Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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With great career comes great gratitude

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Of all the tributes to Stan Lee that I’ve read in the past day-and-a-half, it’s Gerry Conway’s that has touched me the most.

Conway succeeded Stan Lee in scripting Spider-Man at age 19 (!!!). He was a significant comic-book writer for Marvel from 1971 to 1977 (and a minor writer for DC for three years before that), and thereafter became a major comics writer elsewhere, before transitioning into television. So he knows what he’s talking about — and he attributes his entire career to the jolt given him by an early issue of Fantastic Four — and, therefore, to Stan Lee.

What I most appreciate about this piece is that he looks at Stan unsentimentally — noting the shortcomings many of us saw — but comes away recognizing just how essential Stan Lee was to revolutionizing both comic books and pop culture.

What, according to Gerry Conway, was Stan Lee’s most significant achievement? Making it cool to want to work in comics… and to love comics.

“Nobody aspires to play in a rock band if they’ve never heard of a rock band. The Marvel Bullpen of the 1960s was comicdom’s first rock band.

“That was because of Stan.”

Spot on.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

‘Nuff said.

Now it can be told!

Monday, November 12th, 2018

According to longtime DC Comics scribe Elliot S! Maggin, here’s how Stan Lee got started in a career in cameos.

StanLeeCameos

Another wonderful part of Stan Lee’s legacy

Monday, November 12th, 2018

Countless young people like me read this at the time and were positively influenced by it.

StansSoapbox

Stan Lee, R.I.P.

Monday, November 12th, 2018

StanLee

Stan Lee has died. And with that, we’ve lost the last luminary of the Golden Age of comics.

I owe the man a lot. He and his creative partner Jack Kirby shaped my early life, helping me to understand that while each of us would always have problems to deal with, there was a universe of adventure awaiting our exploration.

Kirby was the cosmic explorer, a man overfilled with big ideas and the drawing ability to set them down on paper. It was Lee, though, who supplied the underlying humanity — whether it was the tortured Ben Grimm trying to hold onto his sense of self while trapped within the body of a monster, or, even, the imposter who’d taken Ben’s guise but who, as he learned about Ben’s noble character, sacrificed himself to save the rest of the Fantastic Four. Kirby’s later comics, without Lee, were fun but soulless; Lee’s few attempts at comics without Kirby were all spin and no groove. While DC characters like the Flash and Green Lantern had all the personal luster of a subcommittee hearing, Marvel’s characters were conflicted and torn:  Tony Stark, the munitions maker with the damaged heart trying to protect those closest to him while supplying arms; Thor, trying to balance the competing demands of godhood, an overbearing father, and the mortals he was drawn to; Bruce Banner, a sensitive scientist struggling with the rage he personified as the Hulk. The Silver Surfer, in particular, trying to find his proper place in a universe that’s been closed off to him. These and many more speak to Stan Lee’s gift for archetypal character.

I’ve run into Stan Lee many, many, many times over the course of my life, and not just at comics conventions. At the Beverly Center, a mall on the west side of town, I was going down one side of an escalator while he was rising on the other, his lovely wife in tow. I’ve seen him on the street or at events here and there throughout the past 30 years. A client of mine had Stan Lee consulting for him. About four years ago, I literally almost collided with him in a crowded stairwell at a hotel, where he was pursued by admirers. This is a man who was famous as early as 50 years ago, speaking on college campuses and even putting on a show at Madison Square Garden. The Marvel movies of the past 10-plus years, with his signature cameos, only increased his fame.

Last night, as I was leaving the gym, I came across a white Dish satellite panel van, its interior lights left on, I assumed, by a driver who was now working out in the gym. I was tired — bedraggled, even — but made my way back around the corner and around another corner and into the gym to tell the man at the front desk that someone had left his lights on and that they should make an announcement. This wasn’t on a par with warning people about the imminence of Galactus, but it still reflects the sort of values I learned from my parents and in indelible ink from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and that I try to practice every day.

