For Stan

I knew this post was coming for a while. In fact, different versions of this post remain unwritten or in the recycle bin on my laptop. When Steve Ditko died a few months ago, I tried to write a post to commemorate his incredible impact on my life and the comic book industry. How his drawings and embrace of the weird left my imagination on fire and paper cuts on my fingers from flicking through comic book pages. But I didn’t know how to find the right words to do him justice. So I left it.

And now Stan Lee has died at the age of 95, and I’m sat in front of my screen again. And trying to think of the words to surmise his impact on comic books, entertainment, pop culture, me, thousands of other avid fans. No one has done so much for comics, and no one ever will. And this time, I don’t think I can delete this post. It has to be written, even if the words don’t quite fit.

Stan was the co-creator of the Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men, Black Panther, Doctor Strange and so many more that if I kept going this page would stretch into oblivion. He was part of Marvel before it even took that name, before it was Atlas and when it was just Timely. He was installed as interim editor at 19 in 1941. And from there, particularly in the 1960s, he began to create terrific characters. Characters that would transcend time and space.

One of my favourite stories surrounding Stan centred around the Comics Code of America. In the 1950s, a belief started to form that comic books influence juvenile delinquency (sound familiar?), and thus the Comics Code was amended to ban excessive violence, nudity and all other sorts of naughty activity. Horror comics were effectively neutered with the prohibition of blood and gore, and books were not permitted to have “terror” and “horror” in their titles.

These rulings strangled the comics industry.  Marvel, then Atlas, came under extreme pressure due to their own emphasis on westerns and horror books. This new clamp on creativity was leading Stan to consider packing up the typewriter and leaving the industry.

It was his late wife, Jo, who convinced him to stay. She told him to write whatever he liked. I didn’t matter, they’d only fire him from the place he didn’t want to be at anymore. With this advice, Stan created a book, Fantastic Four #1. And from there came a renaissance of super heroes created by Stan and his fabulous artistic partners, from Jack Kirby to Larry Lieber and Steve Ditko.

I once saw a great video featurin Stan and the filmmaker Kevin Smith. They’re improvising a scene during an interview at San Diego Comic Con, and Stan just keeps giggling and cracking up. He seemed to have an incredibly youthful mind and voice, even in his later years. When he spoke in that famous voice, the words flowed out of his mouth with exuberance.

His characters were all flawed. Spider-Man was just human. Iron Man was a genius, but arrogant. Thor was hidden inside the body of the cane-bound Donald Blake. Bruce Banner couldn’t let his anger envelop him otherwise he would become the destructive Hulk. These flaws made the characters endearing and made us think that these brave heroes might not be able to make it through to the next issue. It also told us that despite our flaws, we had the power to become heroes ourselves. Why do you think that meant so much to the kid whose hands shook and who couldn’t ride a bike?

When I was a child, I would end up spending a lot of time on my own, and I loved to read. One day, I discovered Marvel comics. I saw epic stories featuring colourful heroes defying evil, and that sent me on a journey of discovery that I still follow at the age of 21. When I look around my bedroom, I see comics. Hundreds of them. A few of them were written by Stan himself, but my point is that every single one of them originated from one man’s mind, and the influence that those books have had on my imagination and my life is immeasurable. Without Stan, I wouldn’t have become a writer. I wouldn’t have gone to university and met some of the closest friends I’ve ever had. And I wouldn’t be sat here, struggling to see this computer screen because my eyes are welling up, trying to write something poignant enough to do this man justice. I know I’m not doing enough.

Stan gave a lonely little boy a whole universe to play with – and the thing is, I know it’s not just me feeling like this. His work has created a sense of giddiness and excitement in people for generations, since 1941, and I love the idea that thanks to the profits from the Marvel films (in excess of US$10 billion), it can do the same for generations to come.

Stan gave thousands – possibly millions – of boys and girls that very same universe, and it is up to us creators to keep expanding it without forgetting the original big bang that put us on this path.

I started this piece saying that I didn’t know if I could find the right words to honour Stan Lee. And to be honest, I still don’t think I have. Because the truth is, I don’t think it’s possible. I’m not good enough to do that. What words are there that can truly encapsulate the man? Seismic? Momentous? Mind-blowing?

Actually, I think there is a word. One glorious, magical word.

Excelsior!

Rest in Peace, Stan.

Will

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Later…

So, Third Year. The year where everything gets serious. Where your work suddenly becomes important and should be given a lot of attention. I should probably get to it then. Yeah…

My work ethic is terrible. This is evident as Mason asked me to write this post weeks ago. For some reason, even if it’s doing something I love, I can never build up the energy to do it. I have a feature length script, a dissertation, a monologue and a script report to write. And yet I can’t bring myself to get started. I can sit down in front of my laptop to start writing, and yet my mind will wander away from the task at hand. This is all well and good until you spend 15+ hours in the library to write the end of a script. That’s an example I made up. It didn’t actually happen. Honest.

