Opus 33:

1. Just Another Hockey Puck? (8/9)

2. Stan Meets Larry (8/9)

1. Just Another Hockey Puck? Regardless of the personal animosities
that have animated debate in the wake of the $24.5 million judgement
against Todd McFarlane recently, it is almost certain that the
verdict won't stand. In the unlikely event that you missed the
details, let me review them briefly here.
     McFarlane named a villain in his Spawn comic book after Tony Twist,
a St. Louis Blues hockey player, the hockey player brought suit in a
St. Louis court, and the jury found for the plaintiff, socking
McFarlane with the multi-million dollar penalty. McFarlane was
astounded and rightly so.
     One might reasonably expect that the freedom of expression
guaranteed by the First Amendment would have protected him against
this extravagantly frivolous action. But then, one would have
reckoned without considering the consequences of conducting the
litigation before a jury in the hockey player's home town, where he
is highly regarded--even beloved--for his skill on the ice and his
tireless efforts on behalf of local underprivileged children. In this
context, McFarlane was not a crusader for First Amendment rights but
simply a snot-nosed outsider, a big bucks guy who bought a $3 million
baseball from the other St. Louis god, homerun slugger Mike McQuire.
     In the long run, however, reason and McFarlane will prevail: the
verdict is sure to be reversed upon appeal. And McFarlane is sure to
     Tony "The Hockey Player" Twist might be miffed, but freedom of
creative expression and the First Amendment trumps the
misappropriation of a person's name every time. If it didn't, we'd
have a flood of law suits as eager would-be millionaires sue
Hollywood and the television networks and every publisher and author
under the sun, alleging that fictional characters with the same names
as the plaintiffs are tarnishing the reputations of the real
personages. Think of the consequences! Anyone who finds his name
being used by a creator could sue that creator, claiming intentional
abuse even if that intent is wholly absent.
     To take an example from the funnies pages, I suppose somewhere
there's a Jeremy Jones who will object to the use of "his" name in
the comic strip For Better or For Worse. The kid who makes himself
obnoxious by teasing April is named Jeremy Jones. If a real-life kid
with the same name doesn't object, surely his father or mother will.
And Lynn Johnston will find herself sued for millions.
       It is impossible to imagine a situation in which the fictional
creations of writers could bear names not already in use somewhere by
some real person--and hence, subjecting the creator to possible legal
action by those real persons if they happen not to like their
fictional namesake.  Milton Caniff checked only the New York phone
book to see if there were any Steve Canyons; but surely there is one
somewhere. And if Caniff's Canyon ever did anything to which a real
Steve Canyon could object, then--presto--a law suit.
     Whether or not McFarlane intended to use the hockey player's name is
immaterial.  The so-called "chilling effect" of this judgement is not
just chilling: it is freezing.  If the ruling stands, no creator of
fictional worlds will be able to use any recognizable name from
reality for any of his fictional characters. In a day when screen
writers customarily use the F-word as a way of invoking a sense of
reality (betraying, admittedly, their impoverished imaginations--but
that's another sermon for another day), they'd be forced to invent
entirely unreal names for their characters--Jguskzi, Wkrnzy, Ergrnts,
and the like. Names so bizarre no real parents can be imagined as
naming their children similarly.
     Or maybe authors would start naming their characters with
numbers--Fourteen, Thirty-seven, Three Thousand, etc.
     Talk about the erosion of verisimilitude.
     As we contemplate the barren vista that opens before us in such a
world, the response of writer Peter David to the McFarlane case is
all the more surprising. David, in effect, says McFarlane, a
mean-spirited writer who sometimes names the bad guys in his comics
after persons he doesn't like (like Peter David, f'instance),
deserved the St. Louis judgement.  He's just a playground bully,
David says, and bullies usually get their comeuppance. In McFarlane's
case, $24.5 million comeuppance.
     Meanwhile, David will have to invent names for characters in his
fictions that have no counterpart in the real world. Jguskzi, Wkrnzy,
Ergrnts--here we come.
     But the St. Louis travesty wasn't about bullies. It was about the
right to express oneself in a creative (fictional) context. I'm not
about to dub McFarlane a champion of First Amendment rights so that
he can go on creating sentimental pap like Spawn, but he's got a
right to express his creative impulses as long as he doesn't start
yelling "Theater!" in a crowded fire, and if that involves naming a
character Tony Twist (for whatever reason), then he's entitled to do
     Ultimately, however, the conclusion of the appellate process will
favor McFarlane merely because the alternative is so hopelessly
daunting. If the hockey player prevails, the courts will be deluged
with similar suits, and the judicial system simply can't handle the
load. As a matter of practicality as well as principle, McFarlane and
his cohorts can use real names of real people in their works of
fiction--for whatever reason.

