Sunday, May 29, 2016

How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man (2)

An old peasant tells some children how he once saw a giant. No-one believes him. He swears that the giants call themselves “Humans” although “we leprechauns” have no word for them. 

A man reads the log book of a crashed flying saucer: shape-shifting aliens are plotting to invade the earth. He reports it to the authorities and is duly arrested: he is himself one of the aliens, suffering from memory loss.

A massive invasion fleet travels through the galaxy to invade earth. But Earth does not even notice, because the whole fleet is only a few inches wide.

A fortune teller tells a man he will die in a car accident on such-a-day. On that day, the man locks himself in his house, refuses to go outside — and breaks his neck falling down stairs after tripping on a child’s toy car.

If you have ever read comics, you will have read many one-off, twist-in-the-tale short stories of this kind. The notorious E.C horror comics were full of grotesque, blood-thirsty versions; Alan Moore and Grant Morrison cut their teeth writing Future Shocks for 2000AD; the Twilight Zone ploughed the same furrow on TV. 

They have often been treated as a journeyman exercise or a rite of passage for aspiring writers: if you can pull one off, a decent three page sucker-punch short story, you are probably ready to write something more substantial. Like a musical hook or a one-line gag, it is possible to learn the formula. A sudden change of scale (leprechauns and giants) or of perspective (the hero is the alien) or an ironic double meaning (none of woman born shall slay Macbeth.) Amazing Adult Fantasy was a vehicle for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s take on the form. The logo was clearly intended to evoke the Twilight Zone.

Stories like this obviously stand or fall on their idea. A predictable twist; a twist you’ve heard before; a twist that is too obviously telegraphed and the whole exercise is pointless. If the twist is good, the reader will remember the story even if the artwork is poor. But the story isn’t reducible to the idea, as Lee himself happily acknowledges.

All I had to do was give Steve a one-line description of the plot and he'd be off and running. He'd take those skeleton outlines I had given him and turn them into classic little works of art that ended up being far cooler than I had any right to expect.

This is what would become known as the Marvel Method. Lee elsewhere says that it was a unique way of working that he and Kirby had worked out, but it’s clear he was using it with Ditko as well. The writer comes up with the idea; the artist turns it into a four page, or twenty four page story; the writer puts the words in afterwards. Plot - art - dialogue. Idea - plot and art - dialogue. Clearly, an awful lot of the creative burden is on the artist’s shoulders. As Ditko himself put it :

Ten writers could take the same idea and come up with more than ten different valid creations. Such as in the idea of: Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl back. The same goes for artists.

There’s a gem of a story in Amazing Adult Fantasy # 11 called For the Rest of Your Life. I must have read it in Weird Wonder Tales, which was reprinting a lot of the old twist-ending yarns when I was at school. It is set in the Future. A petty crook hears that the judges on the planet Jupiter are incredibly soft on crime, so he goes there, steals some cars, gets caught…and is given a life sentence! One of his cell mates tells him that there is a secret tunnel through which it is possible to escape from jail; he decides to risk it, and after encountering various Ditko-esque perils, gets to the other end: free. Suddenly, the perspective changes, and we see a prison doctor announcing that the criminal is completely hypnotized. He will spend his life in jail, where he can no longer harm society, but he will always believe himself to be free. “You can’t be more merciful than that.” 

“What if, in the future, criminals were put into quarantine but allowed to believe that they were free?” is certainly an idea. But there is more than one way to turn that idea into a work of art, classic or otherwise. 

It could have become something sinister, like the Prisoner: happy people, thinking they are free, occasionally getting hints that they are not. It could have been presented as a crazy liberal idea: the murderer gets to believe he is free, but who is going to hypnotize his victim into thinking he is still alive? Maybe it’s a platonic parable: if we imagine a criminal justice system with no element of retribution, we’ll be able to see how important we feel retribution is. I can imagine Captain Kirk having a few choice words to say if he ever visited Jupite. “Of course prison is barbaric and inhuman — how else would we understand that crime is evil?” The convict cries out “I’m free! I’m free!” — well is he, or isn’t he? Maybe all of us, who think we are free, are really in prison? Perhaps someone needs to wake us up so we can see the prison walls? And what about the liberal jailer. “You can’t be more merciful than that!” Well, can you, or can’t you?

But Lee dreamed up the idea and gave it to Ditko; if not for Lee's idea, Ditko would have had nothing to work on. It took two people to create the strip that I still remember forty years after first reading it.

Lee describes the “future shock” stories in Amazing Adult Fantasy as “Odd fantasy tales that I’d dream up with O’Henry type endings…” 

Now, that is a very interesting way of putting it. In his infamous 2007 interview with Jonathan Ross, Stan Lee said (under pressure from the interviewer) that although he was willing to credit Ditko, he sincerely believed himself to be the creator of Spider-Man because: 

“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.”

“Dreams it up.”

The fifteenth, and as it fell out, the final issue of Amazing Fantasy contained four stories. We can imagine the kind of one line summary Stan Lee must have given to Steve Ditko after he dreamed up the ideas for the first three: 

A fishermen has rung the church bell every day of his life. When the island is threatened by a volcano, he refuses to leave. He seems to be lifted off the island on a beam of light.

A criminal runs into a museum. A Mummy tell him to hide in a sarcophagus. The sarcophagus turns out to be a gate back to ancient Egypt. He escapes the police, but ends up as a slave

A married couple listen to news reports of a martian invasion. The woman slips out to buy milk. The man is furious with her. By leaving their homes, they may have revealed their whereabouts to the humans. 

But Stan Lee also "dreamed up" the idea of Spider-Man. And Ditko turned it into a classic work of art, far cooler than Stan Lee had any right to expect.

Is it possible to guess what one line summary Lee gave Ditko to work with?



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