When it comes to writing, nothing makes me happier. Except when it doesn’t. My low self-esteem and sometimes crippling doubt often lead to me questioning myself. Am I a good writer? Have I wasted my life? Am I a failure? This doesn’t help my motivation. I can be in these slumps for a couple of days. And then I’ll watch a brilliant film\TV show, or I’ll think of an idea that I just can’t wait to put down on paper, and my passion will return. And then I’ll sit down in front of my laptop and the cycle will begin anew.

This blog post isn’t a ‘how to avoid procrastination’ guide. If I knew how to be more productive, I wouldn’t have to write this, and I could go back to calling giraffes bastards. Hopefully, over this next year, my resolve and motivation will increase, and I can write a more cheerful post. I’ll get back to you on that.

Will

“Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.” – Christopher Parker

You Can Call Me Al

Somebody once suggested that, if I ever end up writing for a living, I should adopt a pseudonym to release my work under. I thought about this for a while, and at first it seemed cool that I could have some amount of mystery around my true identity, but I quickly put it to bed when I couldn’t come up with anything decent. Not only that, but nobody would ever know what I had written was my work! This blog therefore carries my regular birth name, as I hadn’t ever expected to replace it when it began three years ago, but this week I suddenly thought of a story I feel compelled to tell here. It gave rise to the most likely alternative I could ever have to “Mason Hawker” – and all through a simple misunderstanding.

If the weather behaves itself on Sunday, I hope to go back to archery again, as various reasons have prevented me from going since shortly before my birthday in August. Before that, though, the club held a session in early June that allowed us regulars to meet the newest arrivals to the group at a relaxed and casual shoot. The weather was perfect for it, with not a single cloud in the sky or breath of wind in the air, and the turnout was much bigger than I had expected – especially when you consider that we had previously been quite a small club, on a field off the beaten track. Dad thought that there could have been as many as 50 people present, meaning there would be ample opportunity for mingling throughout the session. Sure enough, we all chatted away to one another, shaking hands and making introductions as we shared bows (since there were more people than there were bows to go around) and snaffled chocolate bars with tea at half-time. It had been a positive shoot for me so far – I’m more rusty on some days than I am on others, but today I had hit my fair share of golds on the target, and I was pleased to have stretched the muscles in my arms dealing with a sixteen-pound bow. I therefore felt like I’d earned my cuppa and chocolate bar, both of which were gratefully accepted and went down a treat. As I sat quietly for a moment, pondering the morning’s results and the rest of my day, I could see one of the new members approaching in the corner of my eye, and quickly turned my head to greet them warmly. It’s taken us a while to get here, I’ll admit, but this is the point at which I was unwittingly given my potential pen name in just a single fleeting moment.

As is customary when two or more people meet for the first time, our exchange swiftly reached the stage where names would have to be swapped. The man to whom I was speaking was – and is – very friendly, but I was still determined, as I always am, not to trip over my words and make a good first impression. Naturally, therefore, the inevitable happened, and my hopes of avoiding any awkwardness were quickly flushed down the toilet.

He’d given me his name (which I’ve since forgotten, I might add). Good. Things were going well. All I had to do was say my own in return, and then my work would be done. I waited for the question:

“What’s your name, sorry?”

“Just say it, you idiot,” I thought to myself. My lips parted, ready to speak. And after a hesitant second, sound emerged. “Er…Mason,” I uttered timidly.

Note the “er”, which definitely was not intended to be part of the end response. My companion should have completely disregarded that first bit – and definitely should not have mistaken it for my first name.

“Al Mason?” he asked, somewhat confused by my unease.

I corrected him, of course, but there you have it – Al Mason, an inconspicuous fusion of my own real name and a misheard false one. It’s not going to catch on, but for the sake of this post, as my old drinking buddy Paul Simon once sang, you can call me Al. I trust there’ll be no such confusion on my next archery outing.

Al

He Could Be So Good For Me

The central character that I created for Excludable was one Jim Rossiter, originally named Jake. He was “born” on 30 March 2013, the day I started writing, and from the outset he was intended to be an alter ego in the truest sense of the word. Like me, he used a wheelchair (although I never specified his disability) and tended not to be very forthcoming towards those around him, because he was always afraid of being a nuisance. He could be dishevelled at times, and was prone to overthinking and the occasional social faux pas. Despite these shared qualities, however, I was very careful not to make Excludable a script all about me. When somebody once asked me if it was, I quickly clarified that it was only about someone like me – a relatable character in whom I could place some of my most closely-held thoughts and feelings without it being obvious they were mine.

It seemed to work pretty well. Jim became not only a reliable fictional confidant, but also a decent testing ground for new ideas I considered putting into his story. I spent so much time thinking about Jim and his progression through Excludable that he became almost like an imaginary friend, albeit a more useful one. If something particularly thought-provoking happened in my real life, I might find myself thinking of my new project: “Jim could do that”, I would say to myself. It took a while to piece something together, as you all know, but I knew the waiting and endless thought would pay off in the end, and indeed it did. I am the biggest critic of my own writing, and especially of this, but at least I’d finished it. Some of my rawest and most personal emotions had manifested themselves creatively onto paper, which I would now have to hand whenever I wanted to develop it. And it might never have seen the light of day if I didn’t have Jim at the centre of it – a character perfectly placed to finally show me, after so much time spent thinking rather than doing, what I was actually capable of completing. All that’s left now is for you all to meet him one day.

