Sunday, 31 May 2009

Something fantastig (sic)

My friend Michael Levy was at a cocktail party this weekend. His host: none other than Stan Lee. (There they are below.)

I’ve never been given to hero-worship as such, but Stan Lee was a big figure for me growing up. He’s J K Rowling, Anthony Horowitz and Stephenie Meyer rolled into one. I doubt if any other writer in history has created so many characters who inspire such levels of absolute devotion.

In the rush to make movies based on comic books, many Hollywood execs have missed the point that the really big hits have all come from the mind of Stan Lee. The Spider-man movies, for example; even if we forget the third one (and believe me, I’ve tried) that’s nearly $2 billion in box office takings alone.

Not that the money means a thing, but look at the love. Aunt May, Pepper Potts, Foggy Nelson, Mary Jane Watson - Stan created families of characters we can connect to and care about. Now, tell me: does anybody even remember the name of the lead character in Wanted?

Stan matters to me because his work taught me that stories in print form could be as compelling as movies. And, month on month, he showed me how to do it. The power of suspense to draw you in. The effectiveness of surprises and reversals to keep you guessing. The impact of cliffhangers to bring you back. And, most important of all, the through-line of characters that makes us want to invest in them emotionally.

There’s only one other cocktail party in the world that I’d want to crash as much, and that would be one hosted by Stan Lee’s
one-time creative partner, Steve Ditko. (This is completely hypothetical, as I’m pretty sure Ditko isn't the type to throw cocktail parties.) The Spider-man stories were created by them both, following the “Marvel Method” whereby artist and writer would agree on a plot, the artist would go off and pencil the comic, and the writer (almost always Stan in the early days) would only then add the dialogue.
Famously (though not necessarily accurately, as Jonathan Ross has pointed out
)the two are said to have fallen out over the identity of the Green Goblin. This had been set up over many issues and had all the readers guessing, including an earnest little wonk in short pants called David Morris. After forty years, I don’t think I’m throwing out a spoiler if I say that the Goblin turned out to be Norman Osborn, father of Peter Parker’s best pal Harry. Ditko had supposedly wanted him to turn out to be someone we had never seen before, on the grounds that was more realistic.

So it was. But stories aren’t realistic, and Stan was right. For whatever reason, Ditko left the comic before the Goblin was unmasked. He was replaced by John Romita (that’s J.R. senior, kiddies) - a towering talent in his own right, so it wasn’t exactly a George Lazenby moment. But I hope that there’s an
Amazing Fantasy-style parallel universe out there somewhere in which Lee and Ditko never parted company and went on spinning intricate webs of narrative to ensnare us for decades more. Maybe they’re poolside in LA right now clinking piña coladas. In the hearts of True Believers ‘tis so.


  1. Who's that handsome guy with Stan Lee?

  2. Michael Levy - on my blog? I'm not worthy!