RIP Stan Lee

Stan Lee is dead at 95 years old. For me Stan is eternally wearing an open-necked shirt and a bad wig as he sailed through the 1960’s into the 70’s.

The first time I met Lee he looked like this. That was waaaaaaay back in the late 70’s when he came to the UK (something he did often as his wife Joan was from Newcastle) to sign copies of Hulk Weekly.

By this point Stan had barely written a word of comics in years but every Marvel comic opened with the legend, Stan Lee Presents… so us young folk assumed Stan was still there working away but by 1979 Stan was at best a figurehead as he pushed all of Marvel’s characters to a variety of film and TV studios, with at best varied results. However I’d also grown up saying ‘Stan and Jack’ because the idea of separating Lee from Kirby during a still astonishing period of creativity during the 60’s that saw Marvel develop from a company going out of business to a cultural phenomenon.

Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four remains the peak of what Marvel could do in the 60’s. The first 101 issues contain no filler. Every issue drops a new character, or concept or story that’s simply glorious and instead of spending a year developing an idea to death, Kirby and Lee would use two or three issues at most before moving onto something else. Take the run from FF Annual #3 with the wedding of Reed and Sue through to #44’s introduction of the first Inhuman, to #48’s introduction of Galactus and the Silver Surfer, ‘the sublime story This Man, This Monster in #51 and the introduction of the Black panther in #52.Any single issue would be something for most creators today to hang their C.V up on. Kirby and Lee were firing them out monthly.

Stan Lee helped shape me. Marvel’s tales of two-dimensional morality were great and with the visuals of a Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko or Wally Wood they were perfection. Of course I wasn’t to know that Kirby, Ditko, Wood, etc were being ripped off thanks partly to Stan’s myth-making. I only cared about the comics which brings me back to that first time I met Stan. He was everything I expected. Charming, witty and bigger than Galactus.  He may have spelled my name wrong but fuck it, Stan Lee signed my comic!!A decade or so later someone nicks it.Ah well.

Second time I met Stan was at one of the UKCAC‘s in London. He wasn’t a guest but was in town and heard there was a comic convention on. I remember Mike Lake and John McShane sticking their head into the free bar which Titan Distributors stuck on for dealers on the Friday evening telling everyone that ‘fucking hell guys, Stan fucking Lee is outside signing stuff’. Carrying as much free beer as one can, I stuck my head out the door and yes, there was Stan fucking Lee signing stuff. By this point I was aware of the stories that circulate both in and out of public domain but fuck it, there’s Stan fucking Lee reducing dealers, distributors and assorted hangers on to drooling fanboys. I mean I knew what he’d done to Kirby and Ditko especially, I knew he didn’t have anything to do with creating characters he still carries a co-creator credit on and I’d read Kirby’s vicious caricature of him; Funky Flashman, which featured a pathetic Roy Thomas trying to convince Stan to hand over the family jewels to him.

But Stan had a way to make you forget the stories and swallow the myth whole. This is basically what Stan’s done for the 21st century; sell the myth of Marvel and now he’s passed away and it’s impossible to tear apart the man from the myth that he’s spent 60 years cultivating.

So what did Stan actually do?

Without a doubt he sold Marvel Comics. The Fantastic Four would be an interesting alternative to the Challengers of the Unknown and probably sold well enough, but without Lee’s lines of dialogue punching up Kirby’s art, not to mention Lee’s careful stewardship of Marvel during the 60’s, we’d not have billion dollar films today. In fact superhero comics might not have lasted into the 70’s as DC’s superhero revival of the late 50’s was losing steam by 63, and they had to adapt to the world Marvel created. And Lee saw comics as an art form; a medium to tell stories that can’t be told any other way or to cultivate talent which couldn’t be cultivated in any other medium. His attempts to mainstream Underground Comix of the age testifies to that.

Stan Lee took what he had to push comics, and in a stab to the Gamergate crew, pushed a liberal agenda of basic human decency in editorials which spoke to us, the reader. it made us feel good about ourselves and for many of us having hard times or looking to escape, Stan sold us what we wanted. He gave us joy. The same sort of joy a wee boy getting a Hulk comic signed felt all those years ago.

