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ON FILM

Stan Lee Story draws on comics’ adult angst

By Philip Martin

This article was published October 14, 2011 at 3:14 a.m.

— Comic books are a medium of communication - just as television and motion pictures, and all must be judged on their individual merits. A story is a story, whether presented between two covers or on a screen. If the words have dramatic impact, if the pictures are visually appealing, if the theme is emotionally relevant, then it is certainly worthy of a reader’s attention. - Stan Lee, 1968

As I was watching With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, a 2010 documentary by Terry Dougas, Nikki Frakes and Will Hess that’s showing at this year’s Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, I was reminded that although I am not a comics guy, though I could have been - and given how great they were during the years I was actively reading them, maybe I should have been. At the very least, I still wish I had my collection.

I bought most of the comics I was destined to buy in the mid-to-late ’60s, roughly the period between the releases of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Abbey Road albums. Comics aficionados recognize something they call the “Silver Age,” which they contend began when DC Comics introduced a new interpretation of the superhero the Flash in October 1956 (the same month Elvis Presley’s second album was released) and ended about the time I put aside my comic books.

For 20 years I’ve considered writing something about the parallel developments in rock ’n’ roll and comics during this period. And if I ever write this piece, Lee is going to be comics’ answer to Bob Dylan.

Lee and Dylan occupy similar positions in our pop culture - before Dylan, rock ’n’ roll was necessarily aimed at a juvenile audience, the market share created by the consolidated high school and American postwar affluence. Just as Dylan made it OK for “adults” to listen to pop music - Lee gave us comics that grown-up sensibilities could appreciate. Lee’s comics weren’t afraid to take on serious issues like racism and drug abuse. Lee recognized that character was more interesting than any superpower - that Peter Parker was far more interesting than Superman.

I didn’t think about those sorts of things when I was reading comics - after all, I was a child, not even a teenager - but I do remember preferring Marvel’s existential stories with their troubled protagonists to DC Comics’ typically blander heroes (although Batman unnerved me). And I also remember loving to read - and trying to puzzle out - the insidery hipster jive that filled a couple of pages in each book - Lee’s Soapbox column and the Marvel Bullpen Bulletins that allowed readers a peek behind the scenes of the company. Lee mythologized Marvel, its artists - Jack “King” Kirby, “Jolly” Joe Sinott, “Sturdy” Steve Ditko - and even an imaginary go-fer Irving Forbush. (I never won a No-Prize, but I was a card carrying member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.)

For me, this was the equivalent of listening to my parents and their friends’ cocktail party banter. I didn’t understand all of it - I didn’t really understand much of it - but it made me feel connected to a sophisticated sensibility. Lee flattered me by refusing to condescend.

The film captures that aspect of Lee extremely well - I doubt there is a more adorable human being than the Lee depicted here. He comes off as a charmer, with some of the sly wit and intelligence of, say, Kurt Vonnegut. If anyone has a bad word to say about him, they don’t say it in the course of this affectionate documentary.

And that’s all right, for while I’m sure that there are people who hate Lee and whom Lee hates, I’m happy to have this brief tour of his life and career,vividly punctuated with images and icons from the work Lee had a hand in producing over his long career. I didn’t stay with comics - we moved, and there was no comic book store within an easy bike ride of our house - but I remember those books fondly and even now I can’t help but feel a little excited when I hear about another Marvel universe movie opening.

The movies almost always disappoint me - they aren’t grown-up enough - but I always enjoy seeing Lee’s inevitable cameo appearance.

With Great Power is not a great film, and I wonder if people who aren’t generally familiar with the history of comic books in this country will be able to follow its somewhat fractured timeline.

But it’s a good movie, in that it’s very pleasant to sit and watch Lee talk about his life and work, and it’s gratifying to hear dozens of movie stars and directors, as well as writers, inkers and others from the comic book universe talk about his monumental influence. The movie works as a valentine to a prodigious artist who can rightfully be considered one of the more important contributors to American culture.

Screenings of With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story are scheduled for 7:05 p.m. Tuesday and 4:30 p.m. Oct. 22 at the Malco Theater, 817 Central Ave., Hot Springs. Admission for the festival is $5 per film; $20 for day pass; $125 for festival pass; $250 for VIP pass. Interested parties should check the festival’s website - hsdfi. org - or call (501) 321-4747.

E-mail:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 10/14/2011

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