Friday, November 17, 2017

The Tables Turned

Opening caption, Amazing Spider-Man #29

Stan Lee introduces Amazing Spider-Man #29 with the following words.

"On the surface, this may seem to be a super-hero action thriller! But if you probe down deep, if you analyse each subtle nuance, if you dissect each philosophical phrase, if you study each non-existentialist panel you’ll discover that it actually is… a super-hero action thriller!” 

What is the purpose of this panel? Why does Stan Lee introduce this particular superhero story with 50 words saying not much more than “this is a superhero story”? Why is this the superhero story into which he is particularly worried about people reading too much significance?

And what the heck does he mean by "non-existentialist"?

An existentialist thinks that human beings create their own meaning in an essentially meaningless universe. So I suppose a non-existentialist must believe the opposite: that life does have some kind of meaning and purpose if you are prepared to look for it. 

The Beatles’ German friends were described as “exis”, but this just seems to have meant that they thought you should challenge authority. Adrian Mole was a “nihilistic existentialist”, which meant he took “being bored” a stage further than everyone else. When I was at college a lot of people used “existentialist” to mean “gloomy”. The Christian Union took it to mean “all the bad things that people believe in this terrible modern world.” In this latter sense it has been largely replaced by “post-modernism”.

Peter Parker is a non-existentialist. He believes that his life has a meaning. He thinks that Someone or Something behind the scenes expects him to behave in a particular way. The name he gives to the Person Behind The Scenes is usually Fate or Destiny. But we know that its true name is Stan Lee. 

Parker’s belief in Luck and Fate is really the perception that he is a character in a comic book. It isn’t fickle fate that determined he would be at the science exhibition at the same moment the spider got irradiated. It isn’t blind luck that means that his life keeps getting tangled up with Doctor Octopus’s plans. And it isn’t destiny which forces him to carry on being Spider-Man even though the sensible thing to do would be quit. It’s all the fault of Stan and Steve who keep thinking up more and more far-fetched plot-devices to throw at him. Because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be a comic. 

In real life, the chances of the guy who is going to murder your uncle happening to run past you down a corridor is billions to one. The chance of it happening to Peter Parker is about one hundred percent. “With great power comes great responsibility” isn’t a moral statement so much as a description of the way stories work. This story, at any rate. The argument about the Green Goblin’s identity was an argument about whether Spider-Man’s life should be directed by the Fickle Finger of Fate or whether it should be just one thing after another. Between non-existentialist Lee (”Gosh, how ironic! My best friend’s father!”) and existentialist Ditko (“this guy I never saw before”.) 

“Yeah, well, that’s not the way it would be in real life.”

“Yeah, well, in real life, there’s nobody called The Green Goblin.’

Analogies between God and The Author have been a bit overdone, not least by me. I doubt if Stan Lee has read The Mind of the Maker or The Death of the Author. But he does talk about creating all the Marvel superheroes and resting on the seventh day. Being a writer and being God are sort of kind of the same. If you are a non-existentialist, then the universe has whatever meaning and purpose God intended it to have. So surely the Marvel Universe must mean whatever Stan Lee says it means. 

And what does the voice of Stan say? He says that every single panel has the quality of non-existentialism. It means something. But at the same time — in the same breath — he says that the comic has no deeper meaning. It’s just a comic. 

This comic means whatever I say it means. And what I say is that it doesn’t mean anything. 

How is that even worth saying? 

Amazing Spider-Man #28, #29, #30 and #31 were not published by Marvel Comics Group: they were published by Marvel Pop Art Productions. 

“Remember” enthused letter-col Stan “from now on, Brand X, Y, and Z are comic books, but when you ask for a Marvel mag, you ask for a pop art book.” 

This is, I assume, a joke. But a joke is only funny if the people hearing it share certain beliefs. They all know that “comic” is a bit of pejorative term. They all know that Marvel comics are qualitatively different from DC and Atlas. And they all know what Pop Art is. Or, at any rate, they know that there is a thing called Pop Art, even if they couldn’t state the difference between Andy Warhol’s screen prints and Roy Lichtenstein found panels in any form that could hold water for five minutes. 

But what does it mean for Stan to stick a “Marvel Pop Art Productions” logo on his cover? Is he  saying “Look! These really aren’t comics any more!”? Or is he saying “Isn’t it funny that some pretentious people think these aren’t comics any more!”?

Quod scripsi, scripsi. Pow, zap, comics aren’t just for kids.

