Stan Lee, Marvel Comics visionary, dead at 95

The best superhero movie of all time? Easy. That’s the 2002 Spiderman with Tobey Maguire in the title role. The best line? That came from Aunt May, who cautioned her nephew about pushing himself too hard: “You’re not Superman, you know.”

Big laughs from the audience. But I didn’t laugh. To me, that line summarized what made the classic Marvel brand of the 60’s and 70’s better than all the other comics. No, Spiderman was not Superman — he was way cooler. Superman and Batman bored me. Too goody-goody. Too full of their supposed goodness. The bad guys they fought were just — bad. Bad for the hell of it.

Marvel, on the other hand, offered flawed heroes, men and women racked with self-doubt who often got mad at each other. Sometimes the good guys fought with other good guys. Reading Marvel comics as a kid and teen, I thought, wow, these superheroes are like my family. They have faults. They bicker.

And Marvel’s bad guys were more realistic, too, with understandable motivations for their actions, just like other famous bad guys, such as Shylock and Macbeth. In fact, young Stanley Martin Lieber changed his pen name to “Stan Lee” because he had dreams of becoming a famous novelist, and didn’t want potential publishers to associate him with comic books, which many regarded as pedestrian trash.

Guess he showed them, huh?

So it is with great sorrow we say goodbye to Stan Lee, the man who made it all happen. Stan Lee has passed away at the tender age of 95. Thanks for the memories — and the inspiration.

photo by Alan Light

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On Trains As Writing Spaces

Train StationHere are some interesting insights on the writing process from author Panio Gianopoulos. I wholeheartedly agree with this:

The exaggerations of the arts notwithstanding, there can be something meditative about riding a train. It’s both soothing and inspiring to feel the steady rhythmic rush of its passage, the thundering momentum as you race past a sun-flecked pastoral landscape and, when you briefly intersect a city, the sudden appearance of buildings rising and falling like the perforated notes on a player piano roll.

One of the reasons I haven’t posted lately is because I’m immersed in my latest project, which has taken on a life of its own. Looks like it’s going to evolve into a novel. I started it back in June, when my wife and I took a meandering vacation from Charlotte to New Orleans to New York. We flew to New Orleans, but took Amtrak the rest of the way. Yes, that’s a lot of time on the rails, and what Gianopoulos says about the rhythm of the rails stimulating the creative process is true. The train rolled mile after mile, and I wrote page after page. And even though the trip is done, the experience generated momentum I’m still drawing from.

Gianopoulos makes another powerful point about the creative process, one that seems counter-intuitive but nevertheless true. Commenting on how productive he is on short train rides, he observes that constraints actually spur him on:

On weekends, once the children have been anesthetized with iPads and I’ve ducked up into our attic with my laptop, I find that somehow I get less writing done in two hours. I’ll get lured into answering emails or researching online, frittering away the brief time before my children demand actual live parenting from their father (the nerve!). Many days, I don’t even make it to the attic; I’ll get distracted by laundry or the mail or yard work, telling myself I can always write later. Having all day to do it, however, means I never end up doing any of it—not even 35 minutes. Perversely, I’m more creatively productive on my busiest workdays. There is something about the entrapment of the space and the temporal limitation of the train ride that animates me. I don’t think I’m alone in this. We are a weird species. Give us vastness and we wilt. Corner us and we thrive.

I’m guilty of this as well. On days when I’m relatively free to write, I often fritter away my time, while during brief writing opportunities, I’m far more productive. In fact, one of the lessons I’ve learned is that getting away from what I imagine to be my optimal working environment often energizes me.

As Gianopoulos says, humans are a weird species. And then there’s that sub-species called writers …

The Pioneers of Pulp

Science Fiction and Fantasy, once despised by the creators of popular entertainment as well as literary scholars, have not only risen in the eyes of serious students of literature but among the general public. What accounts for this sea-change? We could point to the surprising success of both Star Trek (soft sci-fi) or Star Wars (sci-fan), but the origins of the near-dominance of sci-fi/fantasy in popular entertainment today goes back a little further, as this must-read from Open Culture argues:

Do we start with The Castle of Otranto, the first Gothic novel, which opened the door for such books as Dracula and Frankenstein? Or do we open with Edgar Allan Poe, whose macabre short stories and poems captivated the public’s imagination and inspired a million imitators? Maybe. But if we really want to know when the most populist, mass-market horror and fantasy began—the kind that inspired television shows from the Twilight Zone to the X-Files to Supernatural to The Walking Dead—we need to start with H.P. Lovecraft, and with the pulpy magazine that published his bizarre stories, Weird Tales.