His work, though easily mocked as lowbrow pop culture, was an inspiration to millions of us. He also brought delight to a lot of lonely bookish kids like me all across the world.

Excelsior!

Still fighting the never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way

Sunday, November 11th, 2018

SupermanTrump

A better Comic-Con, and the usual Harlan Ellison

Wednesday, July 25th, 2018

This year the San Diego Comic-Con, which I returned from early Monday morning, seemed better planned than ever:  Although the event was as sold-out as ever, with an estimated 150,000 people packing the convention center and environs, there was a remarkable easing of the crush that has been squeezing all the attendees. How do you accomplish getting just as many people, but alleviating the sort of throngs we’re used to seeing in big-budget zombie flicks? You start by moving to RFID badges and requiring that attendees scan in, and out, of every passageway — thus eliminating all the counterfeit badges that, evidently, had been turning up. You move more and more events into adjacent locales, such as the Hyatt and the Marriott and the downtown library, thereby splitting up the horde. Finally, you work with the city to get the main thoroughfare closed to vehicles, and you restrict the main sidewalk to people with badges, thereby creating easier and more orderly passage for everyone who is there for the convention.

All tolled, it’s truly impressive how well-managed and well-organized this event is.

Because it was so much better organized, I was able to get into every panel and event I wanted to attend. In the past 10 years, it’s more of a crapshoot:  How early should I line up to see if I can get in? (Thereby missing other potential panels because I was in line early for something else.) This year? No problem. The result is that I went to more panels than ever, learned a lot, and had an all-around terrific time sampling from the wide variety of very well-programmed offerings.

I might want to go into detail here about some of those offerings later, but in the meantime, given my recent post here about the recently deceased Harlan Ellison, I thought I’d say that I went to his hastily organized tribute at the convention. I do not mean to poke fun when I note that the moderator spent much of his time choking back tears over Harlan’s demise (while noting that Harlan “hated crying” and would strenuously object were he there), and then devoted the first 23 minutes to an extremely mopey video from Neil Gaiman on the subject of how much Harlan’s writing meant to him. I am less of a fan, and didn’t enjoy my encounters with Harlan Ellison, so, as they say, your mileage may vary. Before arriving, I had been tempted to go to the mic during the inevitable Q and A and point out that Harlan spent a lot of time deriding fans (a visit to YouTube will help you verify this), fans being precisely the sort of people who were now attending this little tribute panel. But when I found out that his widow was seated in the front row, I thought better of it. She put up with him for 30 years; why add to her misery now?

What I will do, though, is link to three recent posts about Harlan Ellison on Mark Evanier’s blog.

Here’s the first one, in which Harlan insinuates himself front and center into someone else’s lifetime achievement award.  It seems like Mark thinks this is cute; I think it’s self-centered and childish.

Here’s the second one, in which Harlan runs around naked in front of other people because he believes he’s written the best sentence ever.

Here’s the third one, in which Harlan blows up a simple misunderstanding into an incident in which he’s physically threatening to beat someone, and urging the crowd to assist him. In this one, Mark, like some others, decides he’s had enough and keeps his distance thereafter.

I have a friend who suspects that Harlan Ellison was manic-depressive. That’s easy to say and impossible to prove. What it does seem fair to say is that he was a drama queen, and sometimes that was fun, and lots of times it wasn’t.

 

Where’s Superman when you need him?

Tuesday, November 14th, 2017

Just when you think some things in the world can’t get worse… a comic-book convention gets shut down by an armed group.

Len Wein, R.I.P.

Sunday, September 10th, 2017

Just before heading into the gym today, around 2, I learned from Kurt Busiek‘s Twitter feed that Len Wein had died. That made for a very thoughtful workout.

In my lifetime, I have read many, many, many comic books that Len wrote, including a landmark run of “Justice League of America” that reintroduced The Seven Soldiers of Victory and the Freedom Fighters (and which I bought again two months ago at Comic-Con), his Batman run in “Detective” and then later in “Batman,” and, at Marvel, his work on “Marvel Team-Up,” “Thor,” and, of course, “Fantastic Four.”

