The Year of Stan Lee

Stan Lee is undoubtedly one of the most important creative icons of the last century. His accomplishments are virtually unparalleled in modern popular culture, particularly when examining his entire career (beginning in the late 1930s and carrying through to the present).

Begin making a list of comparable artists and pop culture icons and you may have trouble finding a dozen like Lee over the last 100 years. Working across parts or all of nine decades, Lee’s longevity alone places him in rare air.

Simply gauged: Lee’s influence on popular culture touches most Americans on a daily basis.

 Image of the Stan Lee Collectibles Booth at the Cincinnati Comic Expo, September 24, 2016

Image of the Stan Lee Collectibles Booth at the Cincinnati Comic Expo, September 24, 2016

To commemorate Lee and his significance as a contemporary pop culture icon, I am dedicating this blog to chronicling his life, career, successes, and challenges. Beginning with Lee’s 94th birthday on December 28, 2016, and running for at least the following year, I will bring readers highlights from the amazing, stupendous, and MARVEL-ous career of Stan “the Man” Lee.

My hope is that by examining Lee’s incredible life and work that readers will gain a more complete picture, as well as greater insight into why Lee’s career has been so important.

So, as Stan might say: “Excelsior!” Here’s to a fun ride… ‘Nuff said…

Celebrate Stan Lee's 94th Birthday!

December 28 marks Stan Lee's 94th birthday!

 Stan Lee at the Cincinnati Comic Expo, September 24, 2016

Stan Lee at the Cincinnati Comic Expo, September 24, 2016

Leave a birthday greeting or message in the comments section or directly on the Facebook link below:

On his birthday, I'll forward all comments to Stan in celebration of his career as one of America's most important creative icons!



Who is Don Draper?

An excerpt from Mad Men: A Cultural History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) by M. Keith Booker and Bob Batchelor

"What you’re watching with Don is a representation, to me, of American society. He is steeped in sin, haunted by his past, raised by animals, and there is a chance to revolt. And he cannot stop himself.”
            -- Matthew Weiner, 2014

Don Draper is a hero and villain. The things he worships – California, cars, self-worth, movies, lasting accomplishment – symbolize postwar America in an age when the nation’s power seemed unbounded. Draper, too, is a study in paradox, which essentially serves to make him even more profoundly American. In creating this character, Matthew Weiner forces viewers to reflect on Draper’s life and deeds (good and bad) by showing that aspects of him are in us all – a true everyman for the modern world.

The extremes are always just below the surface with Don. He can lose control in an instance. Draper is also capable of deep compassion. There are bouts of terrifying malevolence. Often, his contempt for the shackles of the corporate world and advertising business forces him to flee, as if one more moment at his desk or in a meeting will yank his soul into eternal damnation. Yet, at the same time, his zeal for what he calls, “the work” and the creative spark that wins him fame and fortune rarely wavers. These dualities create a character that exudes everything that is righteous and strong about the American Dream – a kind of Superman in a suit – but one that also typifies the nation’s ugliness. As a result, there is no easy way to answer this chapter’s title question. Instead, the judgment is pieced together by interrogating both the subtle nuance and audacious bluntness Draper embodies.

Similar to other outstanding fictional characters across film, literature, and television, Draper is timeless. He symbolizes our own era, even as he is meant to typify the chaotic 1960s. Yet, he is not simply a televised version of John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, Don Corleone, Bob Dylan, Sloan Wilson’s man in the gray flannel suit, Saul Bellow’s Augie March, or Batman. He is representative, but also unique, which is at least in part why audiences are so attracted to him, despite his reprehensible traits. Viewers can see “real life” in Don (traits of their family members and friends), but also those drawn out of the fictional world, from suave characters played by Cary Grant to the real or imagined John F. Kennedy.

Draper is a composite of ideas, actions, and impulses that audiences have proven to relish across American popular culture for decades. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, for example, Don is mysterious and has difficulty attuning his two lives after assuming a new identity. Physically, Draper projects the “leading man” looks and toughness of Hollywood stars, like real-life icons Clark Gable and Gregory Peck. In playing Don, Jon Hamm flashes the same tough/tender and realist/idealist persona that many of the golden age film actors emanated. The “tough, but sensitive” personality, combined with traditional male beauty, draws viewers to the Draper character, because we feel his quest, the unyielding existential angst. He is reaching for greatness, but lassoed to the here and now, essentially waging warfare between these competing proclivities.

As a character, Don Draper asks audiences to contemplate his fictional life with the impulses and ideas that power the contemporary world: what role does sexism play in modern society, how much alcohol is too much, how do we treat friends and family, how might we interpret our coworkers and bosses, can we outrun the past, is the future bright. There is no doubt that some viewers take pleasure in the bad boy side of Draper’s personality, particularly with booze, cars, women, and cigarettes. As the character both suffers and rejoices over seven seasons, people acquire the context to add value to their own ideas about life, the past, and avenues toward the future. The framework that Weiner created not only makes Draper an important character in television history, but also provides the show with lasting importance. 

Loving (and Hating) Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone is awesome and awful.

In the 1980s, growing up anywhere outside a major city meant limited -- or virtually zero -- access to things deemed cool. Rolling Stone provided a much-needed spiritual link to the world outside suburban or rural America, then dominated by cookie-cutter record stores and mainstream culture crafted in corporate boardrooms. Many small towns would not even allow MTV onto the ultra-conservative cable systems run by characters quite similar to John Lithgow in Footloose.

In a world of stifling conformity, Rolling Stone brought culture to the hinterlands in a big, oversized package. It served as a lifeline. The magazine not only covered popular culture, but actually defined culture in those pre-web days. Rolling Stone felt like contraband, passed around and through various high school cliques. That glimpse into the larger world seemed priceless.

