After reading of Stan Lee’s death, I took an imaginary walk through my old neighborhood, past Mitchell schoolyard and Most Blessed Sacrament church, to Chester Avenue and Whelan’s variety store, which stocked the Marvel comic books I read in my pre-teen years, before sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll stole my soul.
Old Man Whelan’s narrow little domain was crammed with an eclectic and impossibly large inventory of practical goods and practical-joke items. He grumbled non-stop while selling everything from pantyhose to fake dog poop.
Most kids came for the comic books, which cost 12 cents each in those days. Discriminating readers bought Marvel comics, which featured the full-color exploits of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and other superheroes who — thanks to Lee, and to Steve Ditko and other super-talented illustrators — were way cooler than Superman, Batman and the other stars on the DC comics roster.
DC’s costumed crime fighters looked stilted and seemed stuck in the 1950s. Marvel’s characters were hip and ironic and came alive on the page, partly because they were presented as flawed and angst-ridden, all-too-human despite their super-powers. They seemed realistic, once you accepted the idea that they could climb sheer walls (Spider-Man) or throw fireballs (Human Torch) or disappear at will (Invisible Girl).
My sixth-grade friends and I understood that Lee’s superheroes, in or out of their costumes, felt like outsiders. We felt like outsiders, growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood where conformity was valued a lot more than education. Lee was our hero because his heroes and villains used multi-syllabic words (“I have become invulnerable!”) and his stories were socially relevant. We were comic-book snobs.
I remember wishing the Marvel gang could be brought to life on the big screen, but this didn’t happen until decades later, when special effects technology caught up with Lee and his illustrators. Lee himself lived long enough (95!) to see his visions realized in those multi-million-dollar Marvel blockbusters that Hollywood keeps cranking out.
It’s strange when you think about it — the fact that so many adults these days — men, mostly — enjoy and identify with comic book heroes as much or more than their children do. I’ll guessing many of them don’t think of themselves as outsiders and didn’t use Lee’s comics as stepping stones to books and movies for grown-ups.
Lee was an artist and a pop culture visionary, and a grown-up. He didn’t equate his comics with the Great American Novel that he had aspired to write as a young man. But many of his grown-up fans don’t seem to see the difference between the one and the other.
I’m not sure what that’s about — nostalgia, arrested development, postmodernism, the dumbed-down media. Whatever. As Lee might have said, “That’s a question for the sociologists.”