Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Spider-Man, And So Forth...


Why are elephants large, grey and wrinkled?

Because if they were small, white and smooth, they'd be aspirins.








The BBC documentary In Search of Steve Ditko didn't actually tell us a great deal we didn't already know. The Amazing Spider-Man and Doctor Strange were very good; but after Steve Ditko stopped drawing them, they were never quite so good again; pages 1-4 of Amazing Spider-Man #33 are very good indeed; Ditko's post-Marvel work is very odd; Ayn Rand isn't very sensible.


But in the course of the programme, Jonathan Ross achieved something which I don't think anyone else has ever managed. He caused Stan Lee's mask to slip.


I don't know whether Woss is at all heard-of in Americaland; but I can only think that his TV persona – part foul-mouthed simpleton, part film-buff comic-buff fan-nerd – caused Stan to lower his guard.


At the beginning of the interview (a five minute segment of an hour long show) Lee is playing the role we all know and love. He's Stan The Man, egomaniac huckster who thinks nothing of comparing himself with God. ("....then we did Spider-Man and then we did the X-Men and of course on the seventh day I rested.") But he's also Smilin' Stan, the father figure who praises his collaborators to high heaven. Steve Ditko (or, as it may be, Jack Kirby) was a genius; one of the greatest guys he ever worked with; he was heart-broken when he decided to quit.


He's more than usually frank about the idiosyncrasies of Marvel Method. At first, he says, he would give Ditko a detailed plot to work from: but even at that stage: "(Steve) would draw the strip any way he wanted...he would add in a lot of things I hadn't even thought of." Later on, Lee says his input was reduced to a one-line summary such as "Hey, let's use Sandman as the next villain – let's have Sandman kidnap Mary Jane – I might not say any more than that."


If this is literally true, then Lee was giving Ditko an even freer hand than Kirby: a typical Stan Lee Fantastic Four plot seems to have run to at least a paragraph. But it probably can't be taken literally. Ditko would have been quite surprised at being asked to write a story in which Sandman kidnapped M.J, since M.J didn't debut until three months after he'd stopped working for Marvel Comics.


Lee concludes by saying "After a while, I wouldn't even say that much to Steve. He would just go and do whatever story he wanted."


So: Steve Ditko created part of the storyline for the early issues of Amazing Spider-Man (#1 - #13, perhaps?); most of the storyline for the middle issues (say, #14 - #25) and all the storyline for the latter issues -- say #26 - #38. This confirms what every informed fan already believed: the primary creative force behind the good issues of Amazing Spider-Man was not Stan Lee but Steve Ditko. Lee was only the "writer" in so far as he added speech bubbles and captions to Ditko's finished work. In the final year of the collaboration (issue #25 onwards) Amazing Spider-Man was credited as "Scripted by Stan Lee; Plotted and Drawn by Steve Ditko"; but we now have it direct from Stan The Man that several of the issues prior to that – rather pointedly credited as "Written by Stan Lee; Illustrated by Steve Ditko" -- were primarily plotted by the artist.


But this leaves us with a metaphysical, not to say theological question: "Who Created Spider-Man"? The answer, rather boringly, seems to be 'It depends what you mean by "created" ; it depends what you mean by "Spider-Man".' "


Stan Lee's first stab at an answer applies the tin opener to several very large worm cans:


"(Steve) had complained to me a number of times when there were articles written about Spider-Man which called me the creator of Spider-Man. I had always thought I was, because I am the guy who said 'I have an idea for a strip called Spider-Man and so forth.' Steve had said, having an idea is nothing, because until it becomes a physical thing, it's just an idea. He said it took him to draw the strip and to give it life so to speak and to make it actual, something tangible, otherwise all I had was an idea. So I said to him 'Well I think the person with the idea is the person who creates it', and he said 'No, because I drew it.' "


Spider-Man is a fictitious character. As such, he can only be thought of in the context of a particular story. If someone who had never read Shakespeare asked us "Who is Romeo?" we would reply "He was a young man who fell in love with the daughter of his family's worst enemy; and killed himself when he believed she was dead." That is: we would tell some version of the story which Shakespeare wrote. The Sam Raimi movie follows the story of Amazing Fantasy #15 rather closely and is therefore recognisably about Spider-Man: the 1977 TV series doesn't and isn't. Lee happily admits that the stories in which Spider-Man is embedded were partly, mainly, or entirely created by Steve Ditko: doesn't this mean that Ditko is partly, mainly, or entirely the creator of Spider-Man? Or is there some essence-of-Spider-Man which exists separately from any particular story about him?


