allows them to be vehicles for some great stories. Their designs, thanks to Kirby, and others including Steve Ditko and Dave Cockrum, have more or less stood the test of time. Interesting that the characters which have taken off more recently are anti-heroes like Wolverine, Punisher, and Deadpool.
Stan’s fictional world was a simpler one than ours, and there’s a lot to be said for that kind of simplicity in creating stories for the young. Complexity will find them in time. Allow at least the possibility of being influenced by the values that led Spider-Man to look after Aunt May after his actions caused the death of Uncle Ben. With great power comes great responsibility, indeed. And if your own family is too confusing, be inspired by the Fantastic Four, who argue and fall out, but are always there for each other when the chips are down and Mole Man is threatening to collapse their Baxter Building home with his infernal digging. Or take a tip from Black Bolt, who knows things so dread that even to open his mouth will level a city. Stan Lee seems a million miles away from the Inhuman monarch, but there’s something they have in common, expressed in Stan’s familiar sign-off…