Spider-Man

It was to my great delight to find out last week that Spider-Man No Way Home won the Kid’s Choice Award for best live-action movie.  As I wrote several weeks back the latest Spider-Man film should have received an Oscar nod for best picture.  But Hollywood, as we saw at the Academy Awards Ceremony, is not only full of snobs but a bad indicator of a good movie.  Kid’s on the other hand see the truth, sometimes to the dismay of adults as in The Emperor’s New Clothes.  They live more” in the moment” than most adults do and therefore can see more than most adults can see.  If a kid says something is good or bad, it’s best to pay attention.

Stan Lee got his start in comics while still a teenager.  He went to work for Timely Comics as a writer somewhere in the late thirties or very early 40s.  Lee worked for Timely for 20 years until that fateful day when his boss asked him to come up with a Superhero team comic book to go head to head with DC’s Justice League of America.  Lee teamed up with Jack Kirby and The Fantastic Four was born.  The Marvel Legends began.

What many people don’t realize is that Lee was ready to give up working in comics just before that fateful day.  He had enough writing thinly veiled comics that copied whatever was popular at the time.  In other words, if Zorro was popular, Lee would write a Zorro-type character and sell it.  Anything for the company to make a quick buck.  Really The Fantastic Four was a to be a copy of The Justice League, except for the fact that The Fantastic Four acted like a team only when they had to, they were no Justice League.  The League had honor and high moral standards.  Heck, they were indeed super friends.  The Fantastic Four could just barely tolerate each other.  They brought true human problems and emotions, including resentment and despair,  into comic books and the industry was changed.

But I digress.  As stated Lee was ready to quit comics.  He had begun to talk with his wife about leaving the industry and beginning work on what he hoped would be the great American novel.  His wife convinced him to give comics one last chance and in that last chance, The Fantastic Four was born.  Lee took every bit of the creative talent he had in writing the story of the Fantastic Four.  Maybe he figured this was his last shot so he’d go out in a blaze of artistic glory.  Instead of going out Lee began to soar to heights of popularity and stayed there until the day he passed away.

After The Fantastic Four Stan and Jack created the Incredible Hulk which, believe it or not, did not sell well at the beginning.  The Hulk, also, wasn’t green when he first made his debut, he was grey.  But things did turn around.  Grey turned to green and we have the Hulk that we all know and love today.

Lee came into his third inning.  He was up to bat.  Would he strike out or would he hit a home run?  OK, enough with the sports metaphors.  Amazing Adult Fantasy had reached its fourteenth issue and it was not doing well.  Adult: would mean that a bit of sleaze was probably in this magazine but Stan Lee himself tells us that the comice book was a collection of fantasy monster stories usually about five pages long.  The stories were written by him and illustrated by Steve Ditko.  The magazine was about to be canceled after the publication of its fifteenth issue and Lee decided to experiment. 

Stan Lee was a big reader of the Pulp Magazines that were published in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  Many germs of comic book characters that would come later can be found in these ten-cent novels in a magazine.  The pulps’ main characters included The Shadow, Doc Savage, and one that Lee particularly liked The Spider.  The Spider was just an ordinary guy who was an expert marksman.  He disguised himself with fangs and a hunched back.  His true Identity was Richard Wentworth the last in the line of a wealthy family.  He began his career after saving a college friend from criminals.  Lee liked the name The Spider but he had other ideas than a man who was good with a gun.  Lee was about to break more comic book rules.

Teenagers were not the main character in almost any comic book.  There are a few notable exceptions.  Superboy, stories of Superman when he was a boy and then a teenager.  Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel were both teenagers when they got their powers but unlike Billy Batson when he became Captain Marvel by shouting SHAZAM turned into an adult Mary and Junior stayed teenagers.  The last is Kid Eternity a teenager who was murdered but is granted the ability to come back and fight crime by being able to call up all the heroes from the past.  Aside from these most teenagers were sidekicks to other Superheroes.  Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl all fall into this category.  Even Johnny Storm, The Human Torch of the Fantastic Four was not on his own though eventually, he would gain his own solo stories.

