Not very recently, I chanced to watch two very different men speaking on creativity on Youtube.
Both are men renowned for their creativity, having brought into the world things which made them world-famous.
One is acerbic, tart-tongued, and genuine.
The other is avuncular, charismatic, and always putting on an act. (It’s a fun act, and charming, but it’s an act.)
One anticipates your reactions in order to use them to bring you to understanding more quickly.
The other anticipates your reactions in order to bring you to the reactions he wants you to have, to convince you to like him.
Both men are (or, if you insist, were) creative geniuses. But only one of them is speaking honestly to you, even if both are putting on a show in different ways.
Or, to put it another way, Cleese is teaching through laughter, while Lee is just charming you into thinking, gosh, he’s just such a neat guy.
I tend to write characters who are a bit Stan Lee quite a lot. I have a soft spot (in my heart, not my head) for con men and carnies and that sort. There is something about the charismatic fraud that I find intriguing.
OK, that’s a little unfair. Stan Lee is not a fraud. He really did launch Marvel Comics on the trajectory that eventually led to where it is today. But he is a renowned credit-grabber, having taken advantage of his position in the company (owned, initially, but his uncle-in-law) and the “business” practices in comics and pulp publishing at the time (infamously unfair to the creators whose content they lived on) to make himself the grand high muckety-muck in the Marvel universe (“Stan Lee Presents!”) when really quite a lot of the creativity should be credited to others (Jack Kirby first and foremost).
And yet, I believe that he feels entirely justified in taking the credit that he does, and put-upon when challenged on his account of how things went down in the ’60s. Like anyone, he accepted the terms of the world when he entered it, and the current creators’ rights view of most fans must seem not quite right to him.
His jocular evasions and hand waving remind me of a few other people.
The one I’ll mention here is ex-carnie barker David F. Friedman, producer of many, many crappy exploitation movies. But if you ever listen to one of his commentaries on the Something Weird DVD releases of his work, you almost can’t help but love the guy. He’s jolly and charming, and I’m sure if I’d ever met him in person, I wouldn’t even think to check my wallet until long after he’d left with it.
Here’s a bit of David Friedman for you (the “gee-gosh-shucks, ain’t we wholesome?” intro is left intact, because, wow, cognitive dissonance!):
And the trailer for a documentary about Mr. Friedman’s career:
But here’s the thing. David Friedman was an unapologetic huckster. He knew what he was, and was fine with it. Stan Lee doesn’t want to be seen as a huckster at all, even while knowing full well that he is, to some degree. He’s proud of the “wacky hyperbole” of his writing style when he wrote for Marvel, yet he’s trying hard to be taken seriously, too. (And has been for decades, frankly.)