Lee's claim to creatorship rests with him having said "I have an idea for a strip called Spider-Man, and so forth." This point is not in question: when a fan asked Ditko in 1965 who created Spider-Man, he replied that "Stan Lee thought the name up. I did costume, web gimmick on wrist & spider signal."


More recently, Ditko claimed that Lee's original idea had involved a teenager who used a magic ring to turn into Spider-Man – or at any rate, that this was what happened in Kirby's rejected treatment of Lee's idea. If that's right, then we would have to add "radioactive spider" to the list of Ditko creations. I'm inclined to think, based on what Lee said in the Origins books and elsewhere that the "idea" was to do a comic book in which a teenager was the main hero, not the side-kick; where the hero was a fallible everyman figure who had to struggle to beat the bad guys; and who would be treated with a modicum of realism. Would a fallible teenager with a different origin, somewhat different powers and an entirely different costume be recognisably Spider-Man?


People who are not themselves creative often believe that successful writers have access to a mysterious commodity called "ideas". They think that it is the lack of those "ideas" which is preventing them from becoming famous novelists; and if only they could learn the trick, they too would have "ideas" and the rest would be easy. If only I'd been the one to have the idea about a boarding school for wizards...then I'd be as rich as J.K Rowling...this writing business is a racket, you know.


Sometimes, it works the other way round. A saddo wrote to the careers section of the Grauniad the other week, explaining that he has lots of ideas for novels which he doesn't actually want to write and asking who he could sell them to. Dear-Jeremy's reply was exemplary:


"The dismal truth is this: there are very few naked ideas that are obviously so original and promising that they have immediate value...Jot down a list of highly successful plays and novels...and then try to distil any one of them into an 'idea' that would have been instantly snapped up by an experienced producer or publisher...I bet you'll find the 'idea' was seen to be a great one only when it had been masterfully developed by someone who possessed unusual talent and a quite specific style. You simply can't disentangle an original idea from its subsequent treatment....Even funny sketches, which are more dependent on the basic idea than most things, are subject to this rule. 'A man goes into a pet shop to complain about his dead parrot' isn't going to strike anyone as immediately hilarious."


Well, quite.


Finally, let's note that Stan has relegated Steve's role back down to "I drew it". Perhaps it is true that when he claimed to be the creator on the grounds of having said "I have an idea for a strip called Spider-Man and so forth" Ditko replied "I created it because I drew it." But he surely should have added: "And designed the costume; wrote most of the stories; devised the web-shooters and [maybe] the radioactive spider; and created at least several of the villains." (*)


However, Lee goes on to say that he conceded Ditko's point ("because I could see it meant a lot to him"). He went so far as to write him a letter stating that he had "always considered him to be the co-creator of Spider-Man". (Another terminological inexactitude, by the way: we've just been told that Stan hadn't always considered him to be so.)


And now comes the Frost-Nixon moment:


Jonathan Ross: Do you yourself believe that he co-created it?

Stan Lee: (Very long pause) I'm willing to say so.

Jonathan Ross: That's not what I'm asking you, Stan.

Stan Lee: No, and that's the best answer I can give you.

Jonathan Ross: So it's a "no" then, really?

Stan Lee: Pardon me?

Jonathan Ross: It's really "no"?

Stan Lee: I really think the guy who dreams the thing up created it. You dream it up and then you give it to anybody to draw it.


And there you have it. Stan Lee's believes that the actual, significant moment of creativity occurs when someone says "Let's do a strip called Spider-Man, and so forth". This is "the thing". Once you've done that difficult "dreaming-up" part, it's simply a matter of giving it to some third party (who could be "anybody"); whose role is simply to "draw it". This is bordering on cognitive dissonance: Lee seems to simultaneously know that Ditko wrote some, most, or all of Amazing Spider-Man, while at the same time believing that all he did was "draw" it.


Of course, Lee realises what has happened, and he immediately tries to re-assert the Smiley Stan persona:


Stan Lee: But I don't want...you made me say that in this documentary that you're doing, and I'm sorry I said it because I'm happy to say that I consider Steve to be the co-creator.


But it's too late to put the mask back: we've seen the scar on the face of Doom. Amazing Spider-Man #13 included the poisonous credit: "Author: Stan Lee. Illustrator: Steve Ditko." And that, it seems, is what Stan still really believes.

