Stan Lee, 1922-2018

Stan Lee.jpg

I never met Stan Lee.  I almost certainly could have at some point, if I’d wanted to; half the nerds I know have a picture of themselves with him at some con or another.  He passed away two full days ago and I’m still struggling with tears trying to write this.  That seems an odd thing to say about a man I never met.  Odd, but true.

Also true: I can think of two people, only one still with us, since JRR Tolkien passed away three years before I was born, whose work has had even close to as much of an influence on my life as Stan Lee’s did.  I have been buying comic books for 3/4 of my life, and I probably have 80% of all the Iron Man comics ever printed.  Today is Wednesday.  It’s new comic book day.  I went to the comic shop.

I go to the comic shop every Wednesday.  And I have gone to the comic shop every Wednesday for goddamn near my entire adult life, excepting only a short period of time where I lived in Chicago and didn’t have a comic shop in Chicago yet so I was still getting my comics from my local store in South Bend.  My two favorite superheroes are Iron Man and the Hulk.  Spider-Man is right behind Superman.  Number five probably slides around a bit more than the others, but Captain America is as good a choice as any.

Stan Lee created three of those five characters, and had an enormous influence on the history of the fifth.  Did he come up with everything about them completely on his own?  No, of course not.  Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Jack Kirby; the contributions of these men can’t be denied, and they were towering figures in their own right.  And we just lost Steve Ditko earlier this year, so it’s been a really bad year to be a Spider-Man fan.

(Steve Ditko designed the classic red-and-gold Iron Man armor.  I just found that out.  I don’t think I knew that before.)

This is one hundred percent true:  I have no idea what my life would look like if Stan Lee had not been a part of it.  I have no idea who I would be if I had never encountered Stan’s creations.  You don’t get to spend most of your life marinating your brain in stories about superheroes every single week and not be changed by them.  To say that Stan Lee was one of my heroes feels like it’s minimizing him.

It’s not enough.  He was too big for this.  I don’t have the words.  I’m reading this over and the whole thing just feels stupid, like I’m not trying hard enough.

Stan was Jewish.  Jews typically, or at least traditionally, don’t say “rest in peace.”  A more appropriately Jewish phrase to honor the recently dead is May his memory be a blessing.  And it’s also more appropriate to describe my relationship with Stan, a man who I never met and whose life’s nevertheless influenced me so deeply and thoroughly that I am unable to untangle what my life would be like had he never lived.  His memory– and his creations– will live on, if not forever, but certainly well beyond whatever years may be left to me.  Every day.  But especially, and undeniably, every Wednesday.

Stan Lee’s life was a blessing.  May his memory continue to be.

On HAMILTON

IMG_6920Ask me to name my heroes and two names will come to mind very quickly: Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln.  I’m always interested to see how fast people catch the fundamental similarity between the two men: they’re both damn near entirely self-educated.  I’ve had more than my share of formal education but in a lot of the things I find important I’m an autodidact, and it’s a quality I deeply respect in people.

Which explains my attraction to Alexander Hamilton, or at least the version of him that Lin-Manuel Miranda has created in HAMILTON.  I mean, the fundamentals of the story are basically correct, and Hamilton is undoubtedly a supreme autodidact, but he’s not quite up there with my heroes mostly because, while I’ve read tons of speeches and writings by Malcolm X and Abraham Lincoln, I’ve mostly read stuff about Hamilton, and that represents an important difference to me.  At least at the moment.  I need to reread the Federalist papers sometime.

But, yeah.  This guy?  I wanna be this guy:

How do you write like you’re running out of time?
Write day and night like you’re running out of time?
How do you write like tomorrow won’t arrive?
How do you write like you need it to survive?
How do you write every second you’re alive?

wish, y’all.  I don’t write enough, and the feeling “I don’t write enough” has been a goddamn constant in my life basically since I left college despite the fact that I’ve had, at the very least, an active blog for for nearly that entire time.  I don’t write enough, but I think about writing constantly.  I am never happier than I am just after completing a written piece– distinctly happier than when I’m actually writing it, a sentiment I suspect most writers will recognize.

Writing is torture.  Having written is the purest bliss.  🙂

Anyway.  We went to see HAMILTON for our 10th anniversary a week ago and somehow I haven’t talked about it here yet.  Walking in, I had large portions of the soundtrack memorized and my wife was at least reasonably familiar with the whole thing, and I think both of us were concerned that the cast being “wrong” might impair our enjoyment somewhat.  I’m glad to report that that concern was basically nonsense; my wife actually walked out preferring the Chicago cast, or at least their voices.   I wasn’t quite there, but I spent some time raving about the performance of Jonathan Kirkland, who plays George Washington.  The guy’s physical presence is outstanding; he towers over the other actors in the show, and he does a tremendous job embodying someone who was so personally forbidding that Hamilton himself once actually made a bet with a fellow Constitutional Convention-goer about whether he was brave enough to slap him on the back.  The “son” scene in Meet Me Inside was so much better than I’d thought it was going to be from the soundtrack.  Washington just stares at Hamilton, and Hamilton folds like a cheap suit.

