Category Archives: Comics

My Favorite Golem

(c) Marvel Entertainment – Fair Use

Over at The Philosophical Fighter, Joshua Clements has posted a thought-provoking piece on teaching martial arts. However, his observations also apply to coaching and even classroom teaching.

Clements uses the metaphor of the golem to make his argument that teachers play a vital role in shaping students. In Hebrew folklore, the golem was a creature formed from clay, given life and purpose by its creator, normally a rabbi. Like a rabbi, a teacher imparts much more than rote knowledge to his students. As Clements puts it:

“As teachers and coaches, we also have the opportunity to sow truth and life into our students. We help inscribe emet [Truth] on their minds while simultaneously breathing life into their dreams, their passions, and their growth.”

The golem myth reflects the Genesis account of the creation of Adam, who was also formed from clay. That same myth inspired one of the most complex and beloved Marvel Comics characters, Benjamin J. Grimm, aka, The Thing, whose powerful body appeared to be made of rocks.

As Thing, Benjamin J. Grimm often clashed with the serious, logical Reed Richards (aka, Mr. Fantastic). In contrast to Richards, Thing was emotional, a little crude at times, and haunted by guilt and self-loathing. While Richards the scientist approached problems objectively and dispassionately, Thing was ready to clobber them. Fans often sided with Thing, the down-to-earth (!) everyman, against Richards, the highbrow academic.

The inevitable conflicts among the team sparked some memorable stories. Their personalities reflected one of the four classical elements they represented: Air (Invisible Girl), Fire (Human Torch), Water (Mr. Fantastic), and Earth (Thing). Despite their dissimilar temperaments, they managed to unite and overcome their challenges.

Yet another lesson we can learn from the golem.

5 Ways to Earn Your Audience’s Loyalty

audience loyalty

At her Helping Writers Become Authors blog, K.M. Weiland has shared some marvelous insights for both writers and readers. It’s her latest in a series of posts analyzing the success of Marvel comics and movies, and as a long-time fan of both, I must agree with all of her major points. (Hint: The secret is not the special effects, not the marketing, not the acting, though those elements are outstanding. It’s the writing.)

Bottom line: You’re cheating yourself if you don’t read Weiland’s post. It’s well worth your time as a reader and writer.

I was especially impressed by her second point, that the most engaging, emotionally satisfying stories arise not from pandering to the audience, but from remaining true to one’s vision as author. As Weiland puts it:

Sometimes you’ll hear fans talking about getting the story “we deserve.” To this, I say phooey. The only thing audiences deserve is a good story well-told. They don’t deserve to have all their personal theories or wishes validated.

While there’s no formula for crafting a good story, there is a fundamental principle you can’t ignore, and that comes down to the author being in control of a story they find compelling. In Weiland’s words, the author “must be the story’s single greatest fan.” Yes! Write stories you want to read. And the strange thing is that the most personal works achieve the greatest public appeal.

Of course, there are those other little details in learning and perfecting the craft, such as reading a lot and writing a lot. But without the author’s emotional investment, a work lacks life, lacks purpose. Our job is to make the story real.

Kevin Siers Cartoon Caption

Kevin Siers Cartoon Caption

Kevin Siers is the Pulitzer-Prize winning political cartoonist at the Charlotte Observer. For years, the paper featured a cartoon caption contest. The winner would receive the original black-and-white Siers cartoon with the winner’s submission and name penned in.

Siers picked my submission only three times out of a couple dozen attempts. However, it would be several months after winning that the cartoon would arrive in the mail. So I wasn’t all that motivated to enter very often.

However, when the contest featured the above cartoon of Kirk and Spock, I knew I had to take a stab at it. A week later, the paper published the winning caption — mine! — but I knew better than to hold my breath waiting for the cartoon. Weeks later, the paper announced it was ending the contests, and not long after that, the Observer sold its palatial headquarters and downsized into a rented office building. I figured I’d never see my prize.

So imagine my surprise when, out of the blue, I opened my mailbox almost two years later to discover the original color version with my caption and name added. I emailed my thanks to Mr. Siers, and framed the cartoon. Kirk and Spock now look down over my desk, inspiring and challenging me.