*


Just to get it out of the way: to say that Stan Lee wasn't the primary creative force behind The Amazing Spider-Man is not the same as saying that he had zero creative input; nor to denigrate the man himself. After Woss's interview, no-one can ever again say that Lee is a credit-hound. He is willing, remarkably willing, to give Ditko credit as the originator of most of what was good in the Spider-Man comic book. This makes his clinging to the idea that he is the source of some Aristotelian essence-of-Spider-Man which exists apart from any particular story, and any particular artistic telling of that story, all the odder.


Stan Lee wrote the words. Alan Moore says that the first four pages of The Amazing Spider-Man # 33 depend wholly on Ditko's pictures and not at all on Stan Lee's dialogue. This is unquestionably true. "I did it! I'm free!" might be the most redundant caption in the whole history of comics. But against this, we could set the remarkable final page of Amazing Spider-Man #10. Surely J Jonah Jameson's character is advanced further through Lee's speech balloon: "I can never climb to Spider-Man's level, so all that remains for me is to tear him down, because, heaven help me, I'm jealous of him" than by the fact that Ditko chose to depict his face in shadow?


And of course, it was Stan Lee who wrote Spider-Man's Groucho Marx banter; Doctor Strange's incomprehensible magic spells; Benn Grimm's New York wise-cracks and Norrin Radd's agonized soliloquies -- as well as some of the funniest captions ever. And precisely because he wasn't the main creator, his writing was detached from the action; almost as if he was providing a midrashic commentary on Steve and Jacks stories. This gave Marvel a weird, post-ironic tone that not even Alan Moore has ever been able to replicate. And it can hardly be said too often that neither Kirby nor Ditko ever produced on their own work which was as memorable or significant as what they produced with Stan Lee.


If I notice that there is no cake shop on the High Street, rent some property, hire the best pastry chef in town and tell him to make two dozen cherry pies, then there is no doubt at all that you have me to thank for your pudding.


But by no stretch of the imagination does that make me a baker.


(*)This is probably the biggest point in Lee's favour: the new villains who appeared in the purely Ditko plotted issues were The Spider Slayer robot, The Crime Master, The Molten Man, The Cat Burglar, The Looter / Meteor-man, some more robots, and 'a guy named Joe' – none of whom have anything like the iconic status of Doc Ock, the Lizard, the Vulture, the Green Goblin or Sandman. Does this suggest that Lee was inputting "high concepts" which Ditko on his own wasn't capable of?

12 comments:

James Diggs said...

At best Stan Lee had a very fuzzy general idea, but it seems to me that Ditko fleshed out and created all the important details that made Spider-Man ( the hyphen in the name was Stan lee’s) who Spider-Man is. I think Stan Lee spent more time working on creating the fictional character that is Stan Lee more than Spider-Man.

Peace,

James

Joel said...

I love it when you write about comics. And other forms of entertainment. Politics less so, but I'm a foreigner so that's to be expected.

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Rilstone said...

Mark Evanier says that Jack Kirby says that he suggested to Stan Lee the idea of doing a character "called Spiderman who walked on walls and had spider-like senses and lived with his aunt". By Stan Lee's definition ("the person who dreamed the thing up created it") then, Jack Kirby created Spider-Man. But Joe Simon says he suggested "Spiderman" to Jack Kirby, in which case, by Stan Lee's definition, Simon created him.

Mark Evanier says that, by the protocol of American screen-writing, the first Spider-Man comic would have been credited as: "Story by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Screenplay by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko." By Stan's account, "Written and Drawn by Steve Ditko, from an idea by Stan Lee. Dialogue by Stan Lee" would cover it.

Mark also points out something which I had missed: the Superman movies contain a credit "Superman created by Jerry Siegal and Joe Schuster" and the Batman ones say "Batman created by Bob Kane." But the Spider-Man movies say "Based on the comic by Stan Lee and Steve Dikto."

Stan Lee has himself stated that Jack Kirby "dreamed up" the Silver Surfer; that Steve Ditko "dreamed up" Doctor Strange; and of course, it is not in question that Kirby and Simon "dreamed up" Captain America and Bill Everett "dreamed up" the Submariner. If Kirby was creating later "Fantastic Four" stories with minimal input from Lee, then presumably, Kirby "dreamed up" the Inhumans, the Kree and Adam Warlock. (Yes, later treatments of Warlock had little to do with Kirby's "Him", but if "the guy who dreamed the thing up created it...")

It's also hard to see that "a teenager who bursts into flame, flies, and controls fires" and "an android who bursts into flame, flies, and controls fires" are entirely different "idea", in which case Stan Lee didn't "dream up" the Human Torch; and arguably not Mr. Fantastic, either. And, by Lee's account, it was Uncle Martin who "dreamed up" the idea of doing a comic about a team of superheroes.

