Saturday, September 30, 2006

Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man #1

Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man #1, November 2006, Marvel Comics
writers: Stan Lee, Joss Whedon, Fred Hembeck
artists: Olivier Coipel, Mark Morales, Michael Gaydos, Fred Hembeck, John Romita, Sr., & Jim Mooney
colorists: Jose Villarrubia, Pete Pantazis, Bill Crabtree
letterers: Dave Lanphear, Sam Rosen

Today, the last day of September, commemorates the one-fourth marks of the yearlong A Comics A Day challenge. I don’t want to waste valuable review space reflecting on the last three months – I intend to write a quarterly report in the next few days or so – but the anniversary is worth mentioning because today’s issue celebrates a comic book benchmark, as well: Stan Lee’s sixty-five years at Marvel. The first in a series of one-shots starring “the Man” himself, Stan Lee Meets Spider-man is a hilarious read, honoring one of the founding fathers of the modern superhero genre, featuring three original short stories and a reprint of Amazing Spider-man #87. Since each story retains an identity all its own, I’ll review each yarn separately, complete with respective plot synopses and reflections on their impact to the medium. In this case, the medium is Stan Lee.

The first yarn, written by Stan himself, is the issue’s title story, in which Spider-man swings by Stan’s pad with an usual case of the woe-is-me’s. Stan, who prior to Spidey’s unexpected arrival makes a verbal effort to announce that he has the house to himself for the evening, throws a batch of his patented superhero cookies in the oven and escorts ol’ Web-head to the den, where the Wallcrawler unwinds about the dastardly dangers of his determined do-goodery. I’ll confess, when Spidey turns to his cunningly cantankerous creator for a word of advice, I expected the comics veteran to spew forth a string of campy, old world wisdom, rife with allusions to the importance of being a role model and how, you guessed it, with great power comes great responsibility. A nice tidy tale with a friendly neighborhood moral about the importance of nobility and the relevance of comic books, right?

Say it ain’t so, true believers! We, and Spidey, hear nothing of the sort! Stan wags an accusing finger and proclaims, “If you quit, think of the people you’ll put out of business! The T-shirt manufacturers! The animation companies! The movie studios! The action figure makers! The comic book publishers! The video game designers! The poster artists! You’re not just a superhero, you’re a whole bunch’a industries! Single-handedly, you’re keeping our economy afloat!” Seemingly convicted, Spidey surprisingly accepts the call of duty again, and just when I think that Stan, as the writer, has lost his marbles, the final sequence of this silly tale reveals Spider-man rendezvousing with a second-stringer, Mosquito Man, on a nearby rooftop. “Stan talked me out of it,” ol’ Webhead says. “Damn! I thought I’d finally have a chance to take your place!” Mosquito Man laments. Are we to assume that Spidey and Stan staged their tête-à-tête to help ease the wounded ego of a C-list superhero?

Even if Stan’s franchise-centric soliloquy wasn’t sincere, I can attest to its truthfulness, not only as a fan that scours the toy shelves for the latest action figure offerings, but also as a resident of Southern California that often finds himself in the seediest swap meets around Los Angeles. In fact, just before I read this issue, my galpal and I browsed L.A.’s popular fashion district, which is as rife with fake designer clothing as it is homemade Spider-man toys, school supplies, and peculiar paraphernalia, from baby mittens to steering wheel covers. Those white slits followed me around every corner I turned today! So, as usual, Stan couldn’t have said it better himself. Hilariously, by patting Spidey on the back, Stan is actually stroking his own ego, proclaiming his (rightful) place as the padre of the pop culture marketplace. Hey, if you want the title, Stan, you can have it!

Now, I don’t know who Steve Ennitz is, but Joss Whedon does, and in the second story, not one, not two, but four incarnations of this Ennitz character appear, meeting one another at an interdimensional comicon to discuss the industry from their respective worlds. The Steve from our world is surprised to discover a lack of superheroics in the other dimensions, as the chuckle-worthy covers of The Normal Four, and Amazing Reality reveal. When their conversation becomes a frenzied debate, our Steve cites “the Man” as the topmost source for super-powered prose, to the blank stares of his other-selves. Apparently, our dimension is the only tier of reality with its own Stan Lee! A frustrated Steve-1 eventually finds Stan on the convention floor, who proudly claims, “Well, there’s a lot of amazing comic creators in the multiverse, kid . . . But there’s only one Stan Lee.” Then, another Stan Lee swaggers up from behind and says, “I’m a Stan Lee. I sell meats.” Nice.

