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Loss of Lee, Toys ‘R’ Us drags down 2018: James Miller

Posted 1/3/19

Is there anything more cliché yet warmly fulfilling than looking back at year’s end and considering all that’s transpired over the last 12 months?

Hardly, I’d think, …

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Loss of Lee, Toys ‘R’ Us drags down 2018: James Miller


Is there anything more cliché yet warmly fulfilling than looking back at year’s end and considering all that’s transpired over the last 12 months?

Hardly, I’d think, especially in America, a Whiggish country with too much haste and optimism for what Walt Whitman wistfully called the “backward glance.”

This year, more than most, was marked by change, specifically a maturing, a conscious growing. Yes, 2016 spun the political world like a top, and the spinning has yet to cease. But this year was, particularly for men my age (the dreaded “millennial” generation), defined by the sudden demise of our childhood.

Two major deaths occurred in 2018 that brought our nonage to an end: Stan Lee and Toys “R” Us.

Lee, the doyen writer and editor of Marvel Comics, didn’t just create dozens of spandex-attired superheroes. He brought human dilemmas to characters who were better equipped to deal with less prosaic concerns. Unlike his counterparts at DC Comics, whose characters struggled in a black-and-white world bisected neatly into good versus evil, Lee’s creations confronted bad guys and well as their inner demons.

In Lee, you have a blind lawyer who defends the downtrodden in the courtroom as well as the seedy back alleyway as his crimson-colored alter ego Daredevil, all the while trying to balance his personal life with his vigilante identity. You have a teenage wiz kid infected by a radioactive spider who can lift full-size automobiles and cling to walls but whose hubris and refusal to stop a small-time crook caused his uncle to die. You have a star-spangled super soldier still fighting the same war between his personal integrity and duty to serve. You have a family of scientists who, after exposed to cosmic rays, develop inhuman abilities like spontaneous full-body combustion, yet still struggle to get along with each other at Thanksgiving.

From the X-Men to Iron Man to the Punisher to Black Panther, Lee’s characters rarely fought one-sided battles. Every fight, every struggle, every plight had multiple dimensions, refractions of ethical quandaries, reflecting the full complexity of life. How does Thor protect the nine realms and maintain his filial devotion while rebelling against his father’s wishes by falling in love with a human woman? How does Charles Xavier lead a band of mutants in protecting humanity as that same humanity’s government is trying to outlaw their existence?

Lee’s stories, which were also crafted by longtime collaborators Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, were infused with American-style virtues, including the supremacy of individual conscience and impartial justice. More than anyone else, with the exception of J.K. Rowling, Lee helped mold and form the moral imaginations of so many boys in the last half century.

His most well-known adage, with great power comes great responsibility, isn’t just an acute-yet-simply-worded command; it’s a moral instruction on par with anything Shakespeare, Dante or St. Augustine of Hippo ever taught.

I’m too young to have experienced the Lee golden age of comics during the 1960s. But, in the 1990s, there was a revival of Marvel characters in the form of Saturday morning cartoons. Spider-Man, the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and others were broadcast in full-blown color, bringing Lee’s stories and lessons to a new generation — my own.

I can’t recall how many weekend mornings I spent watching Marvel cartoons on Fox 43, but I imagine the travails I watched were more instructive than anything I gleaned from my schoolbooks.

Toys “R” Us was the place to buy not just action figures inspired by Stan Lee’s heroes, but also video games, bicycles, board games, Lego sets, and movies. The retailer occupied a special place in the minds of young boys and girls, especially with its boisterous commercials broadcast on Nickelodeon depicting endless aisles of unpackaged bric-a-brac, so unneeded and wasteful but desired nonetheless.

Every kid my age dreamt of the ultimate prize growing up: a free-for-all shopping spree through a Toys “R” Us. The exercise in youthful decadence — bountiful rows of toys zooming by at breakneck speed as you claw at everything not bolted down to toss in your cart — was the pinnacle of desire. There were advertisements for it, contests to enter we’d never win. Yet the dream persisted as we compared lists of what section we’d hit first on our all-you-can-consume tour of plastic gluttony.

For Middletowners, the location of the Harrisburg Toys “R” Us next to the Dauphin County Prison was an endless source of irony, still laughed about to this day.

Youth and memory are two of life’s most ephemeral gifts. That poignant lesson was the one learned the hardest in 2018. Going forward, the kids of Harrisburg will never know what it’s like to buy a Barbie doll or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle in the shadow of incarcerated criminals. Stan Lee will soon stop gracing the big screen with brief cameos in big-budget Marvel films, with his easily recognizable mien and joking personality.

But time moves forward. Old teachers die. Memorable places disappear. Calendar sheets tear off and are, soon enough, discarded in whole.

Geoffrey the Giraffe was wrong. There are times to grow up. We can’t be Toys “R” Us kids forever. And just as so many of Stan Lee’s fictional creations learned the hard way that choice and responsibility matter, the millennial generation, which is so often skewered for its aversion to maturity, discovered this last year that childhood doesn’t last forever.

It’s probably for the best. Here’s to one more turn about the sun in 2019. May your trip be a good one.

(Oh, and they better rebuild Kids Kastle in full. I loved it when I was a kid. Some childhood memories die hard, or not at all.)

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, lives in northern Virginia with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the novel “To Win And To Lose.”