COLUMN: November 15, 2018

stan-lee
Iron Man, Stan the Man, Spider-Man

Up to the age of nine, the greatest moment of my life was when I received a letter from Marvel Comics. It’s probably still in the top five.

This was because I had used an insult in conversation which I had previously seen crudely etched in cement on a wall in school, and assumed was beyond the pale.

But then it had appeared in a amusing comic strip called Jet Lagg in Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly, and I thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for Marvel Comics, surely it’s good enough for me.”

It was not. I was roundly admonished by my mother in the traditional early 80s manner and I never swore in front of her again, even as an adult.

When she stopped for breath, and I was able to get a word in, I explained my reasoning, and she demanded I show her the offending comic. “Hmph,” she said, and she dropped the subject.

I forgot about the incident until a week later, when the handwritten letter arrived from Marvel. I shook as I read it. It had a colour letterhead, with Spider-Man on one side and The Incredible Hulk on the other. And they were apologising to me.

“Sorry, Gary. Of course we meant to write ‘twit’.”

My mother had called to complain. It was all Stan Lee’s fault.

If he hadn’t, over a period of about 10 years, created or co-created or inspired the colourful and compelling characters which dominate popular culture in 2018, including the Spider-Man and Hulk at the top of that letter, there would have been no Marvel Comics, and especially no Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly, with the landmine onto which I unwittingly stumbled.

Stan Lee, who died on Monday at the age of 95, was one of the biggest influences on my life. It surprises me, as I write this, just how much of my childhood memories are tied up with the Marvel comics created and inspired by Stan Lee.

One of my earliest memories is watching the 60s Spider-Man cartoon in the house in which I lived when I was three years old.

And then I remember, a few years later, cuddling up to my Uncle Bernard, as we watched Bill Bixby’s eyes turn white before he transformed into a giant green Lou Ferrigno in a fright wig and trousers which ripped at the hem, but somehow never at the waist or bottom.

I remember the Spider-Man suit my Auntie Mary made me and the Marvel Top Trumps game that everybody in my primary school played.

I remember the chemistry set I got for Christmas, because I wanted to be Reed Richards of The Fantastic Four, although I failed to give myself super powers, unless you count the ability to make a bad-egg smell in a test tube.

And I remember, most of all, the comics. First of all they were an escape from mundane 70s and 80s childhood. I would read them curled up on the stairs, usually black and white British reprints of the American originals, but later, when I found an actual comic shop in my hometown, full-colour imports.

Second, it was through those that I bonded with my closest secondary school friends, people with whom I am still in touch. We would pore over the latest X-Men or New Mutants, as if they were sacred texts.

By this point, Stan had largely stopped writing comics himself, but his monthly Stan’s Soapbox letter still appeared, full of his catchphrases like “Nuff said” and “Excelsior”. He was easily pushing 65 at this point, but was clearly the coolest man on earth.

You can see that in his 1960s Marvel work. It’s quite quaint now, and a little antiquated, but compared with what his rivals at DC were publishing at the time, it’s like the difference between punk and Englebert Humperdinck. There’s an energy and reality to it, and the characters are solid and have proper motivations.

It wasn’t all his own work, but he brought magic and pizzazz to Marvel Comics.

If you had told me 15 years ago that people – actual people with legs and jobs and bills – would know, in 2018, who Groot is, I would have had you sectioned.

But these Marvel characters dominate popular culture now. And I take great pleasure in the fact that so many people see in Stan Lee’s creations what I saw in the pages of Spider-Man And Hulk Weekly.

And in the fact that he lived long enough to see this happen.

Advertisements

COLUMN: November 8, 2018

dentist-2530983_1920
Absolutely dental

THIS week’s column starts with a trigger warning. People can be a little sniffy about trigger warnings and start bandying about words like “softy” and “snowflake”.

But then, when they find out that this trigger warning is about dentistry, half of them will say, “Oh, no, well, fair enough.”

So, I was having trouble with a tooth, an impacted wisdom tooth to be exact. If you don’t know what an impacted wisdom tooth is, you are either lucky, or you are in for a rude awakening one day.