Spock’s words pretty much sum up the fate of print journalism.

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

Jack Kirby is Still King!


I loved this tribute from playwright John Ostrander:

What makes Jack Kirby the King? For me, it’s this.

Imagination – The word “prodigious” comes to mind. So many concepts, so many characters, bear his mark. So many styles of stories. From the spires of Asgard to the weird distortions of the Negative Zone to the brutal cityscapes of Apokolips, to Ego the Living Planet, no one could top his visuals.

Storytelling – His figures leaped off the page. The panels couldn’t contain the events on them. Even standing still, they vibrated with potential power. There was energy to burn on his pages. You felt them as much as you read them. You couldn’t read the story fast enough and when one issue was done you wanted the next one right now.

Artistry – Okay, his anatomy was not always perfect. And every woman’s face looked the same. He was still one of the best ARTISTS that ever drew a comic because comics are about storytelling and no one beat Kirby as a storyteller.

The featured image is a scan from my copy of The Mighty Thor # 159, from December, 1968. It’s a perfect example of the barely contained power that animates all of Jack Kirby’s illustrations. You can feel the tension in this scene: Thor, despite his earth-shattering might, approaches his father Odin with the most profound respect — and more than a little bit of fear. As well he should: Odin could rage and roar like no other monarch in comicdom.

I have no doubt Marvel Comics in its Silver Age strongly influenced me. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby definitely expanded my vocabulary, often forcing me to set my latest comic down to riffle through the dictionary to discover the meaning of what I’d just read. And the high quality of the stories and characterization I encountered in those comics, as well as the heroic subject matter, whetted my appetite in grade and high school for Beowulf, Shakespeare, science, and history.

Side note on the scanned picture of Thor: At the tender age of 31, barely a year after getting married, I sold my comic book collection. My wife and I needed money for a down payment on a house, and the stern lesson of 1 Corinthians recited at our wedding still reverberated in my ear: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

So it was time to let go of Spiderman, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men. But I held on to three of my favorite issues of Thor. I’ve found the best way to move forward is to hold on to a few pieces of a beloved past.

Charlotte Observer Caption Contest

Caption contest

From the Charlotte Observer:

“It’s dead, Jim.”

The Winners: Mike Tuggle of Charlotte and Bill McLoughlin of Charlotte

Thanks for all your great entries. This is the first time in You Write the Caption history we’ve had a tie winner, but the judges couldn’t see anyway to avoid that this time. So congrats to great minds, Mike Tuggle and Bill McGloughlin.
What can I say? Problem is, the winner is supposed to get the original cartoon. Who will it be? Looks to me like it’s Amok Time! Let the kal-if-fee for the prize begin!

A reader sent me this:

Congrats…….on your Cartoon Caption win! But I don’t get the “It’s Dead”! R—Sent from my iPhone


Hey, thanks!

If you aspire to becoming a certified Star Trek geek like me, you’ll have to learn the classic lines. In numerous scenes from the original series, a character would suffer some sort of unexpected calamity, and Kirk would shout, “What happened?” It was usually Dr. McCoy who’d examine the poor character and announce, “He’s dead, Jim!”

So in the Siers cartoon, Spock is informing Kirk of the fate of print journalism.

On Superheroes

Cuhullin Riding His Chariot into Battle

Brian Kaller looks at the similarities and differences between the competing blockbusters Captain America: Civil War and Superman vs. Batman, and why Marvel movies are better than DC movies. Along the way, he reveals just what it is about superheroes that continues to fascinate us:

As long as humans have existed, we have told legends of people with super-human abilities, and delighted in stories of how they faced danger and out-fought or out-witted enemies. Gilgamesh for the Sumerians, Odysseus and Jason for the Greeks, Samson for the Hebrews, Beowulf for the Saxons – ancient scriptures, barbarian sagas and oral traditions swell with superheroes. In a more modern era the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, Paul Bunyan, the Lone Ranger, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes are all basically super-heroes, doing things real people can’t do. Every culture has stories like this; our forebears told them around campfires or mead-halls, 20th-century kids read them in comic books.

