If only I had kept it, and kept it in good condition. It would be the nearest I have ever had to a pension plan.
In February 1973, as a 10-year-old, I bought the first issue of the new UK edition of something called Spider-Man Comics Weekly for 5p from my local shop – and the addiction continued for a couple of years.
Previously, my comic of choice had been something called Whizzer and Chips. Now Spider-Man introduced me to a dark and disturbingly adult world of superheroism laced with depression, frustration and failure to get the girl. Peter Parker’s terrible life persuasively and seductively mimicked our own banal humiliations; his alter ego was therefore a compelling wish-fulfilment fantasy.
His inventor, Stan Lee (by 1973 he was the publisher and a commander-in-chief figure, no longer actually writing), composed cheerfully accessible “letters from the editor” to his fans and soon we were devoted to Hulk, Fantastic Four, X-Men, Iron Man and all the rest – and aware of Lee as an avuncular figure.
Marvel Comics is sometimes described as the “French New Wave” outfit to the blandly conventional “Hollywood studio” world of DC Comics, whose creations were more strait-laced: Lee introduced real superheroes with real problems and real vulnerabilities.
So in a way, it is strange that it took Marvel really until the late 90s to exploit their colossal mythic resources for movies. There was Men in Black; the first Blade was terrific and the first X-Men was challenging, exciting and bizarre. Then Spider-Man began in 2002, reminding me of my long-lost excitement, and now that character seems to regenerate more often than Doctor Who. And almost every time, Lee gave himself a cheeky Hitchcockian cameo.
In less than 20 years, Lee had put himself into a commanding position, the Odin of the movie superhero gods. It was if he had always been there. And thanks largely to Lee and what he created, superhero films now dominate the landscape, for good or ill.
These are the tentpoles of modern Hollywood: they are the establishment, not the New Wave, and it is said that actors can’t really make it big until they are prepared to pull on the stretchy lycra of a superhero costume. The democratic business of consulting the fans through social media and humbly attending fan conventions: that is a concept which Lee and Marvel did a great deal to establish. And the whole idea of the franchise – where else did that originate but in the comic book, a continual reiteration of a single set of characters?
Very late in the day, Lee became Hollywood’s last great creator-mogul: a Walt Disney of the masked crime-fighters. He appeared to exist both before and after someone like Pixar’s John Lassiter – he started comic book work in the late 30s, and yet his creations’ massive screen dominance has only recently been established.
In a way, he became a serious Hollywood figure after retirement age and was certainly one of the very few active players to have seen active US army service in the second world war. When he appeared in cameo as a veteran in Avengers Age of Ultron or in the Captain America movies, it would have had a very personal significance.
Lee and Marvel did always have a Midas touch: when they relinquished the rights to Hulk at the beginning of the last decade, a movie version was released directed by Ang Lee – which I quite enjoyed, but which was elsewhere received very coolly. When Marvel reacquired the rights to Hulk, the result was at first a staggeringly awful film with Edward Norton – and Hulk only really came into his own as part of the Avengers.
Now that commercial Hollywood is dominated by the executives and the focus groups, an actual individual visibly calling the shots is a real rarity. Probably Stan Lee is the last of the kind: a legend of American pop culture.
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