I mean, okay, not surprising that I liked seeing the most successful Broadway musical of my lifetime live, but still: I know the tickets are expensive, but if this show is near you?  Go see it.  It’s worth it.

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My wife is actually prettier than she was the day we met.  I am … still alive, mostly.

Because I have to

It’s 9:15. I’m going to bed in the next hour or so, and I just wrote a post about heroes, and I can’t have this song in my head all damn night.

On my heroes

MTE5NDg0MDU1MDU1ODYxMjYzTrue fact: my son came very close to being named Malcolm instead of Kenneth.  At the moment, we do not plan on reproducing again.  But if we do, and if we were to have another boy, I plan on pushing very hard to name him Malcolm Abraham Siler, except, y’know, with my real last name instead of Siler, because that would be kinda weird otherwise.  To the right there is my favorite picture of him (“him” meaning Malcolm X, not my son; the kid hasn’t been born yet, geez, pay attention.)  I have a poster of that image that has been on the wall either in my house or my classroom for almost twenty years now.

Malcolm X was assassinated fifty years ago today.  And ten years ago yesterday, Hunter S. Thompson shot himself.  I hadn’t realized until this  year that their deaths were so close to each other– calendrically, at least.  And I probably still wouldn’t have noticed were not both anniversaries years easily divisible by 10.

UnknownIt should be obvious to anyone who has spent more than about ten minutes reading my writing– particularly my nonfiction writing, of course– why I hold Hunter Thompson in such high esteem.  My love for the man’s work dates back to my uncle handing me Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in high school, right around the time when I was contemplating going into journalism as a career.  I already had one journalistic idol, a guy by the name of Mike Royko, who you’d better have heard of, and Thompson’s work blew my mind.  I’d read everything of his I could get my hands on within a few weeks, and Fear and Loathing is on a short list of books that I try my damnedest to reread every couple of years.  If I’m ever half as good as either of them, I will be very good at this wordsmithery thing indeed.  Thompson’s fine ear for invective hurt him not one bit, as you can probably imagine; both of my journalistic idols were, at least in print, angry men.

ryokoMy affection for Malcolm may perhaps be slightly harder to understand.  Leave the politics aside for now, although truth be told there’s no reason to; the fact that Malcolm may not have liked me very much has no real bearing on what I’m allowed to think about him, after all.  Here’s what is, to me, amazing about Malcolm’s life: the man quite clearly and deliberately turned himself into the man that he decided he had to be.  Now, if you’d have asked him, he would of course have given the credit to some combination of Elijah Muhammad and Allah, depending on precisely when in his career you asked him.  But Malcolm’s transformation in prison is one of the great human stories of our time regardless of his motivations for doing so.  I reserve my deepest esteem for the autodidact, for people who went out and learned for themselves what society was either unable or unwilling to teach them.  Malcolm spent his entire adult life learning and exploring about the world– and changing his mind when it seemed like he needed to.

Abraham_Lincoln_O-116_by_Gardner,_1865-cropThe as-yet-unborn boy’s name is to be Malcolm Abraham, of course, speaking of men who formed their own intellects and personalities by force.  I’m not quite cruel enough to force a kid in this day and age to go by Abraham, mind you– although at least some of the more traditional-sounding Bible names do seem to be making a bit of a comeback nowadays.  Nah, we’ll go with Malcolm, which shortens nicely to Mal.  In a pinch, I can remind people what a big Joss Whedon fan I am.  Lincoln was America’s greatest president, of course, and looking into the future I see no equal anytime soon.  But again, it’s the private Lincoln and not the public one who interests me; the man who, in the absence of schools, took it upon himself to gain his education, and his law degree, and eventually the presidency itself.  I am no politician, and never wanted to be.  But I would kill to have a fraction of Lincoln’s drive, and his keenly analytic mind is plainly apparent to anyone who has ever read any of his writing.

This isn’t all of my heroes, of course; that would require a bit more time and space than I’m willing to devote tonight.  But I didn’t want to let the anniversaries miss without saying anything.  Rest in peace, gentlemen; all four of you.

(Lincoln and Royko both died in April; Lincoln on the 15th and Royko on the 29th.  Not as close as Malcolm and Hunter, but still kinda interesting, if you like coincidences.)