He was also the co-creator of many of the most significant new characters of the 1970s:  Swamp Thing, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm and Colossus. Without Len, there would have been no new X-Men comics, let alone the movies.

I knew him a little bit — enough to say hello and to say, “Hey, here you are again!” That’s because I kept running into him, and not just at comic-book conventions. Although I probably first met him when I was a kid and he was a force to be reckoned with at DC or Marvel, I can’t pinpoint when I got reintroduced as an adult, here in Los Angeles.  It might have been almost 10 years ago, when my company was the sponsor of a live stage revival of “What’s My Line,” hosted by a very clever guy named J. Keith Van Straaten. Len’s first appearance on the show was as a mystery guest. The next time, I saw him sitting in the audience. Finally, he was made a panelist. To my recollection, he was there week after week in some capacity or other, because he just loved the show. If that wasn’t how I (re)met him, then maybe it was at my friend Jackie’s improv show — because Len had studied improv with her and also loved improv. And I would run into him at the theatre all the time. In early ’09, I took my wife and kids to see the revival of “Pippin” at the Ahmanson — and Len Wein happened to be sitting in front of us. That happened to me lots of times in lots of different places. He was a bit of a theatre geek.

He was also a pivotal figure in comics. Of all his achievements, these three in particular cemented his reputation:  He co-created Wolverine, who is by far the most popular comics character introduced in the past 60 years; he launched the X-Men revival, which financially carried Marvel all through the mid-1970s, 1980s, and 1990s at least; and he hired Alan Moore to write “Swamp Thing.” That was Moore’s big break — and ultimately led to Vertigo comics and the more-literate line of comics since then. Without Moore there’d of course be no “Watchmen” — but probably no “Sandman” (Neil Gaiman’s big break), no “Preacher,” no John Constantine or “Hellblazer” (another Moore invention), no “Lucifer” and on and on.

Not just in comics, but in all the areas they now touch, Len Wein was a very, very big deal. I’m glad to see all the obits today acknowledging his impact.

My life with Jack Kirby

Monday, August 28th, 2017

JackKirby_selfp

In my life, I have known about a dozen MacArthur “genius” grantees — generally, very noteworthy writers and performers whose names you would know. But I think that for range of vision, for sheer scope of work and for lasting influence, Jack Kirby, who was largely unrecognized as a genius during his life, tops them all.

I was very lucky to meet him, as well. Which I’ll get to in a minute. But first, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, I have to pay tribute to his genius.

To credit Jack Kirby as the (co-) creator of the entire foundation of the Marvel universe — and the resultant Marvel Cinematic Universe — is to lavish him with faint praise.

Jack Kirby created entire categories, and subcategories, of American popular culture, inculcating multi-billion-dollar enterprises along the way, while bringing new thrust to his special undertaking:  the dynamic depiction of story.

Yes, Jack Kirby created, or co-created:

  • Captain America
  • The Fantastic Four
  • Thor (Marvel Comics’ version)
  • Iron Man
  • The Hulk
  • The Fly
  • Spider-Man
  • Boy Commandoes
  • The Newsboy Legion
  • Groot
  • The Inhumans
  • Black Panther
  • Doctor Doom
  • The X-Men
  • Darkseid
  • Kamandi
  • Ego the Living Planet
  • the Silver Surfer
  • Mr. Miracle
  • the Forever People
  • Ronan the Accuser
  • the Watcher
  • The Kree
  • The Skrulls
  • The Supreme Intelligence
  • The Challengers of the Unknown
  • The Eternals
  • The Celestials
  • The Avengers
  • and the list goes on and on

(And just for the record, and although I’m somewhat sad to bring this up, what did the far more glorified Stan Lee create without his primary creative partner, Jack Kirby? Just about nothing. Meanwhile, Kirby created noteworthy characters long before his partnership with Stan Lee, during his partnership with Stan Lee, and long after his partnership with Stan Lee. The only constant factor in this incredible 60-year outpouring of creativity was:  Jack Kirby.)