When societies abandon that heroic ideal, when they acquire the “philosophic indifference” of Gibbon’s latter-day Romans, the culture is in deep trouble. As our country slipped away from the post-war glow into an era of escalating hedonism, it abandoned superheroes save as pablum for children.

Yet Generation X-ers and Millennials, children of the counterculture, embraced them even into adulthood, perhaps desperate for the heroes their culture no longer provided. In this century, as the nation grows ever more troubled, we are turning back to stories that give us heroes to believe in – a sign that there is hope for us.

Yes, we can dismiss superhero movies as unrealistic, childish, and silly. And in a world of hip cynicism, self-serving politicians, and sleazy celebrities, why read or write about stubbornly courageous characters who risk life and reputation for friends or family? In a world where mouthing the easy lies of our time ensures success, why would anyone in his right mind cheer a character who questions, or, heaven forbid, rebels against accepted thought?

Because we must.

Stan Lee: the greatest storyteller in history?

Stan LeePhoto by Luigi Novi

Sci-fi/fantasy writer Damien Walter makes his case in The Guardian:

Before Lee, heroes were all supermen, or strutting John Waynes, who triumphed through strength or ruthlessness. Lee’s heroes triumph through brains, invention, innovation and most of all, SCIENCE. It’s all oddly prescient of what geek culture would become 50 years later, with hackers and tech giants wielding enormous power for good and ill. Given the vast popularity of Marvel among geeks, it’s not inconceivable that Lee helped inspire a lot of those people who are reshaping our world today.

But Stan Lee’s stories are all just weird fantasy and make-believe! They’re not real. Yes, but as we move from what physicist Michio Kaku calls “the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery”, Lee’s super-science fantasies seem less preposterous and more prophetic. Like all great mythical worlds, the Marvel universe speaks to us in metaphors, symbols and other non-literal truths. And as the dreamer who brought these modern myths into reality, Stan Lee may well be remembered as one of literature’s greatest heroes.

Lee’s other radical innovation was to give his characters depth. Marvel super-heroes had to fight self-doubt before they could fight the bad guys. Some, such as Benjamin J. Grimm, felt their powers were a curse. And most startling of all, Marvel super-heroes sometimes fought each other, and even changed sides. When I discovered Marvel comics as a pre-teen, I felt like I’d found an illustrated guide to many of life’s mysteries.

And Marvel stories were intelligent, insightful, and full of delicious twists. Fantastic Four 51 is a prime example. The story, titled “This Man, This Monster,” was not just an exciting tale but emotionally compelling. Such a plot and character arc could only come from an authentic and serious talent. The reason Stanley Lieber changed his name to Stan Lee was because, as Lee himself put it, “I felt someday I’d write ‘The Great American Novel’ and I didn’t want to use my real name on these silly little comics.”

Those who turn their noses at comics (or pulp fiction or sci-fi and fantasy) are missing some great, worthwhile stories. As the recently departed Umberto Eco observed, “Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the sense that a Japanese haiku is.” A well-crafted story is to be appreciated for what it is, no matter the genre.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange

Dr. Strange

Now this should be fun! Benedict Cumberbatch stars in what’s being promoted as the most “mystical, magical Marvel movie ever.”

Dr. Strange was one of the lesser-known of the Marvel comics heroes, but as a kid, I bought many Strange Tales, which featured the “master of the mystic arts.” The character blended the superhero genre with Western and Eastern mysticism. Through high school and college, I found Dr. Strange as fascinating and surprising as Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, and maybe a little more accessible.

The spells Strange cast opened doors to alternate universes whirling with unknown worlds, mind-bending vistas, non-Euclidean structures, and beings that looked like they’d sprung from Picasso’s nightmares. And like James Bond, the good doctor often duked it out at Euclidean, but exotic venues. Stonehenge was the site of one spell-casting shoot out with an evil sorcerer. Loved it! No doubt many Boomers intrigued by the psychedelia that energized the worlds of Dr. Strange can’t wait for a nostalgic return. I know I can’t.

And no matter what other characters he plays, none will have a name as cool as “Benedict Cumberbatch.”