Lee decided to take a chance and make his next superhero a teenager with all the problems that come with being a teenage boy.  He kept the name Spider but dropped the marksman and gave the young man the abilities of a Spider.  With those thoughts in mind, Spider-Man was born.

Lee didn’t have much hope for his new character.  He didn’t start him off in his own magazine as he did with The Fantastic Four and The Hulk.  He starred him in the last issue of Amazing Adult Fantasy only now the word adult was dropped from the title and Spider-Man made his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy number 15 in August of 1962. Lee’s first two creations were illustrated by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko was the artist for Amazing Fantasy and Lee stuck with him for his new creation.

Not many people need to be told the origin story of Spider-Man.  A teenager, Peter Parker, who is a bookworm and a student of science is shunned by his peers.  On attending a demonstration of radioactivity, a spider who has absorbed some of the radiation during the experiment, bites Peter giving him the abilities and proportionate strength of a spider.  Peter, after learning of his new abilities decides to cash in on them and make himself rich with his new talents.  He hopes to be able to help his elderly Aunt May and Uncle Ben who had raised him.  He designs a costume for himself to conceal his identity, web-shooters to gain another spider ability and begins to make TV appearances.  He also becomes arrogant and a bit self-centered.  When a thief runs by him in the hallway of the TV studio Peter lets him go and tells the police that it is their job to catch crooks, not his.  On his way home that night there are police cars at his home.  His Uncle Ben has been killed by a thief he found in the house.  The police tell Peter that they have the killer trapped in an old warehouse.  Peter immediately dons his costume and goes after the killer himself.  Peter does nab the guy but on catching him realizes it is the same crook he let run by him in the studio.  His guilt overwhelms him as he feels responsible for his Uncles death.  He remembers something his Uncle Ben once told him, “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

Stan Lee says in the book, The Origins of Marvel Comics, with the publication of Amazing Fantasy number 15 and the story of Spider-Man out of his system, Lee went back to working on his new superstars.  Lee essentially forgot all about Spider-Man.  It would be months before it was realized that Amazing Fantasy #15 was a best seller and the reason had to be Spider-Man.  There was a swift meeting held and The Amazing Spider-Man comic magazine number 1 made its debut in an issue dated March of 1963.

Spider-Man has entertained us now for 60 years.  He has starred in several different Marvel Magazine titles and is probably one of the most iconic heroes of all time.  Spider-Man is to Marvel what Superman is to DC, their most recognized character and almost a symbol of the company itself.  Spider-Man like Superman has appeared in almost every form of entertainment.  In television shows, both live-action and animated, and movies also both live-action and animated, novels based on the character, a newspaper strip, and a Broadway musical, the only thing Spider-Man did not get is a radio show.  Spider-Man was born a bit too late for that.

Spider-Man broke down all kinds of barriers in his 60 years and continues to do so.  The comic book character took on many of the social issues of the 60s and 70s and made an impact.  I well remember being affected by Peter’s best friend Harry Osborne having a drug addiction.  It helped keep me on the straight and narrow.  There were also gut-wrenching stories like the death of Peter’s first true love Gwen Stacy at the hands of The Green Goblin.  There were also some joyful tales including Peter’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson an event that took place in the comic book, the newspaper strip, and at a live ball game in NYC.

Spider-Man continues to entertain us today.  His movie adventures are now reaching millions of people and his comic books are still enjoyed.  As I stated at the beginning of this blog, it did my heart good to see Spider-Man No Way Home win The Kid’s Choice Award for the best live-action movie.  I hope that the film will pick up more honors in the months ahead.  It’s also my hope that The Academy of Motion Pictures begins to see that movies based on comic books or children’s literature or animated films all have artistic value and should be placed in the best films category.  To me leaving these movies out, movies that the people love is a disgrace.  A movie does not have to be filled with sex, over-the-top violence, and foul language to be a good film.  It has to have a solid story well-formed characters and great acting.  The Marvel movies have all of that.  DC we are waiting for you to catch up.

Peanuts

Peanuts

On the 19th of September Linus Van Pelt turned 69 years old.  I know this because the Charles Schulz Museum put a special post on Facebook reminding me of my favorite Peanut’s character’s birthday.  They also ran the first strip.  In that historic strip Linus is still in diapers and hasn’t even learned to walk yet.  But that uniquely shaped head and the scraggly hair definitely told you that this was Linus.