Amazing Spider-Man #33 included a fan-letter from one Betty-Anne Lopate who asked “Have you ever considered the close ideological connection between your Spider-Man and the Dadaist-Pop Art Movement?” Whether you have or not, it’s a very good letter, nailing what makes Spider-Man tick and comparing Stan Lee with Hugh Heffner into the bargain: 

“Whether you realize it or not, your Spider-Man has become the Hipper Man’s Playboy Magazine. While Hefner has capitalized on the boyhood dreams of many men to consider themselves suave and sophisticated, Spider-Man calls up a different, much more realistic and subtle form of sophistication; it caters to the young thinking man’s need to consider himself also a man of action.” 

It takes Stan Lee three exclamation points to express how bemused he is by this letter: 

“How about THAT!!! Here’s a chick who spends her 12c and end up getting fodder for a psychological dissertation! Betty-Anne, we think you’re great - and let us know what you’ll charge to psychoanalyze the gang in the bullpen when you get the chance! Okay, pussycat!” 

Stan is very proud that clever people are studying his comics, but nevertheless wants to be seen as a plain ol’ joe who doesn’t understand a word of it. Betty-Anne uses pop art and dadaism (which were not at all the same thing) to introduce a fairly transparent exposition of Spider-Man’s appeal, which Stan Lee immediately conflates with psychoanalysis. The humanities — art, lit-crit, Freud — are all equally impenetrable to us mere mortals. Peter Parker wrote off art after one glance at a modern painting, and can’t tell the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. 

(Brief pause to acknowledge the sexist language.)

In Origins of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee he presents himself, less as the onlie begetter of an entire menagerie of super-people, more as a professional word-smith. It turns out that it's the dialogue, not the original concept, which defines a character: 

“The best stories of all… are the stories in which the characters seem to be real….And what makes them so? Mostly it’s their dialog. The well-written character is the one who is always verbally true to form…”

“When I began to write the strip (which means actually putting the words in all their little pink mouths) I decided that I wanted the hammer holder to speak more like a god…”

This is one hell of claim, if you think about it. "Writer" means “the guy who writes the dialogue”, and dialogue is what makes characters real. So regardless of who “dreamed up” Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee is indubitably the one who makes the characters real. 

Stan Lee has admitted elsewhere that Steve Ditko “dreamed up” Doctor Strange without any input from him. But if anyone but Stan had been putting words into Doctor Strange’s – er – “little pink mouth” he might have said things like “Hocus pocus go to another dimension” or “Like, split to another dimension, man.” But as we all know, what he really says is things like “In the name of the dread Dormammu…” and “By the all-seeing eye of Agamatto…”. It is this vocabulary of authentic sounding magic words which makes Doctor Strange seem real. 

As Doctor Strange got more and more popular -- and what could be hipper than a Greenwich Village wizard -- some of the Betty-Anne's among his fan base started to wonder where Stan Lee had sourced all this magic vocabulary. 

“Suddenly, mail started pouring in — from colleges, if you will… And the pay off was, many of these explained, in detailed chapter and verse, how I had obviously borrowed from the ancient Druid writings, or from forbidden Egyptian hieroglyphics, or at least the writings of H.P Lovecraft.”

It isn’t clear how college students got their hands on these Egyptian texts if they were forbidden, or indeed who it was who was forbidding them. It’s even less clear where they found ancient druid writings, given that we only know about the druids from secondary sources. Stan Lee is, as usual riffing on a theme. But his response to these supposed letters is, again, to be flattered that people are taking his comics seriously, but bemused by the specifics of what they are saying: 

“After they had done all that research, all that probing and digging, how could I tell them that it wasn’t so — that I had made it all up?”

So he told a white lie: he’d read very widely, and doubtless filled Doctor Strange with references and allusions at a sub-conscious level. 

“No need to tell them I’d never studied Egyptian hieroglyphics and wouldn’t know any ancient Druid writings if they were tattooed on my dome.”

This is the standard Artist’s Plea. My ideas don’t come from anywhere. There is no hidden meaning or subtext. I just made it all up. Out of my head. All right, all right. If you insist, maybe I put some hidden meanings in there subconsciously. But I really really didn’t. It’s all – meaningless. 

“The first phrase I thought of was as totally meaningless as all the others that were to follow: “by the hoary hosts of hoggoth”. No matter what he said, no matter what he wanted, no matter what he said, it always seemed to sound more dramatic when preceded by “by the hoary hosts of hoggoth.” 

He’s riffing again. Hoggoth wasn’t the first magic word to be used in Doctor Strange, and it was never quite as ubiquitous as he suggests. No-one sensible – not even those imaginary college students – thinks that Lee had secret knowledge of occult forces and was hiding them in his comic book. But it doesn't quite follow that the phrase is “meaningless”. 

“Hoary” is a real word. It means ancient. It has connotations of whiteness and cold. It’s an old-fashioned word. We never use it accept as a conscious archaism. 