Whedon’s wry humor is downright delicious in this diatribe. Further, the casual close encounter with Stan is reminiscent of his cameo in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, which is always a favorable reference. But I understand what Whedon was trying to say. Without Stan, characters like the Fantastic Four and Spider-man still could have been inspired by superhero boom spun off from National Publications’ popular Justice League concept. They could still exist. Alas, they wouldn’t have been as colorful, entertaining, or successful. Creators like Whedon, or collectors like this Steve Ennitz fellow, may not have been as passionate about the medium if not for Lee’s enthusiastic persona. They’d still be fans, but not with as much vigor. Stan Lee didn’t just change the industry from behind the typewriter; he changed the way readers read comics.

I don’t know who Fred Hembeck is, either, but in is offering to this issue, he recreates himself as a cartoon character alongside some lesser known Marvel properties, like the Beetle and Percival Pinkerton from Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos, just to stand in line for a chance to meet their marvelous maker. The two-page strip is a funny Bullpen style in-joke comic for diehard fans of Marvel Comics. Unfortunately, I am not one of them. Can’t wait ‘em all.

Finally, this issue wraps with a Stan Lee original, a classic ASM tale called “Unmasked At Last!” In this Romita-rific yarn, poor Peter Parker is inexplicably losing his powers, and apparently more tragically, he has no one to confide in without exposing his secret identity. To make matters worse, his fragility prevents him from arriving at Gwen’s birthday party on time, and when he finally stumbles through the door, he desperately reveals that he is Spider-man! When his weakness persists, Spidey rushes himself to the hospital where, in the most anticlimactic twist in Marvel history, I’m sure, Spider-man is diagnosed with . . . the flu! More uncannily, the knowledge of his ailment is evidently its own cure, as ol’ Webhead springs to his feet and successfully devises a plain to clear his name with his friends. I must admit, if this tale was a new release in today’s critical market, readers would eat this issue alive. Although Spider-man’s worst enemy is ironically himself, the plot is so full of holes that it redefines the Bronze Age’s concept of cheese! At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if Stan was the first to coin a concept like this, in which with great power comes great fatigue. We’ve seen every iconic superhero hang up the mask before, but in this case, Spidey nearly sacrificed the sanctity of every aspect of his life. In the end, he came out on top. Stan may have put all of his characters, especially Spider-man, through the ringer, but, as this story bears witness, he never completely abandoned them.

This entire issue is proof of that, despite his scarcity in the spotlight lately, despite the failed projects and desperate comicon appearances, Stan Lee is still the king of comicdom. His contributions have shaped the industry single-handed. Are there any other modern media that can attribute so much of its success to one man? Personally, I remember watching the Stan Lee interview conducted by Kevin Smith that was included in the special Spider-man DVD package. To ask Stan where many of his creations came from, to ask him to recall the muse that visited him in those early days, is to watch an old man’s eyes squint in strained remembrance, is to watch a clever writer come up with an answer to appease his faithful audience. Not “my editor told me to come up with some colorful characters or else,” or “I’m an old man, how am I supposed to remember?” Further proof that Stan Lee is the master of his own fate. If he wants to meet his own characters, maybe again for the first time, who are we to say otherwise?

With its diverse short stories, Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man is a solid synopsis of my three-month passage into this project – I connected with one, was confused by another, and completely alienated by another. The classic Spider-man tale was a pleasant reminder of the innocent way things used to be, of the times when a reader took the fantastic elements of a story at face value. I can only hope that the inevitable commemoration of the A Comic A Day challenge can be so perfectly packaged. Stay tuned for my quarterly report. Ninety-two comics down. Two hundred and seventy-three to go.

1 comment:

Kendra said...

Hi, I found your blog a few weeks ago and I've been reading it since then. Being a relative novice in the comic world, I am probably under-appreciating this blog, but I think it's a brilliant idea and it's a lot of fun to read. *sends you strength* Good luck, and congratulations on the 3-month anniversary!