That’s true of all The Peanut’s characters.  If you go back and look at the original strips, they look remarkably different than what they would be in ten years’ time.  Ten years after that they would change a little more but not by much. Even the characters would change.  In the first strip which was dated October 5, 1950, we see three characters two of which are all but forgotten today.  Shermy, who is always the shepherd in A Charlie Brown Christmas, Patty (not Peppermint) a blond-haired girl who be most often seen with Lucy, and Charlie Brown.  These three were the center for awhile but slowly the cast would grow as Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty Marcy, and Franklin would all join the cast as well as a host of other characters.

Charles M Schulz was a genius born in 1922 and died in 2000.  For fifty of those years from 1950 until 2000 Schulz wrote and illustrated every Peanuts strip.  If he took a vacation, he wrote strips 2 or three weeks in advance.  Not one line of a pen or one word came from anybody else.  Every strip was pure Schulz.

That’s not to say he didn’t take ideas from those around him.  Watching his own children grow gave Schulz much fodder for his strip.  Watching them at play or what they were learning in school or how they got things mixed up was him plenty of ideas.  He took outside advice to and when an African American lady wrote him asking him to put an African American child in his strip, he took the advice and Franklin was born.

One other gift that Schulz had was seeing the human experience the sad and the happy and making us laugh at it.  His strip had the capacity to make kids laugh at the antics of a beagle and adults laugh and yet ponder the words of Linus who, more often than not, was the moralist of the characters.  He saw inside of us and liked what he saw but he also knew we could be better.  It’s all there in The Peanuts strip.

Mr. Schulz was a Baptist at the beginning of his career and through out the 1950s and 1960s you will find Bible verses peppered through out those years.  Of course, the most famous moment is Linus reciting from Luke Chapter Two in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  But he could be subtle too.  There is one strip where Linus is building a sandcastle.  It was a Sunday strip, and it was panel after panel of turrets and towers, high walls, and battlements.  In the last few panels, it starts to rain and the whole thing disappears.  Linus, looking at the work he has done melting away say, “I know there’s a lesson to be learned here, but I don’t know what it is.”  If you know your New Testament you know exactly what it is.  It’s a pictorial reference to Matthew Chapter 7 verses 26 and 27 where Jesus says, “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain came down, streams rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.  This is the end of The Sermon on the Mount.

Peanuts somehow enters all of us.  I know at different times of my life I can be as crabby as Lucy, as insecure as Charlie Brown, passionate as Schroeder, Adventurous as Snoopy, as loyal as Woodstock or as wise as Linus.

For a good part of my life, in recent years, I saw myself as Charlie Brown.  The loser, the guy that had little to offer the world.  The guy that failed at life.  Like Charlie Brown too many curve balls knocked me on my back on the pitcher’s mound, but I got up and tried again.  Like Charlie Brown I sought help.  A few times I ended up with advisers that might just as well been Lucy and her psychiatric booth, but more than once I ended with councilors who could and did advise me well and I found myself back in the game again.

Physical issues knocked me down too and again I needed help to get back in the game.  And again, there were people there, professionals who knew how to advise me and get me moving.  Like Linus helped Charlie Brown see what the true meaning of Christmas is.  People helped me to see what the true meaning of life is and how to live it.

These days I think I see life as a cross between Linus and Snoopy.  I want to see the meaning behind the events of my life.  I want to have deep discussions on philosophy and faith and how each of these fits into my life.  I also want to live an adventure.  Snoopy became whatever his imagination decided he would be, A World War One fighter Pilate, A lawyer, a doctor, A skater.  You see Snoopy swimming and surfing and sometimes driving a car he is almost always at the head of an adventure and willing to take the risk of the next one.  This is how I want to live.

What is an adventure.  Thornton Wilder said that you can tell if you’re in an adventure if you look around and say, “How did I get into this?”  But he countered with that you know “There is something wrong with you when you sit quietly at home hoping for an adventure.”