A “host” is an army, but we only ever use the word in a religious context. We probably have some vague sense that it has something to do with angels: “the heavenly host” and the “lord of hosts”. We might also possibly associate it with the “consecrated host” in a Catholic church. “Hoggoth” is a strange collection of sounds: nothing rhymes with it. H.P Lovecraft independently spotted its strangeness when he named one of his alien monsters a “shoggoth”

I suppose we could translate “hoary hosts of hoggoth” as “Hoggoth’s ancient army” or just possibly “Hoggoth’s ancient and holy bread”. But this isn’t what we hear. What we hear is more like “ancient-white-archaic-mysterious-religious-sacred-things”. We probably imagine Hoggoth as a venerable old man with white hair and a beard. It has echoes of Christian sanctity, but the lilting alliteration is the kind of thing a guru in an Arabian Nights market might say. Like Doctor Strange, it has one foot in a Western world of angels and devils, and one foot in an Eastern world of carpets and Turkish delight. 

You could doubtless play similar games with “agamatto” and “dormamu” and “vishanti”. Lee says that when he made the names up he relief entirely on phonetic: on what sounded mystical. But I don't think that there is any such thing as pure phonetics. Lee may never had read an occult text in his life, but his words mean things, however much he doth protest that they do not.

Stan Lee wrote Spider-Man’s dialogue. So by Stan Lee's arguments, it was Stan Lee who mainly made Spider-Man seem real. But Steve Ditko was making up the stories and Steve Ditko had some very specific, very idiosyncratic, very deeply held political beliefs. And they were increasingly finding their way into his stories. We are only four issues away from The Final Chapter: Spider-Man’s supreme act of self-conquest. No-one reading that iconic episode would dispute that it means something: that Steve Ditko meant something by it. The young people on the internet who say “all that happens is that Spider-Man lifts something really heavy” are simply wrong. 

Stan must have been able to see what was happening. Stan must have known that left to himself Steve would have turned Peter Parker into the poster-boy for his newfound Randian faith. Would Stan have been relaxed about that? Using comics to say that hatred was bad and love was good was one thing: but using them to proselytize a specific political position was something else. 

So this breezy little joke is part of the Lee vs Ditko struggle, which is part of the words vs pictures struggle, which is part of the Peter Parker vs Spider-Man struggle. Ditko wants his comics to say something. Stan smiles and says that if you look carefully enough you’ll find that there is nothing to see. They really are just superhero comics and nothing else.

A couple of issue later he admits that the “Pop Art” logo was a terrible, terrible mistake.

When a writer tells critics not to bother interpreting his story, what he really means is that his interpretation is the only true one – that you have to read the story his way, or not at all. Some writers find deeply threatening the idea that there might be truths in the story they created which they themselves are unaware of. “This story is meaningless” is the cry of a creator trying to keep control over his creation. 

There is a very well known story about this. About a creator who creates a Creature with the best of intentions only to watch the Creature run amok and destroy him and everything he loved. (The Creature even steals his Creator's name.) 

I assume that Lee had read Mary Shelly. He had certainly seen the Karloff movie. He quite explicitly evokes Frankenstein when recapitulating the story of the Scorpion. It isn’t mere a tale of science gone awry. It’s a tale of the Creation rising up against the Creator. Jameson created the Scorpion to destroy Spider-Man; the Scorpion wants to destroy Jameson; Spider-Man has to defend Jameson from the Scorpion. “I am doomed…” cries Jameson “Doomed by the very creature I myself unthinkingly helped to create.” The language can hardly be a coincidence. 

Ditko provided a splash page which encapsulates the super-hero action thriller side of the story very adequately. Jameson looks on helplessly as Spider-Man fights against the Scorpion (tearing up his office) in the process. Stan Lee could have underlined this, say by repeating the blurb from last issues letter page “A fighting mad Spider-Man battles to protect his worst enemy.” But instead he looks through the image and sees the deeper meaning. The Creation that the Creator has lost all control over. 

Lee’s 50 word introduction is one last attempt to take back control over the character he created. Helped to create. And he knows it won’t do any good. He is J. Jonah Jameson. His office has been flattened. Fifty years in the future people he has never met will be discovering new ways in which Spider-Man #29 is something more than a superhero action thriller.

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are used for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

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Mike Taylor said...

"... even if they couldn’t state the difference between Andy Warhol’s screen prints and Roy Lichtenstein found panels in any form that could hold water for five minutes."

Oh, well played, sir!

Andrew Rilstone said...

i thought you'd spot that one

Oliver Townshend said...

When do you think Ditko read Ayn Rand? Presumably, it matched his philosophy anyway, so at some point his thoughts solidify and have a basis in the books he has read. Since at some point it is the underlying cause of their split, where do the explicit hints start appearing?