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2. Stan Meets Larry. One night during the second week in July, Stan
Lee was a guest on "Larry King Live." If you missed it, you missed
     The two of them sat there facing each other across Larry's desk.
Larry sat with his elbows on the desk, a position that hunched his
shoulders up and made him look vaguely like some sort of media
vulture. Stan sat with his elbows on the desk, and his shoulders
hunched up in mirror image of Larry. Bookend hunchbacks.
     The "X-Men" movie was on the cusp of debuting at that moment, and
maybe that was the reason Larry King called on Stan. "The X-Men"
would do gangbusters business at the nation's theater box offices the
following weekend when it opened, and that success released the comic
book heroes being held hostage while the movie moguls gauged the
potential for the genre by evaluating how "The X-Men" did. It did
well enough. And now we'll have more of the same, without a doubt.
Paramont has Spider-Man poised for production and a December 2001
release date.
     So Larry, having just barely introduced Stan, plunged forthwith into
his acerbic inquisition mode, resolved, as always, to take no
prisoners: "Why do you wear those dark glasses?" he said
     Stan grinned and ducked his head and said he'd forgotten why he
originally put them on, but he acknowledged that they have become a
sort of little trade mark.
     "Don't you see the world through dark eyes?" said Larry, ominously.
     "No," said Stan, brightening.  "It's great. I don't see any of the
imperfections. Everything is muted and gentle. It's lovely wearing
these glasses."
     And there, in an exchange or two, you have the gist of the
encounter. Larry, trying to look knowledgeable but having apparently
failed to read with comprehension the material his staff prepared for
him, repeatedly ran up blind alleys in pursuit of wild geese that
existed only in his imagination.  (He thought comic book superheroes
had become "dark," you see--hence the sheer revelation of his remark
about Stan's specs. Well, isn't Batman dark? Larry wanted to know. He
is a little now, explained Stan patiently; but he wasn't always.)
     Meanwhile, Stan, batting down Larry's off-the-wall lobs, managed not
only to sound supremely knowledgeable but to convey a genuine sense
of excitement about comics, superheroes, action adventure, the
Internet, his new company (Stan Lee Media) and its daunting
undertaking in cyberspace (www.stanlee.net).
     Watching Stan enthuse exuberantly about the universe he knows so
well, I realized why he had been so successful in the business. His
excitement is contagious. And surely what he did back in those
halcyon days of yore was to infect all those around him with it, and
what they all built together was a new age indeed.
     Asked why he stayed in the business, Stan growled, "Greed." But then
he laughed and went on to explain that he loved working with all
those talented artists. And when Larry started running a roll call of
the characters that he said Stan had created, Stan interrupted: "I'd
rather say co-created because I always worked with an artist," he
     Larry assumed that Stan had to write "down" to his juvenile
audience, but Stan denied it.  "I write for myself," he said. "I
write the kinds of stories I'd like to read, and I write them clearly
enough that young people can understand them."
     Do his stories foster violence in society? No, Stan said. "To me,
there's a great difference between action and violence." He and his
audience like action; but that doesn't mean, to Stan, violence.
     But Larry became a colossal embarrassment only with his insistence
that Stan was somehow just an overgrown kid. Larry continually
referred to Stan as "ever-young" and "child-like."
     "One thing that's great about this job," Larry opined: "I love
interviewing children. And Stan Lee is one of them. He never grew
     Stan admitted to being 77, but "I'm an early model," he quipped.
     Well, most 77-year-olds are turned off by computers, Larry asserted,
"but you aren't.  You are like a child with this," he finished.
     Looking for the reason Stan produces comics, Larry decided--long
before this interview and in spite of whatever his minions researched
and handed him just before the show--that Stan Lee is "child-like."
Like almost everyone, Larry thinks comics are for children; so
naturally anyone like Stan, who makes a living in comics, must be
     But Stan quite rightly disagreed: "I don't think it's child-like any
more than H.G. Wells was child-like--or Mark Twain. If a person likes
things that are imaginative, bigger than life, I wouldn't say it's
childish. I'd say it's a keen, probing mind--the kind of mind that
asks, What if?"
     And then when Stan said good stories required (among other things)
"believable dialogue," Larry pounced:
     "Oh, you mean like Zap! Bam! Pow!"
     Stan had endured enough: "Those are sound effects, you silly
person," he said with a grin, "not dialogue. The dialogue has to
sound like you and me talking," he went on, "--well, maybe it can't
be that brilliant," building back a bridge he might have burned with
the "silly person" crack, "but it has to be something like that."
     Next, insightful Larry probed hard: "People in the cartooning
business are all a little wacko, right? Be honest, now."
     But Stan was having no more of this: "I think we're the sanest of
all," he said quickly.  "We are trying to bring sanity to the rest of
the world," he grinned, "and it's a tough battle," shaking his head.
     Talking about his new cyberspace ventures, Stan professed amazement
that the artists and writers he's now involved with are every bit as
good as the original Marvel bullpen back in those creative days of
yesteryear.  He's enthusiastic about the future, full of wonder at
the potential of the Internet.
     Suddenly, he stopped, reflected, and then said: "At stanlee.net, we
want to be a little cinder in the eye of the establishment," he
grinned.  Then laughed outright, joyfully.  "I just thought of that,"
he marveled.  "I gotta remember that."
     Why a cinder? Well, if you'd been bated by Larry King for 30
unrelenting minutes, you'd be irritated, too, and you might just
think about a cinder in your eye.
     "You're a devil," said Larry. And then he conjured up a reason to
quote that famous saying "We have met the enemy and he is us." But
Larry attributed it to Puck not Pogo.
     Larry: go to your room.
     And for more about the Marvel Universe of yore, check out a book of
mine called The Art of the Comic Book. Click here for details.
And--stay 'tooned: get the rabbit habit.

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