Right now, life is full of adventure for me.  My journey has taken a new turn and there is much to decide in the coming months.  I have been asking myself, “how did I get into this?”  And the answer has been through no fault of my own, at least for most of it.  Regardless of how, the question now is what?  What’s the next move?  How do I solve the puzzle?  I could look on the issues I am facing and be all, “woe, is me”, or I could see each situation as an adventure.  A chance to learn and grow as a person and ultimately to be a better man than I am.  To me that’s the perfect balance between Snoopy and Linus.  Seizing the adventure and seeing the meaning and the potential behind it.

I’d like to talk a little more about Charles Schulz.  Schulz was an amazing man with an incredible mind.  His work will live on through out the ages.  Other comic strips will come and go because they are grounded firmly in the time they were written.  The political landscape of Doonesbury is not the same as we have today and so the strip will fade as its creator passes on.  The same could be said for other comic strips.  Schulz work is timeless.  He makes us laugh and hits are hearts and minds at the same time.  An example of one such strip goes like this.

Linus (Pretending he has a gun) Bang Bang!

Charlie Brown:  What are you playing Linus, cops, and robbers?

Linus No!  Bang Bang!

Charlie Brown: Cowboys and Indians?

Linus: No.

Charlie Brown: Then what are you playing?

Linus: Liberals versus conservatives!  Bang Bang!

 Now Charles Schulz passed away 21 years ago.  This strip was written in the late 50s or early 60s and it is still as relevant today as the day it was written.

Schulz was a man who struggled.  He may have been at one time the most famous cartoonist in the world, but he struggled with insecurity and depression.  And yet they never beat him.  For 50 years this man would turn out strip after strip.  All those raw emotions and self-doubt became fodder for his imagination and instead of wallowing in self-pity he made us laugh and gave us the great gift of all of his characters.

I used to think that Schulz modeled Charlie Brown after himself.  I read an early biography of him where he talked about feeling out of place while in school and felt genuinely insecure.  But when Schulz was asked what character, he saw himself as he simple answered, “All of them”.  That answer, at first, surprised me.  But after thinking about it awhile, it seemed to be exactly true not only for him but for all of us.

As people we switch hats and masks every day.  Maybe to put it better we play different parts every day.  In a days’ time I can be a son, a brother, a writer, a chef, a researcher, a movie or book critic, a house cleaner, a good friend, or a councilor.  You in a day could be a mother or a father, a hockey player or businessperson, a student, or a teacher all in a single day.  We change our roles as we go from one of our interests or jobs to another and we don’t even think about it, the change is instant, sometimes simultaneous.

Charles Schulz is basically saying the same thing as he claims he is all of his characters.  He can lose and yet still be determined as Charlie Brown of be angry and crabby like Lucy.  I guess I’m pushing this to some extent, but the universalness of Charles Schulz Characters cannot go understated.

Charles Schulz is distinctly the only Newspaper cartoonist to have covered all the ways we can be entertained.  His characters have been successful in the newspapers and on-line, in movies and television and on the Broadway stage.  His entire 50 years of work has been bound in 25 hard cover books and are available for purchase.  Peanuts is read the world over and I doubt there are many countries where Snoopy plush dolls are not available for purchase.

One night in December 1969 Charles Schulz had printed his daily strip.  A Boy Named Charlie Brown was playing in the movie theaters, A Charlie Brown Christmas was on our television sets and You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown was being performed off Broadway.  Every form of media was corned by Peanuts that night.  No one has done that since.

Peanuts, Featuring Good Ol’ Charlie Brown has entertained informed and inspired us for 71 years. It has hit our hearts and our minds and our faith.  It remains popular being published every day still in print newspapers or daily delivered to your in-box.  (Since Schulz death they have been reprinting the strip from 1975 to 2000, this will end in 2025)  The Characters remain popular on television and though each of the holiday specials are available on DVD or digitally we still clamor for them to be shown on network television.  Last years rage over Apple buying the rights to show exclusively on Apple TV proves that.  The messages and the joy in those holiday specials should be free to the world as I think Schulz would want it.  Charlie Brown once said, “Life is like an ice cream cone, you have to learn to lick.”  I’ll leave you there.