But Kirby also created:

  • Entire new mythological universes, as with “Thor,” and his “Fourth World” series
  • Kid-gang comics (“Boy Commandoes,” “The Newsboy Legion”)
  • the entire genre of Romance comics
  • whole strata of the DC and Marvel Universes (both the upcoming Justice League and Avengers movies directly spin out of Kirby underpinnings)

Kirby also created new methods of illustrative storytelling.

He created Kirby krackle. Here’s an example of a layout without it, and with it.

Kirby Krackle

Once you know what it looks like, you’ll spot Kirby krackle everywhere. It brings energy to the panel.

Kirby also brought forced perspective to the page. Note how Captain America seems to be leaping out at us:

Kirby forced perspective

Kirby’s work hummed with action and virility. Compared to Kirby’s, most other comics artists’ work of the time just stood there.

(For a list of even more of Jack Kirby’s innovations, click here.)

When I was a boy, I was awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. It is hard to remain awestruck about anything in one’s fifties, but I am still awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. That’s why it’s all the more memorable to me that, at age 11, I got to meet Jack Kirby.

At age 11, I was someone who very much did not want to be living where he was:  out in the woods, far away from the thrum of Manhattan. In Manhattan, it seemed, one could run into Doctor Strange or the Human Torch or Daredevil out on the street, because in Marvel Comics these heroes were on every street corner — recognizable street corners. Over in the pallid land of DC Comics, things happened in “Smallville” or “Gotham City” or “Metropolis” or “Coast City” — places that didn’t exist on any map. But with Marvel, it looked like you could go to the Upper West Side and walk right past Avengers Mansion. That, plus the interconnectedness of their comics, lent Marvel its verisimilitude, its uncanny shimmer that made everything seem so possible.

What I especially loved about Marvel was Kirby’s primary triumph (with Stan Lee, who provided dialogue), “Fantastic Four.” The Fantastic Four were not superheroes. Superheroes confront arch-villains, evildoers and ne’er-do-wells. The Fantastic Four were primarily science explorers (modeled after Kirby’s previous creation, The Challengers of the Unknown); as such, they explored outer space, inner space, alternate dimensions, the past, the future, and the limits of human cognition, meeting different races and different beliefs all along the way and expressing the very best of the human race in a meeting of the minds. Sometimes they did battle on behalf of their (our) beliefs — but frequently they found common cause with strange and outwardly alien people of all types.

And that’s what I wanted to do:  to get out of the woods, to meet new people and different viewpoints, to exchange ideas, and to advance together.

Maybe it’s naive, but that’s still what I want to do.

So, you see, Jack Kirby shaped my life.

But when I was 11, I was just amazed to see him in person. It was like seeing Leonardo da Vinci or Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ or some other enormously great historical figure in the flesh. How was it even possible?

That July, just a week-and-a-half before my 12th birthday, my father took me to the 1974 New York Comic Art Convention; this was an incredible gift, which I’m still grateful for, 25 years after his death. And there, in some little room, back when comic-book conventions were far far smaller, I stood at the back of a line of maybe 10 people waiting to meet Jack Kirby.

Kirby was seated at the left of two folding tables, drawing sketches and signing autographs and chatting with whoever was next in line. To his left (my right) was his longtime inker on “Fantastic Four,” Joe Sinnott. (Mr. Sinnott, aged 90, is still with us.) Although Kirby by this point had left Marvel for DC, and I had read some of those DC comics, I was still completely enamored with “Fantastic Four” — as was seemingly every person in line ahead of me. One by one, each of them remarked upon “Fantastic Four.”

But I didn’t want to be like them. Who would want to approach the godhead and seem like just another supplicant?