Basically, your teeth normally emerge from the gum vertically, but impacted wisdom teeth – and they are common – emerge lazily and almost horizontally, and they form a small gap between its crown and the next perfectly upstanding tooth.

And if small gaps love anything, it’s bits of food. They love bits of food so much it’s very difficult to get the gaps to give them up. This means that when you brush your teeth, you spend 90% of your time dealing with the gap between just two teeth, like a bad teacher exerting most of their effort on that one annoying kid.

So, although it was not causing me any pain, I decided I wanted it to be expelled, because bits of food that can’t be removed start to make their presence known, if you follow me.

I went to my dentist and asked him to get rid of it, and he referred me to the local dental hospital, presumably because he’s been treating me for a few years and he didn’t want any part of this.

A very capable fifth-year student saw me on my first appointment. I was x-rayed and it was confirmed that I very much did have the tooth about which I had been complaining. This was a relief. I hate those imaginary teeth that people sometimes have.

She explained the risks of my operation, and I signed a form, and went away, pleased that I was going to be rid of this nuisance. I had had a couple of similarly impacted wisdom teeth removed about 20 years ago and knew what the procedure was like – fairly unpleasant, with a few days of recovery, but ultimately worthwhile. Like jogging.

I then received a letter inviting me to a follow-up treatment appointment with the consultant. “Ah,” I thought. “This will be the appointment after which my extraction will be booked in. What this absolutely is not is the extraction itself, because there would be some sort of leaflet telling me how I would have to behave after the extraction, including, for example, advice to take a couple of days off work.”

On the day, I went to work as usual, and told my line manager that I would have to pop out of the office for an hour later that afternoon, explaining why. “Are you sure they’re not going to take it out today?” he asked. I scoffed at him, for the reasons I outlined in the previous paragraph.

You do not need an MA in Gary Bainbridge Studies to know what happened to me when I arrived at the hospital…

I was ushered into a room, to be greeted by a consultant, a registrar, two nurses, and a student dental hygienist. “Right, let’s get this tooth out,” the consultant said.

“But… But…” I said. “I wasn’t expecting this now. I thought this was just a follow-up appointment.” She gave me a look. “I didn’t get a leaflet,” I added, pathetically. “I mean, I’ve got to go back to work.”

“What do you do?”

“Erm, I sit at a desk and press keys.”

“Yeah, you’ll be OK,” she said.

I sat in the chair while my mouth was numbed, and I was subjected to what I can only describe as an assault. From the sounds of things, my tooth was the biggest and most awkwardly placed any of the medical professionals in that room had ever encountered. I expect it’s in the Natural History Museum now.

“You’re doing very well,” the consultant said to me, while the registrar stood on my chest, the better to get purchase on my tooth. I didn’t exactly have a choice.

After a couple of stitches, I was allowed to return to work.

“How did you get on at the dental hospital?” my line manager asked.

“I gon’t gant go galk agout it,” I dribbled.

My jaw is still sore and swollen a few days after its ordeal. I look like Brando in The Godfather.

And I can only eat flat food because I can’t open my mouth wide. In fact, my face can now only register mild surprise.

But at least I can brush my teeth properly now.

CODA: The day after the extraction, I received a text from the dental hospital asking me how likely I would be to recommend my experience to friends and family if they needed similar care, from 1, meaning extremely likely, to 6, meaning extremely unlikely.

I imagined for a moment the circumstances in which this would be a thing anybody would do, and replied with a 1, assuming I would be left alone.

A second text arrived, asking me the main reason for the score I had given.

I replied: “I needed my impacted wisdom tooth to be extracted. It was extracted. I can’t elaborate on that any more. I didn’t visit on a whim, I didn’t choose to visit you. I didn’t think, ‘Ooh, it’s Thursday. Shall I go to the cinema or have two dentists yank my tooth out?’ I was referred. You lived up to my expectations. I’m not sure I can write a review beyond that. I’m not the Dentistry Critic for The Sunday Times.”