Mason

Original Vinyl Recording

Writing prompts are amazing things. I know that a simple phrase or group of words always has the potential to spawn a much longer and more imaginative piece of work, but just how little you need to create something never ceases to astound me. I took part in a creative writing exercise yesterday along with a group of other people, and we were encouraged to come up with a range of short stories using only a few photographs and objects. They seemed simple and self-explanatory at first, but then we started digging. One of the photos was of a city being bombed by fighter jets. Fire and thick black smoke dominated the image, and anybody’s natural response to this would have been to see it from a civilian’s perspective – all of the horror and devastation that comes with losing your home and livelihood. However, we were presented with something different, namely the question of how the pilot dropping the bombs may be feeling as he presses the big red button. It only took the addition of a second point of view, and a small alteration to the original viewpoint, to make the possibilities seem endless – but it would be the objects that intrigued me the most.

Each person in the group was asked to take a card at random that had an equally random object written on it. One person was left with a highwayman’s mask, another with a fortune teller’s crystal ball. I, meanwhile, took one that read “an original vinyl ABBA recording”. I felt confident about my ability to write something from this, being a record collector myself, and I quickly discovered that even from these five words, I already had a fully-formed character in my mind who would feature in my short story – to consist of no more than four or five lines. I pictured a lonely man, single, tired and perhaps middle-aged, who struggled to find solace in anything except buying music. The reader needed to feel sympathy for him, and pleased that he had – at long last – found the rare record he so dearly wanted, since it would be key to his happiness. But then they needed to stifle a guilty giggle at the dark humour to follow when he proudly placed it amongst all his other LPs, only for them to topple over and crush his prized new addition along with all his hopes and dreams. This all had to happen, as aforementioned, in the space of only a few lines – and, to my delight, they seemed to flow in exactly the way I had hoped.

I wasn’t brave enough to read what I had written out once everyone had finished their stories, but I was quietly rather proud of what I’d come up with in two minutes. I was also greatly impressed by the fact that a clear character and scenario had both been incorporated – along with a late twist of humour – into a text shorter than this paragraph. Mind blown. And it was all thanks to that ABBA record. Who would really dare say that the English language is boring? To use an unusual analogy, it’s like chicken – Dad says you can do anything with it…

Mason

Brown And Sticky

I wrote my first feature film script in the space of 14 months, between March 2013 and May 2014. It was titled Excludable (although that was always meant to be a working title, since it’s clearly not a real word), and it might not have been a masterpiece but I was very proud of it. I hadn’t started this blog at that point, so it was in many ways the most personal thing I’d ever written. Will seemed to like it – all 73 pages of it – and I was committed to making the idea work after his ever-reliable feedback. I therefore started working on a second draft, and had even written a pitch that I sent to a production company for a radio series based on the concept. That old devil called writer’s block would soon put the brakes on proceedings, however, and a change of laptop just over a year ago accidentally caused me to lose the entire script. I still have the pitch, which I am confident will come in very handy one day – but the script is gone forever, inaccessible on my new computer, and that means that I am now eagerly pondering its replacement.

I do, however, have one other complete script I can showcase, even if it is just a single page in length. It was written quickly in September 2015, when I was required to shoot a short advertisement for a product of my choice as part of the college course I was on after my A-Levels. Having held a lifelong affinity for the brown and sticky stuff, I chose Marmite, but I was struggling to figure out how to tackle it in an original or memorable way. I thought about it long and hard for at least a week, seemingly getting nowhere despite watching a whole host of past adverts in search of inspiration. It was my tutor who eventually suggested that I use the famous “love or hate” debate surrounding the spread to portray a group of Marmite lovers at a support group gathering, discussing their shared issue as though it was something sordid or taboo. This was something of a eureka moment, and I agreed with it immediately, recalling an advert I’d seen in which a man was implied to be pleasuring himself to footage of Marmite on his TV screen. I thought that if I approached it carefully, the idea could give me just the memorable quality I’d been looking for in my advert.

I got writing soon after the discussion with the tutor. It was only one page, as I’ve said, but a lot of thought still had to go into it, as it needed to pack a punch and sell the product to the audience in the space of a minute. I can’t say I was entirely happy with the finished piece of work – for me, dialogue is an area that will always need improvement, and admittedly, the view of a support group that I presented was probably nowhere near as realistic as it could have been. Far from being supportive, gentle or encouraging, the leader of the session was a cold and ruthless man who had little time for anyone else’s stories and was determined to berate them and their relatives for their introduction to Marmite. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t quite happen in real addict gatherings. I’m also in doubt as to whether they end with leaders and visitors alike licking Marmite jars in an ecstatic frenzy, but if nothing else the script may still turn out to be a useful basis for another idea one day. I left my course the day before I was due to film it. I don’t know how happy I would have been with the end advert, but I might feel better if it resurfaces in another form one day, knowing that another complete piece of my work is out there for the world to see representing my portfolio.

Mason