Stan Lee (1922-2018)

Stan “The Man” Lee had a prominent role in influencing part of the popular culture.

Ten years ago (Dec 2008), the Hero Initiative (an organization devoted to helping comics creators in need) published the collected editorial run of “Stan Lee’s Soapbox,” the short column that appeared each month in every issue of Marvel comics from 1967-1980.

Stan Lee’s Soapbox: The Collection

The book also featured (and I quote): “a bountiful bevy of celebs also write about their most memorable columns, including: Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada, X-Men movie producer Tom DeSanto, and a vast variety of great names from the fields of comics, literature, and academia.”

I was one of the “academia” members who contributed an essay about a recollection related to one of Stan’s editorials. The title of my essay was “1969”:


I do not remember some events from 1969: the publication of the last edition of the Saturday Evening Post, for instance, or the Stonewall Riots, or the opening of the Beijing subway. But there are plenty of days I do remember: Nixon taking office; the My Lai massacre; the first flight of the Concorde; the lunar landing; the murder of Sharon Tate.

Also in 1969, on summery Saturdays in rural New Hampshire, 12-year-old boys rode Schwinn bicycles into town to catch 50-cent double features.  Afterwards, with my dollar-a-week allowance, I would stop by the newsstand, two doors down from the theater, and kneel down in front of the wooden magazine display where I had been buying comics for 4 years. Fifty cents would buy 4 comics with a couple of pennies returned. Until thatday…

I remember that day: the worst day of 1969. The day when I bought 3 comics and went back to the dweeb behind the counter to tell him that he gave me the wrong change. Only he had not – comics were now 15 cents. I stared for minutes, looking and looking again, at the cover to Iron Man #16. I was sure it was some kind of mistake.

Today, we would have heard about this far in advance. In the information ago, our questions are answered before we even ask them. But in 1969, there were no spoilers. There was no direct communication between a mythical place called 655 Madison Avenue and a kid on a bike in New Hampshire, except for Stan’s Soapbox.

I remember reading (and re-reading) Stan’s explanation, as though written directly to me, about the price increase. And, perhaps for the first time, I thought about comics as something that actual people produced: “writers, artists, printers, etc.” People who needed to get paid for their work. I think that seemed an adult way to approach it; quite reasonable.

“But now, let’s look at the bright side,” Stan went on. “Today you can buy your majestic Marvel mags even faster … ‘cause you don’t have to fumble around with pennies!”

Adult life wears conflicting faces when it greets 12-year-old boys. Even without the word disingenuous in my vocabulary, this business about fumbling with pennies struck me as condescending. I recall that. In retrospect, though, maybe this was Stan’s biggest writing challenge, and the one that still faces comics today: audience.

In 1969, Stan was confronted with a new phenomenon: an audience that did not disappear at puberty. He had the kids, he had the tweens and teens, and he had a growing popularity on college and university campuses. Over the past 40 years, as prices have increased and comics have become more complex, the challenge remains: to recruit and speak to an audience of the youngest children while keeping the older crowd tuned in and not turned off.


The Art of The Steal (Again)

Ren Jingwen, a man in Xi’an, China, who spent over 40 years collecting ancient artifacts, and particularly things related to “Ox Culture,” built his own museum in Xi’an. The birth of new China (October 1, 1949) was in the year of the Ox, and 2009 was the hugely important 60th birthday of China and the year he planned for this museum to open, displaying his collection to the public. This museum opened on September 12, 2009.

Here is a run-down about the museum

I just happened to be  with an alum group that month, and had arrived in China on September 17; we got to Xi’an on Sept 21-23. The provincial museum was closed on the day we were supposed to go, in preparation for the October 1 celebrations, and our guide had heard about this new private museum, so we went. Here is a link to my full set of pictures.

This place was not only physically magnificent, but the collection (and I have seen a few Chinese history museums) was at least as good if not better, in many of his items, that I have ever seen… examples that I had only seen broken and repaired, he would have five pristine versions of them.

He was there that day, and took us around – I am pretty we were the first foreigners, and among the first visitors ever.

Apparently, creating this palatial and privately held museum and putting on this display – EVEN though it was all in deference to the country and the culture – was too much for the provincial government, who decided they needed the land, and demolished the museum and parsed some of the collection to three smaller museums.

I am so upset to hear about this! It sets my social justice neuron to firing when you mess with art. I have a super-special sense of privilege to have seen this place during its short lifetime.

And if you are smirking and telling yourself that “this is China, and this could never happen in the United States,” then you do not know about the story of the ca. $25B (B!Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, and I urge you to watch “The Art of the Steal” (2009) sometime. There is a copy on YouTube.


UnthinkableNever heard of it?

That’s a little surprising, given the star power and the basic plot.

Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Michael Sheen… check!

Plot: Soldier-turned-terrorist plants 3 nuclear bombs in 3 US cities. It’s Monday. They are scheduled to go off at noon on Friday. Genuine tension and thrills follow…. check!

Publicity: none… curious!
Release: straight to DVD… curiouser!

Despite my plot summary, Unthinkable is not another Tom Clancy novel turned into a movie: no Jack Ryan; low production values (they rented out a high school, not that it was a bad choice); no chases; no special effects. No Air Force One barreling down a runway as an ash cloud nips its tail; no press conferences; no somber news reports from the Oval Office. In fact, the soldier-turned-terrorist is caught early in the first act, and he needs to be interrogated.

And that is the movie.

If you recall the scenes of information-extraction from (that great TV show) Alias then you really have seen comparable information-extracting techniques. But in those scenes, of course, an evil man (often a foreign villain with a dentist’s drill) was carrying on with our heroes. You can show that on TV, because we (Americans) can and will overcome great evil! But what if the guy with the drill is Samuel L. Jackson, family man, and the prisoner in the chair is a US citizen?

What are the rights… the morality… when nuking 3 US cities is on the line?

Apparently, asking this interesting question does not mix well with a super-tub of popcorn, a big blue drink, and a box of candy-coated chocolates at the Bijou. So the decision-makers by-passed the theatrical release and went straight to DVD. What a pity: making a movie about an idea. As the story goes, the US box office did not like two fabulous, high-production value movies about terrorism, the search for WMDs, and the war that accompanied them (2008’s Hurt Locker and 2010’s Green Zone, which, by the way, make a great triple feature with Unthinkable), so the powers-that-be did not think audiences would even go see Unthinkable when the moral ambiguity was so high. We just don’t like knowing these things, or seeing them at the cinema. Don’t ask, don’t tell… and for pity’s sake, don’t make a movie about it.

And just to make matters that much more interesting, the DVD has the “original version” (the one planned for US release) and the “extended version” (the one planned for the rest of the world). The difference is 90 seconds, and it’s how you end the story.

The Man from Earth

MFE-Home-Page-BackgroundI recommend highly, if not higher than that, a film titled “The Man from Earth.”

This is no regular “Sci-fi” movie. There are no space ships, aliens, ray guns, slime, robots, spandex, cute kids, explosions, or creatures that pop out from someone’s belly. It’s about an idea. A simple “What If?” scenario that then gets played out, and draws intelligently from a study of human reactions and behaviors.

“The Man from Earth” is a low budget piece made up of one long conversation that takes place in a cabin (an actual cabin, not a set), as an academic – surrounded by some colleagues from various disciplines, and who are surprised he’s giving up his tenure and moving on – learn from him that he is a 14,000 year old man, who needs to “move on” as people begin to notice he does not age.

There’s more, but that would be telling.

And it would make an incredible stage play.