There’s going to be a time and place to give Stan a real tribute that is warts and all the complexity that come with it. All that can be said for now is that for those of us with a long history in comics, Stan is a complex figure but his passing may not come as a shock. 95 is a good age, but with Lee’s passing another link to those early days of comics from the Golden to Silver Age is gone.

So lets remember Stan the showman. Stan the Man.

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100 years later the streets are lined with the dead

A century ago today the Great War as it was known then, and World War One as it’s known now, came to an end. Four years of bloody conflict saw millions die. For generations their deaths were remembered not as glorious sacrifices with many surviving soldiers refusing to wear the poppy, the symbol used for remembrance ceremonies because they couldn’t face living with the lies that took them to war. Today the act of remembrance itself is drifting away to be replaced by a triumphalist mix of British exceptionalism and imperialism that helps resurrect the lies that saw millions join up in 1914 only to die in blood, mud and shit somewhere on a battlefield.

A generation lost for nothing. They didn’t die fighting for survival as in the Second World War; they died for Britain’s imperialism and after the war to end all wars, many wanted nothing to do with fighting.

Those are the ones who came back. Millions didn’t. The street where you live could be full of those boys and men who died during that war. We’re all familiar with the stone cenotaph’s that are in virtually every British city, town and village, but do you know the names of those who died where you live?

Thanks to the website, A Street Near You, you can look and put names to buildings, assuming those buildings still stand after a century.There’s people like this near me.

Second Lieutenant Walter Daniel John Tull
Middlesex Regiment
Date of death: 25/03/1918 (aged 29)
Son of the late Daniel Tull; brother of Edward Tull-Warnock, of 419, St. Vincent St., Glasgow. Former professional footballer with Tottenham Hotspur and Northampton Town, he was also previously a FA Amateur Cup Winner with Clapton FC. He played more than a hundred first team games for Northampton Town before the First World War intervened.

But most are sad wee memorials for people who died decades too young.

Private Joseph Ayton
Seaforth Highlanders
Date of death: 16/04/1918 (aged 19)
Son of Jane Ayton, of 51, Dorset St., Glasgow, and the late George Ayton.

Private Robert Hardie
Highland Light Infantry
Date of death: 25/09/1915 (aged 19)
Brother of Mrs. Elizabeth Porter, of 135, North St., Whiteinch, Scotstoun, Glasgow.

With these people you have an idea of a life led, family and even community as it is entirely possible these boys know each other living streets away from each other. There’s the cases of people who don’t even have a first name which may well be lost in history.

Gunner Donaldson
Royal Field Artillery
Date of death: 16/05/1917 (aged 24)
Son of James C. Donaldson, of 89, North St., Anderston, Glasgow.

There’s around 30-40 names in a five minute walking distance of where I live. In all those names only one has a face to go along with the name. That’s the man below.

Second Lieutenant William George Teacher (HU 118927) Second Lieutenant William George Teacher. Unit: DCompany, 15th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry. Death: 14 May 1916 Killed in action Western Front Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205389533

Second Lieutenant William George Teacher
Highland Light Infantry
Date of death: 14/05/1916 (aged 22)
Son of William Curtis Teacher and Eliza Rowena Teacher, of Kilarden, Dowanhill Gardens, Glasgow.

There’s a bit of information about William. We even know where he’s buried. We know he died at the height of the war. We know his death was utterly and totally pointless and seeing as most men who fought in the war didn’t have the vote, they were unable to change their future or current circumstances. Many of those conscripted were fearful of being shot or suffering the dreaded white feather which bullied men and boys into joining up.

And here we are in 2018 with the sound of Rule Britannia bouncing down the streets of the Cenotaph in London. There’s annual outrage at footballers refusing to wear a poppy because of what Britain did to their countries in the past, and Remembrance Day becomes a celebration of war, imperialism and exceptionalism for many. Meanwhile soldiers die in our streets a century on because now, as then, men (and now women) are thrown to the wolves once the British state has done with them.

We seem to have turned full circle. Imperialist songs play their tunes of glorying war as the very act of being a pacifist is again seen as ‘traitorous’. Flags are flown triumphantly while men and women die in overseas wars of conquest and their comrades return to be abandoned by the very state which sold them a lie. Of course the people who sent them to war, or bullied them to war, have their descendants today doing the same things only slightly differently.