So, when it was finally my turn to approach the great man, I said with as much of a squeak as I could register, in something like a high-pitched mumble filled with nervous anxiety, “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

Now, for the record, Kirby’s work on “The Avengers,” while displaying the same dynamism he brought to pretty much everything, was nowhere near on a par with his work on “Fantastic Four.” And I knew this. I said this only to be different. At age 11, and small in stature and frame and tiny in self-confidence in front of Kirby in particular, it was, in retrospect from 40 years later, a little brave for me to say:  “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

To which Jack Kirby replied, “What?”

At age 57, he hadn’t quite heard what my pipsqueak voice had said.

Fully intimidated to be in his presence, I couldn’t even bring myself to look up and see the great man sitting eight inches in front of me. I just trembled and managed to say in a quaking voice, “Oh, never mind” and stood quaking as Kirby signed an autograph for me.

I am not exaggerating this encounter.

And I have never again been so intimidated in my life. Not because of him — he was eminently approachable — but because of what he signified:  everything that was important to me.

Joe Sinnott, God bless him, saw my extreme mortification and called me over and drew for me a full sketch of the Thing, a member of the Fantastic Four, and wrote my name and signed it and I cherish it to this day and am still struck by his monumental kindness.

I got to meet Jack Kirby twice after that, many years afterward, after I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and started attending the San Diego Comic Con (now Comic-Con International), where he was an adored guest and fixture. He was a very nice man, and, honest to God, a genius. And, it must be said, he was a true entertainer — someone who filled countless hours of my life then and now with enjoyment. I think Kirby viewed himself as a cartoonist, but when you look at the panoply of his work you see that he was much more than that. As much as Homer or J.R.R. Tolkein, or any other noteworthy fantasist, and moreso than most of them, Jack Kirby was a world builder.

And because he was also a progressive and an optimist, he helped build in me an ongoing thirst for a better world.

I’m in his debt.

 

War is Peace

Sunday, July 2nd, 2017

WonderWoman2017

I went to the 9:40 showing of “Wonder Woman” this morning. I wanted to see the movie, plus I didn’t have anything else I was going to be doing at 9:40 a.m., plus I wanted to save half the ticket price.

Before I say what I’m going to say, let me say that I enjoyed the movie very much. Even with the obvious plot points and non-revelatory reveals. (My interior monologue:  “Hm. Wonder Woman has two mother figures, one will die, I’m going to say… that one. Yep. Okay, there’s a hidden bad guy, they’re establishing this character, so it’s him. Yep.” And so forth.)

In addition to the extremely powerful charm and beauty of Gal Gadot, and the eye-catching magnitude of Chris Pine’s eyebrows, I couldn’t help noting the pro-war bent from a movie that seeks to present itself as anti-war: The Amazons on Themyscira are in constant training for a battle they seem not to have fought to eons; Hippolyta seeks to shelter her young daughter from said training even though, evidently, training in battle is the only thing going on in that land; when transported to London, Diana asks how women could possibly fight in their constrictive 1921 street clothes, her assumption being that of course everyone is constantly engaged in battle; and, really, the entire film is a run-up to a massive war, one between good and evil (i.e., the Allies and the Germans) and an evidently even more important war, between a goddess and her uncle.

War is all over this thing, even though Wonder Woman constantly calls for peace.

Is she serious, or is this a pose?

If peace were declared, for ever after, what would she do? Would the women of paradise island take up knitting instead?

Driving home, I thought about “1984,” where Big Brother tells us that “War is Peace.” This, on a day when Donald Trump released a video beckoning us to cheer as he wrestles journalists into submission. In 2017, with a world in chaos and the country feeling unmoored, messages mean more. However entertaining, what is the message of “Wonder Woman”? What does it mean that the god of war advocates for armistice just so he can show it won’t work? How entertaining can simple entertainment be when it makes us feel like we should take up arms, during a time when what we really need to do is come to some agreement? Is Wonder Woman just the latest in a long line of hypocrites?