Sunday, March 11, 2012


Can anyone remember who the Ghost Rider was, or what comics he appeared in, or what kind of villains he fought? (It was a rhetorical question, Nick. Please sit down.) I believe he had sold his soul to the devil, as one does. Gary Friedrich didn't dream up the idea of the Faustian Pact: Christopher Marlow did. He didn't come up with the idea of the heroic stunt-cyclist, either: that was Evel Knievel. The not-that-bad-movie did indeed make use of the idea of the stunt cyclist who sold his soul to Beelzebub and then tried to use his evil hell fire powers for good (or something). But what everyone remembers about the character is the guy in biker leathers on the harley davidson with the flaming skull where his head ought to be. It is, how you say, iconic. 

Stan Lee, as everybody knows, believes that comic book characters have an essential, platonic being outside of the actual stories they appear in. He believes that these platonic essences are created in a single, metaphysical, quasi-divine act, which only he has control of. He calls this unified act "dreaming up". Once the "dreaming up" has been done, the character has existence, and any one of a number of different hired hands can do the donkey work of putting it on paper. There's no actual work involved; the demiurge just sits in his armchair and has creations. On this view, the person who came up with the elevator pitch "He's kinda like Dr Faustus, only on a bike" "dreamed up" Ghost Rider, and everything else (drawing the pictures, thinking up villains, making up words for him to say) was just dot-joining that any artisan could have done. I believe that there are sincere differences of opinion about who did the original up-dreaming in this case. 

You might think that 90% of the success of Spider-Man came from Stan Lee's funny speech bubbles, and only 10% from Steve Ditko's design the costume. You might think it was 50/50 or 60/40. No-one apart from Walt Disney's legal department doubts that two people were involved. It seems to me that 100% of the success of Ghost Rider as a comic book and 100% of the reason it was turned into a not-too-bad movie was the physical design of the character: the idea-of-the-Ghost-Rider is the guy on the bike with the flaming head not Satan or Mephisto or Zathros or anything else. In which case, if anyone "created" the Ghost Rider, it was not Mike Friedrich or Roy Thomas but Mike Ploog, who drew the actual pictures.

It will be remembered that in 1969 Stan Lee allowed Cadence Industries to believe that he was sole creator of all the Marvel characters and Ditko and Kirby were merely hired illustrators. This applied even to the Silver Surfer, even though Stan had said over and over again, that Kirby created, and therefore presumably "dreamed up" the character without input from him. It is perfectly true that Stan Lee's inferior 1970s version of the character added lots of elements which had not been part of Kirby's original conception, and that it is this inferior version which still appears in comic books today and was used in the the not-completely-awful Fantastic Four movie. It is also clear that the three Spider-Man movies were based on John Romita's version of Spider-Man, which was inferior to Ditko's tio the point of being parodic. 

It is not to be suggested that Lee had no imput into the creation of the Silver Surfer; only that, by his own arguments, he didn't dream him up. This is not to argue that Steve Ditko was the sole creator of Spider-Man; Mike Ploog the sole creator of Ghost Rider or Jack Kirby the sole creator of everything else; only to argue that the concept of "dreaming up" is palpable bullshit. The idea of Spider-Man, or Ghost Rider doesn't exist apart from actual Spider-Man or Ghost Rider comics: the people who created them are the people who did the hard work of drawing and writing, not whoever it was who happened to have first pitched "What about a guy on a bike with a skull instead of head." 

Sigh. No, I don't think that Marvel Comics should pass 100% of the profit from The Avengers movie to Jack Kirby's estate. 15% would be fair; 5% would be a realistic. 1% would be a nice gesture. At this stage of the game it would count for more if Kirby's grandchildren joined Stan Lee on the red carpet, and if Stan Lee said "Me and your grandpa created these characters together" or even "I suggested this idea to your grandpa, and he created the characters, and I thought up things for them to say" which everyone knows is the truth. But even that can never happen, because Stan Lee's faith-position conveniently matches the legal fiction that characters have essences and those essences are created and owned by corporations and buildings and legal entities, not by human beings with stuff they want to say.


What were the Daleks?

Were they

1: A script written by Terry Nation

2: A prop designed by Raymond Cusick

3: Characters in a children's television programme directed by Verity Lambert

4: A cultural phenomenon which began in 1963 and was over by 1968

Once you've framed the question in that way, the answer is pretty obvious. "The Daleks" were an ambience, an atmosphere, a period when, wherever you looked there were Dalek toys and Dalek magazines and Dalek soap and Dalek colouring books. Those of us who came in during Jon Pertwee sometimes feel that we missed "the Daleks". BBC props moving around a quarry just don't have much to do with Daleks. Re-runs of Peter Cushing movies on wet Sunday afternoons and dog-eared Dalek comic books seem to bring us closer. But no collection of ephemera can really recreate the Daleks. We weren't there when they happened.

Similarly, people of my generation have seen The Beatles reduced to 15 very good CDs, 2 very good movies and Magical Mystery Tour. This has practically nothing to do with the Beatles, although Hard Days Night goes some way to telling us what the Beatles would have been like had we been there. The Beatles were a moment when people were wearing particular clothes and watching particular cartoons on TV, and incidentally stopped rationing sweets and hanging people. The fact that John, Paul, George and Ringo also happened also to sing some quite good songs was neither here nor there. People only went to Beatles concerts in order to shout them down. 

Or again, the 12 action figure that were sold in 1977 were not an adjunct to Star Wars. They were Star Wars. Star Wars was a particular summer, which included Star Wars toys (if you had lot of pocket money) Star Wars bubble gum cards (if you didn't) Star Wars comic books...oh and also a film. (Remember, if you are British, Star Wars was a comic first and a film second. One of those big Treasury Editions they don't make them like any more.) You saw the film once, or, if you were particularly sad, five times. You read the comic every day for a month. You played with the toys until you got too old for them. George Lucas's attempts to deny that things like The Star Wars Christmas Special and Christmas In the Stars ever happened represents a blatant falsification of what Star Wars was. Is.

Can you get "Force Blades" on ebay? Not reproductions of lightsabers that actually look like lightsabers -- actual 1970s force blades. The real thing. 

One imagines the Beatles and Star Wars and Spider-Man putting their essential being forth into the surrounding culture until they themselves no-longer exist. (This is a reference to Tolkien. It would take too long to explain.) Everyone knows what Mickey Mouse looks like: hardly anyone has seen an actual Mickey Mouse cartoons. Disney rather discourages it. A strange composite Winnie the Pooh -- definitely not A.A Milne's character but not exactly the the Disney character either -- seems now to have an existence outside of the original stories. It is very common to find young children who are crazy about Spider-Man, but who have never seen a Spider-Man comic or scene a Spider-Man movie.

Spider Man isn't a superhero: he's a lunch box.