I have to agree. Lovecraft’s the man!

Don’t miss the article’s treasure trove of links to the letters of H.P. Lovecraft, as well as links to classic editions of Weird Tales featuring stories by Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Dorothy Quick, Robert Bloch, and Theodor Sturgeon. What a great way to get ready for Halloween!

Stories as Flight Simulators

Charles Chu recently reviewed Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Gottschall, a distinguished fellow in the English department at Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, analyzes literature from the perspective of Darwinian evolution.

What E. O. Wilson did for sociology, and Deena Weisberg for psychology, Jonathan Gottshall has done for literature. The resulting insights are both fascinating and useful.

Gottshall notes that every human society tells and passes down stories, and not just histories of actual events. Since imaginative tales are universal, he argues, storytelling must be essential to survival. People everywhere must deal with problems, the key concept behind what some have called Gottshall’s Grand Unified Theory of literature:

Stories the world over are almost always about people (or personified animals) with problems. The people want something badly — to survive, to win the girl or the boy, to find a lost child. But big obstacles loom between the protagonists and what they want. Just about any story — comic, tragic, romantic — is about a protagonist’s efforts to secure, usually at some cost, what he or she desires.

As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

But wait a minute! If fiction is an evolutionary adaptation, surely some cultures could find it advantageous to avoid wasting the tribe’s time on stories about things that never happened. Wouldn’t it be more practical to spend that time perfecting survival skills? Not so, says Gottshall:

“Like a flight simulator, fiction projects us into intense simulations of problems that run parallel to those we face in reality. And like a flight simulator, the main virtue of fiction is that we have a rich experience and don’t die at the end. We get to simulate what it would be like to confront a dangerous man or seduce someone’s spouse, for instance, and the hero of the story dies in our stead.”

The stories every human culture tells about itself are a vital part of that culture, and the most basic requirement for a successful culture is teaching the next generation how to survive. So the acid test “survive or die” is the core of not only Darwinian evolution, but of good storytelling. That’s why James Scott Bell advises writers that EVERY plot must be about death:

That’s what great fiction is about—how a character transforms when forced into conflict (I contend that to be great, the conflict must be life or death—death being physical, professional, or psychological/spiritual. This includes thrillers, romance, literary…any genre).

Conflict — critical conflict — is the heart of a good, rousing tale. It reveals character, opens our eyes to the world around us, and even manages to teach us a thing or two about ourselves.

Quote of the day

Key to success“It’s important to understand as writers or as anything else, that ‘no,’ as destructive as it is, is much less powerful than ‘yes.’ You can get turned down a hundred times by agents and publishers and have your dreams crushed and strewn across the landscape. Get out that broom, dustpan, and epoxy, put everything back together, and try again. And again. One ‘yes’ will outweigh each ‘no’ and will blow them away.” – Joe Hartlaub

Peter Jackson’s Tribute to the heroes of The Great War

Peter Jackson, known for his movie adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, promises audiences they’ll experience the Great War as they’ve never seen it before in his latest film, They Shall Not Grow Old.

The teaser reveals an astounding technical achievement. Jackson has restored, colorized, and repaired hundreds of original films from World War One to show audiences what it was like to fight and die in that terrible conflict. By doing so, he’s made hundred-year-old images seem real and poignant to modern audiences.

I’ve searched numerous articles to see Peter Jackson’s thoughts on the making of this film, and what drove him to do it. I suspect, though I can’t confirm, that Jackson’s latest project grew from his research into the life and work of J.R.R. Tolkien. It was the shocking carnage at the Battle of the Somme, where Tolkien served as Battalion Signaling Officer of the Lancashire Fusiliers, that tormented and inspired the young scholar to capture in fiction the horror — and hope — he’d learned on the battlefield.

Tolkien’s way of making sense of what he’d gone through in WWI was to craft a tale that warned of the dehumanizing effect of technology while celebrating the courage and decency of ordinary people. That, I think, is the true power of fantastic fiction, which opens us to a realm of rediscovered and reimagined possibilities thought lost but still within our grasp.

“Tuggle ably captures the spirit of Dan Brown novels and Indiana Jones–style adventure stories.” Kirkus Reviews

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