Looking back, Rolling Stone provided culture-starved readers two things they could not get anywhere else: a portrait of artists as human beings, and because the covers and photographs were so good, the power of visual culture. We learned about R.E.M. and U2 via Rolling Stone and waited for the “Yearbook” and “Hot” issues to relish in the joys of the best photography we had ever seen.

In college, all these kids passing around Rolling Stone were tacking covers up on walls. Many images grew into iconic photos representing the age -- nearly naked Janet Jackson in black and white or the Nirvana album cover announcing a new sheriff in town about to wipe out hair metal and its inauthentic excesses.

Hating Rolling Stone is tough.

As an adult, reading Matt Taibbi on the Iraq War, its insider coverage of Great Recession wrongdoings, or historian Sean Wilentz’s celebrated takedown of President George H.W. Bush as the worst to ever hold the office provided new insight into the most important topics the nation faced. At the same time, though, these pieces and many more like them seemed to have little or no dent on the national conversation.

Back in all those small towns, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and conservative talk radio won the hearts and minds by railing against the kinds of things Rolling Stone seemed to embody. The magazine continued to preach to people already onboard with its agenda, its readers willingly surrendered the media battlefield to conservative forces. Rolling Stone did not rally people to stand up to the other side, which aggressively fought for the middle of the nation.

Losing relevance is one thing, but the many high-profile scandals takes Rolling Stone loathing to a different level. “A Rape on Campus,” published in November 2014 set off a nationwide uproar regarding sex crimes on college campuses, and sparked a much-needed dialogue. As a result, countless institutions set up new systems for reporting and dealing with these challenges. Yet, over the next several months, the story unraveled as The Washington Post and Charlottesville police determined that the gang rape never occurred. The hoax, which seems to have been an elaborate catfishing plot by the accuser, forced Rolling Stone to retract the story and apologize. The fabrication also set off a series of lawsuits that will keep the magazine in the news for all the wrong reasons for years to come.

Although lurching from 18 months of bad publicity, Rolling Stone again hit a nerve when it allowed actor/activist Sean Penn to secretly meet with and interview notorious fugitive/drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán. After a fierce gunfight, drug officials caught El Chapo prior to the long article running in Rolling Stone, but its seemingly empathetic tone thrust the magazine back into the negative spotlight.

The interview lit up social media, with heavy doses of mockery for Penn and the magazine, while journalists and journalism scholars debated the magazine’s willingness to run the piece and the ethical implications. The latter centered on Rolling Stone editors allowing El Chapo to approve the piece before publication, a violation of one of journalism’s most sacred tenets. Editor/publisher Jann Wenner seems to dismiss such criticism, despite the bad consequences he and the magazine he co-founded in 1967 faces.

Though not as nefarious as the big scandals, there is another reason to frown on the magazine’s influence on modern American journalism – the Rolling Stone-style profile. The RS “formula” is almost instantly recognizable: a mix of insider portrait/anecdote, gossip, astute observation, and snarky commentary. The pervasiveness of the too-cool-for-school voice is a stalwart of entertainment reporting. My reaction to the model is that it can be either a.) somewhat humorous, or b.) provoke an I-just-threw-up-a-little-in-my-mouth moment. 

"The Rolling Stone-style profile. The RS “formula” is almost instantly recognizable: a mix of insider portrait/anecdote, gossip, astute observation, and snarky commentary. The pervasiveness of the too-cool-for-school voice is a stalwart of entertainment reporting."

Rolling Stone’s coverage of David Bowie following his recent death provides good examples of the RS formula. For example, Brian Hiatt’s “The Final Years,” begins with an on-the-scene portrait of Bowie seemingly experiencing his first major health crisis, the 2004 heart attack while on stage in Prague. This kind of breathless insider info, even covering the profile’s internal thinking (“he found himself struggling for breath”), is now routine in entertainment pieces. We see this in the almost mandatory description of where the reporter and interviewee met for lunch and what he or she ate and wore.

Mikal Gilmore’s profile of Bowie’s life and influence is even more formulaic, bouncing between solid criticism and too-smart-by-half interjections purposely designed to establish the writer’s superiority over the uncultured, unknowing reader. In discussing the singer’s The Man Who Sold the World (1970), Gilmore astutely explains it “was a strange, paranoid and philosophical album. Bowie was now working largely in electric rock & roll -- hard and dissonant, and not quite like anybody else’s.”

However, the RS formula necessitates that commercial success be downplayed at the expense of “artistic” work. Gilmore calls Bowie’s post-Let’s Dance (1983) global superstardom “a confusing creative trail” that resulted in “indifferent-sounding albums…that met with little esteem.” For Gilmore, the singer redeems himself after Black Tie White Noise (1993), which led to “a series of ambitious, occasionally brilliant, albums.”

The conundrum seemingly always on hand for Rolling Stone writers is how to tone down the thing that makes an entertainer popular, which is the reason they are being profiled, while also balancing the insider snapshots and snarky criticisms. Because the magazine gained wide popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, when many journalism professors studied or were working professionals, they have passed this formula down to two generations of writers. The result is a wildfire of mechanical pieces all within the Rolling Stone guise. Very little is gained or learned, because the formula demands little of the writer or subject. It’s not writing; it’s patchwork. Unfortunately, the formula is now at the center of all entertainment -- we see it in reality television and many mainstream films and novels. There is little to challenge the audience, because the formula is ubiquitous.

Rolling Stone stands at a crossroad for many readers. Is it possible to stay in love with a magazine that meant so much, but now seems to be slipping out of touch? For countless readers, Rolling Stone helped create and construct a worldview and provided something that at one time seemed exotic and exciting. Perhaps it is time to throw it out with the nostalgic bathwater.