So the "dreaming up" part of the "Fantastic Four" involved saying "I can take Carl Burgos "Human Torch", Jack Cole's "Plastic Man"; a female version of H.G Wells' "invisible man", and strong guy and have them fight monsters together."

Lee is, in fact, right to say that what made the "Fantastic Four" unique was their interplay and their dialogue. But if "the creator is the guy who dreamed up the idea" (as opposed to the guy who did all the hard work which made the thing good) then Lee's claim to have created the Marvel Universe in six days and rested on the seventh starts to look very, very thin.

John said...

I actually came away from the programme with more respect for Lee than when I went in. The whole thing about the creator-status is a bit of a red herring in my opinion. The words that Lee was choosing very carefully didn't seem like his words at all, but the ones that the lawyers told him to say, and like other ancient creatives before him, he sort of relies on the largesse of the company he worked for in his declining years. I hope he gets more than the pittance DC gave Seigel and Shuster.

I also got the impression that he's not very happy about being a villain to some people.

But, yes, the mask dropped, and the impression I got (some of which I suppose I dreamed up), was of this astonishingly good huckster who built an empire out of not-that-much-really, using the energy of these two remarkable talents, both of whom were, in their own ways, quite, quite bonkers. Are there that many people who would dispute that Mr A or Shade the Changing Man are at best marginally interesting (though obviously great if you like Ditko)? I love the later, madder Kirby stuff (after he dedicated his life to finding excuses for drawing lots and lots of black circles), but I don't think they're something that would spawn a whole industry.

I did, for a moment, think I could see Stan remembering the time he spent managing this loony.

I think as the Stan the (show)Man image is deconstructed, we might be able to get close to Stanley Lieber's extraordinary achievement with Marvel - seeing the potential for the mythology of Marvel, and managing participants (including the readers) until everybody believed in it.

(I think I need a lie down after some of those sentences. Sorry.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think that "manager" is a good way of putting it. Stan Lee is Brian Epstien. Maybe Stan Lee is even George Martin. Stan Lee is not Tom Parker. But Stan Lee is not the Beatles.

Gavin Burrows said...

People who are not themselves creative often believe that successful writers
have access to a mysterious commodity called "ideas". They think that it is the
lack of those "ideas" which is preventing them from becoming famous novelists;
and if only they could learn the trick, they too would have "ideas" and the
rest would be easy.


To be pedantic, such people aren’t quite like Stan Lee. Such people are
bemoaning the perceived unfairness by which the famous writer gets famous, via
what they perceive as a chance process. But for want of one light bulb briefly
beaming above their head, it could have been them talking rubbish on the Late
Review instead of having to answer phones at the Council Complaints Department.

Stan Lee conversely is more like the boss who can’t be bothered with the boring
nitty-gritty of a project, then wants all the credit when it turns out well.
And also, by Stan’s own logic shouldn’t Martin Goodman be the creator of the
Fantastic Four?

But of course the very fact I’m being so pedantic means you’ll get little real
argument from me over any of this.

Would a fallible teenager with a different origin, somewhat different powers
and an entirely different costume be recognisably Spider-Man?


The point being of course the perfect convergence of all those three
to underline the character of a fallible teenager.

More recently, Ditko claimed that Lee's original idea had involved a
teenager who used a magic ring to turn into Spider-Man – or at any rate, that
this was what happened in Kirby's rejected treatment of Lee's idea... I'm
inclined to think… that the "idea" was to do a comic book in which a teenager
was the main hero, not the side-kick.


Joe Simon’s book The Great Comic Book Makers contains two pages from Kirby’s 1959 version of what was then The Fly. These make it clear that it wasn’t a teenager who held the ring but a child. (Not only in an orphanage but “drawn by the irresistible curiousity of all boys”.) It’s the standard wish-fulfillmentstory, where the child can become an adult at will without any of that
troublesome puberty business. Spider-Man as he appeared didn’t just become a
teenager but found the very opposite of that – he took on adult powers only to
find the adult world beset with troubles and responsibilities.

Simon also places Kirby’s AF 15 cover side-by-side with Ditko’s original. Against Kirby’s dynamic and heroicially posed “Captain America with webs”, Ditko’s Spidey seems to be sprouting splaying limbs, not only cross-legged himself but overlapping with the crook he carries. While Kirby’s Spidey stands out against the flat background of the sky, Ditko’s against a teeming streetscape of frightened onlookers. Lee went with Ditko’s look but hid it behind a more regular Marvel cover on it’s first showing.

Alan said...