100 years on the streets are lined with the dead and we’ve remembered little and learned nothing from their deaths. We’ve let past generations down for what? That’s what I’ll be thinking about today, not selling war as a price we have to pay because most of the time, it isn’t.

RIP Carlos Ezquerra

Carlos Ezquerra passed away today. This is a loss not just personally to his family and friends as Carlos was a profoundly decent man, but to comics where in terms of influence, ability and creativity Carlos ranks up with the best so there’s a place next to Steve Ditko, Moebius and Jack Kirby as this was someone who co-created not just one classic character in Judge Dredd, but two in Strontium Dog.

Carlos was one of those Spanish artists in the 1970’s that IPC would use because he was quick and cheap, but he had a style unlike many of the older artists who were sometimes elegant, and smooth. Carlos’s art was heavy blacks and sketchy lines which made his work, well, edgy to pre-teen boys like myself who found his Major Easy character the entrance to his work.

And of course, his Action cover which wasn’t just as Punk as fuck in 1976, but it also helped the comic get banned.

However the minute you saw his splash page for the then new Judge Dredd strip in the new 2000AD in 1977, you knew you were seeing a talent erupt.

That one page still sums up what Judge Dredd is. Dredd is a fascist keeping law in a spectacular future city which doesn’t look like a dystopia, but is very much one because there’s cameras watching your every move when the Judges aren’t. Even in the design Carlos makes clear what Dredd is by slipping in symbols of fascism he lived with in the Spain of the fascist Franco.

Thanks to scripts from co-creator John Wagner, not to mention Pat Mills and Alan Grant, Dredd’s fascism wasn’t just a thing of black and white as weekly the Dredd strip ensured kids around the UK were exposed to intellectually and moral grey areas which for me hit a height with the superb Apocalypse War.  Dredd’s Mega City One and the remnants of the Soviets battle it out with the spectre of nuclear destruction being there on the page at all times as the reader battled with the prospect of real life nuclear destruction.

Carlos didn’t just work on Dredd; as said, he co-created Strontium Dog, but he also drew covers and strips at an enormous rate  never dipping in quality and we as readers probably took his work for granted as he was consistent.

By the 90’s Carlos saw Dredd on film, which we’ll draw a line under however he was now working in American comics mainly working with Garth Ennis and getting the sort of credit and recognition outwith of the UK and Europe he deserved while still working and producing lush work. In more recent years his son was helping him as he struggled with poor health thanks to cancer, and only a week or so ago was posting on his Facebook that he’d come out of a major operation and was in recovery. Sadly he lost this last fight and passed away at 70.

He is irreplaceable. There is nobody out there able to do what he did.I met him a few times at various comic conventions over the decades and he was always charming, if somewhat overawed that his work is so appreciated and loved but this is a man who saw his work shape lives, and culture, so he’ll be missed for the artist, and human being, he was.

RIP Norm Breyfogle

The definitive Batman artists on the late 80’s and most of the 90’s, Norm Breyfogle, has sadly passed away at 58. Norm was one of those Batman artists who pop up every decade to redefine the character and indeed, if you’re around 30-40 and started reading comics as a kid then Breyfogle’s Batman is probably the first version you saw.

I loved Breyfogle’s work. It dropped at a time when DC Comics took risks, even with their prize cash cow Batman, who at that point in the late 80’s with the first Tim Burton Batman film was enjoying success like never before so dropping Breyfogle as the main artist in Detective Comics, DC’s secondary Batman title then written by Alan Grant and John Wagner was a comfortable mix of the old and new as Breyfogle took inspiration from the likes of Neal Adams, Carmine Infantino, Nick Cardy, and then newer artists like Alan Davis and Todd McFarlane, but quickly developed a style purely his.

Throughout the 90’s Breyfogle made Batman his own, and with Alan Grant they carved the last great version of Batman before the character turned into someone who could do anything, beat anyone and the idea of a detective fighting evil in his city slipped away.

With writer Alan Brennert he drew Batman: Holy Terror, an alternative version of the Batman myth where Bruce Wayne has been brought up within the church in a story which published today would probably cause merry hell. In fact I doubt with America swinging so far to the right that a company like DC would even commission this.

Breyfogle went to great heights in the 90’s and it’s forgotten he was one of Malibu’s Big Star Names when they launched the Ultraverse with his own title, Prime, being one of the flagship titles.