So the "dreaming up" part of the "Fantastic Four" involved saying "I can take Carl Burgos "Human Torch", Jack Cole's "Plastic Man"; a female version of H.G Wells' "invisible man", and strong guy and have them fight monsters together."

The last part of that sentence needs "like in that book Jack did, what was it called, Challengers Of The Unknown" appended to it to make it correct, I think.

Anonymous said...

Surely J Jonah Jameson's character is advanced further through Lee's speech balloon: "I can never climb to Spider-Man's level, so all that remains for me is to tear him down, because, heaven help me, I'm jealous of him" than by the fact that Ditko chose to depict his face in shadow?

You're mistaken, Andrew. Those are the words of a Randian villain: The desire to pull down people better than yourself out of jealousy, rather than praise or emulate them.

That's very much Ditko's speech bubble, not Lee's.

Anonymous said...

It's probably important to note that Ditko wrote an article on the creation of Spider-Man (a revised version is available in the TwoMorrow publication 'Alter Ego')in direct response to Kirby's claims (made years after leaving Marvel) that he created the Spider-Man costume and character.

Ditko's article provides a bridge between Lee's recollections and Kirby's. Ditko (who was originally going to be assigned as the inker) recalled seeing initial pencilled Kirby pages for the original incomplete story and thought they were too much like the Fly (had a magic ring, child turning into adult etc.). Ditko says Lee then spoke to Kirby and came back to say that the strip would now be done by Lee/Ditko, not Lee/Kirby.

Anonymous said...

cont'd from above

Interestingly, Kirby never specifically claimed to have written the origin of Spider-Man. Instead, he stated
"My initial concept was practically the same. But the credit for developing Spider-Man goes to Steve Ditko; he wrote it and he drew it and he refined it."

Kirby added:

"I presented everything to Stan Lee. I drew up the costume, I gave him the character and I put it in the hands of Marvel"

Why didn't Kirby state that Lee/Ditko developed the strip? Well, at this stage Kirby had ceased crediting Lee with anything...and by 1989 was claiming Lee had never scripted comic books...that they'd never collaborated on anything and that Lee had simply been an 'office worker' (yes...sadly it got that bad). This was in sharp contrast to comments made by Kirby during the 1960s...in which Kirby talked about Lee's contributions to characterisation and plots (e.g. “An idea can come from me, it can come from Stan, it can come from a reader…”
“We’ll build a plot around that type of story. I feel that Stan is very wise in looking over letters from readers and keeping tabs on the progress that the character is making.”)

But, to be fair, by this time Kirby was having health issues and had been in a bitter dispute with Marvel.

Anyway, we are very lucky that Ditko himself provided an account of Spider-Man and described his collaboration with Lee in developing the character (Ditko also wrote a series of articles that are somewhat summarised in 'Strange and Stranger' by Blake Bell, talking about how the series developed with Lee/Ditko...with Ditko eventually taking over plotting completely).

Ditko's view, having seen the original Kirby pages and worked closely with Lee, were clearly summarised in this statement which summarises the intent of his article: “If Marvel’s Thor is a valid created work by Jack, then why isn’t Spider-Man by Stan and me valid created work, our creation?”

Anonymous said...

cont'd from above

In 1986 Jim Shooter tried to talk to Kirby about the differences between the Kirby-influenced Spider-Man and the final product. Unfortunately Kirby's condition made this difficult. Shooter recalled:

"P.P.S. Years later, 1986, I had occasion to talk with Jack at the San Diego Con. He insisted that he created Spider-Man. I told him that I'd spoken to Steve Ditko, Sol, and other people who were there at the time, including Stan, obviously, and that they all agreed that Steve's version was the one that was used, though Jack did his version first. I reported everything I'd seen and heard. We talked about the costume -- the bib and belt combo, the stripes down the arms, the mask, the symbols, a very Ditko-esque design. Jack was having some problems with his memory by then, but he thought about it for a minute, then said that maybe Steve should get the credit. He'd be okay with that. A little later, he was onstage and clearly had forgotten our conversation."

Anyway, there you have it. As the editor/co-plotter/scripter Lee was ultimately responsible for bringing the Spider-Man we know into creation. Ditko, who tends to have more credibility with some fans that Lee, is on record as stating that Spider-Man is a 'Lee/Ditko' creation quite separate to the Kirby concept (and as many fans know, Ditko is always quick to point out when he thinks Stan has said something incorrect).

PS: the Ditko article is also interesting in that Ditko describes how he was working with Lee on stories prior to AF 15. The process corresponds exactly to Lee's descriptions.