In the 2000’s things changed. DC sacked Alan Grant from the Batman titles while Breyfogle’s art didn’t fit a DC establishing a house style and a changing editorial structure which Grant in particular was a severe critic of. This left Breyfogle in some barren times before in 2014 he suffered a stroke and was left crushed upon the rocks of the American healthcare system.

After I had my own stroke I chatted with Norm a few times on social media and did my own wee thing to raise his plight but from conversations it was clear a mix of worry about finances and post-stroke pain (something that without painkillers leaves you in constant chronic pain when it hits) but there was always humour and a will to do better. Sadly he’s no longer around to spread his humour and at 58 left the world far, far too early. He leaves behind a body of work I hope is reappraised as be some of the very best superhero work of the last 25 years, and I hope that his death highlights the problems comics professionals have with working without a safety net, especially in a country like America. If anything that may mean no other professional has to struggle as Breyfogle did and that’s a good way to remember a man who gave so much to the industry.

RIP Marie Severin

When Russ Heath recently died I mentioned he was one of the last greats of American comics. Another of the last greats has sadly passed away with Marie Severin who died at the age of 89.

Severin for me isn’t just responsible for the version of the Hulk (working with the great Herb Trimpe)  I think of wherever I think of the character, and there’s been some great versions of the character over the decades. Her Hulk wasn’t a massive, musclebound monster but something elegant, brutal and tragic.

As for her Doctor Strange it’s not Ditko, but she took elements of Ditko to go on a different path helping create characters like the wonderful Living Tribunal.

But her role in the formative years of Marvel Comics is one often underplayed, or just plain ignored. She acted as art director, colourist, production editor or just anything to keep Marvel publishing comics on track and looking good just as she made EC Comics look good with her colouring in the 1950’s.

It’ll be her more cartoony, humour work she’ll be remembered by and some of it is just amazing.

There really isn’t too many greats left now, and Severin for years never got the acclaim she deserved because she’s a woman however her death has highlighted not just her talent but the fact that in the history of American comics, Marie Severin was one of the most important figures in its development for decades. She’ll be missed.

RIP Russ Heath

Russ Heath was one of the last surviving artists from a Golden Age of comics has died aged 91, and I guarantee you’ve all seen at least one piece of his art even if you’ve never read a comic in your life because thanks to Roy Lichtenstein’s theft of his work.

Heath worked for decades in an industry which may never have paid him well, but kept him in work which for many artists isn’t the case.  The fact he barely touched superheroes choosing to draw a wide variety of genres but it is the war comic he’ll be best known for.

But is Roy Lichtenstien’s use (And by ‘use’ I mean uncredited theft) of his work that means you’ve seen a Russ Heath piece of art but you have no idea who drew it. You probably thought it was Lichtenstein. As artist Dave Gibbons points out, Lichtenstein just did bad copies of more talented people’s work but it the marketing of, and the idea that Lichtenstein ‘elevated’ junk art into something else (when in fact all the stuff that makes Lichtenstein’s work art is there from the people he’s ripping off) which rankled Heath til well into his old age.

Heath is his later years addressed this in a one-page comic for The Hero Initiative; an organisation designed to help comic creators in need.

For me it’ll be his Sgt Rock material I remember him best for.

Heath was an original that should have died a millionaire, but didn’t. Losing him means we don’t have many of the greats that formed the language of modern American comics left. He’ll be missed.

RIP Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin has passed away at age 76 from cancer on the same day of the month that Elvis Presley died in 1977. Franklin as a singer, star and icon easily matches, if not surpasses Elvis because that’s how important she was.

Like a number of my generation I only discovered her thanks to The Blues Brothers; a film that seemed to give a second wind to amazing artists of the 1960s who by the late 70s/early 80s were on various degrees of a career slump, but after this were introduced to a whole new audience.

Also Scritti Politti’s Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin) was another point that flashed her named up to people unfamiliar with who she was.

Once discovered, few could forget Franklin’s music which will live on hopefully for as long as there’s people, or creatures, who can appreciate her music.

And dear me, there’s so much in her catalogue that is just perfect.

I could go on for hours and hours but there’s never going to be the like again. She’ll be missed but fuck me, what a legacy she leaves.