Monday, February 11, 2019

God Woke!

The bastard. He doesn't exist.
Samuel Beckett





In 1937, a student at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx was helping to edit the school newspaper. One lunchtime he found that someone had left a ladder in the tower which served as the paper’s offices so he climbed to the top and wrote a graffito on the ceiling. 

"STAN LEE IS GOD"

It was the first time he had ever used that pen-name.

*

After creating The Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man, Stan Lee believed he had exhausted the possibilities of narrative fiction. “What was there left to invent?” Creativity is a matter of hyperbole: each character has to be bigger and better than the one before. But “Who could be stronger than the Hulk? Who could be brainier than Mr Fantastic?” If he was really going to out-super his existing superheroes, Stan Lee's next comic would have to feature God. And he didn’t think the Comics Code would let him get away with that. But then he had one of those epiphanies that used to occur regularly between 1961 and 1972. He certainly couldn’t do a comic about God. But he certainly could do a comic about a god.

And that is the true story of how Stan Lee created Thor, off the top of his head, without any input from anyone else.

But Stan never quite gave up on the idea of The Amazing Super-God. 

“You know, I’ve spent all my life writing about superheroes” he recalled in 2000 “And one day, about thirty years ago, I decided to write about the greatest hero of all.” 

“I have written about so many superheroes” he explained in 2016 “and each one gets stronger and more powerful. We ended up with Galactus and people like that and I said who can I get which will top all of them? Well who’s left? God! So I’m gonna make a hero out of God! And I hope he’s grateful!” 

He wasn't joking. In 2016, Lee's performance poem God Woke! was published in comic-book format, with Kirby-a-like illustrations by Fabian Nicieza. It is as close to a Marvel Comic starring Super-God as we are ever likely to get. 



On any view, God Woke is a pretty feeble piece of work. It is an extended piece of free-verse about the Deity constructed around a sequence of two word statements in which God does something ironically anthropomorphic: God woke; God laughed; God frowned; God sighed; God pondered; God cried. A lot of the meter is lifted from the Raven, a poem which Lee reportedly adored: 

While He pondered, watched and waited
Endlessly they supplicated…. 

The endless internal rhymes seem to have come directly from Poe’s The Bells 

Chanting, ranting, moaning, groaning, 
Sighing, crying, cheating, lying…. 

As poetry, it rarely reaches the level of Dr Seuss. But if it is truly Stan Lee's most personal work, it is worth a look. How did the creator of Marvel Comics imagine the creator of the Universe? 

It seems that the more powerful a character is, the less personality he has. Galactus, the closest thing the Marvel Universe has to a deity, speaks entirely in declarative sentences about how powerful he is. (Eternity rarely gets beyond "I am Eternity" and Kirby's Celestials don't communicate at all.)  Since God is ultimately powerful, Lee imagines him as being almost entirely personality-free. Nicieza draws him as a giant, featureless male figure with stars and planets drawn over his body. Lee writes him as an innocent moron, like the Hulk or Frankenstein, stumbling around the universe failing to understand the strange humans who populate it. Since humans spend most of their lives being baffled by God, the idea that God is baffled by man is a fair-to-middling literary conceit.

God, it seems, created the Earth and the human race as components of an unexplored "master plan" and then dropped off to sleep and forgot all about it. After he wakes up, the Deity checks in on the planet to see how it is doing. He is not particularly impressed.

God’s complaints — and let’s face it, we are all a bit cranky first thing in the morning — take up the rest of the poem. God complains that the human race are making too much noise; and in particular, he is irked by the sounds of their prayers. He has three main objections to humans praying. Stop me if you’ve heard them before. 

First, he complains that humans pray to God as an alternative to doing something about their situation. He seems to see prayer as an aid to procrastination: 

man the enigma, bewailing his fate, 
but plagued by inaction til ever too late 

Second, he complains that prayer is generally insincere 

mouthing his rote 
just from his throat 
words without feeling 
sound without meaning. 

And finally, he finds the whole idea of prayers personally insulting. There is a Groucho Marx logic to this: God despises prayers because they come from the kind of beings who think that he is the kind of being who would listen to prayers. He doesn't listen to prayers because they come from the kind of creature who is foolish enough to pray. I don't care to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.

And anyway, why would God limit his attention to humans when there is so much other cool stuff in the universe? This idea makes any Marvel Comics reader think of the Silver Surfer, doomed to spend eternity on this paltry planet (oh woe is me)!  It is expressed in what may be the worst line in the poem, and therefore in the history of American literature: 

who but a fool 
with a cosmos to stray in
would conceive himself an ant-hill 
and like a prisoner, stay in? 

The Silver Surfer's boss Galactus also regarded the human race as ants and earth as an ant-hill. It’s a very telling metaphor. God is greater than humans in the way that a human is greater than an ant: by virtue of being very much larger. Lee’s God, like Richard Dawkins’ God, is nothing more than a super-sized chap.

The idea that prayer harms God is not uninteresting. (Wasn’t wish-granting physically painful to the Psammead?) You could imagine it framed in Christian terms, with each prayer adding to Jesus’ suffering. I’d have been inclined to treat it comically, with God wading through prayers as a human wades through emails. "I’ll get around to blessing Tiddles the cat right after I’ve given Mrs Jones her double six at Las Vegas." But it comes out here as an anti-religious screed. I don’t think that the illustrations do the text many favours. The prayers which are so annoying to God are represented by a montage of pious people at holy sites — the Kaaba, the Wailing Wall, Stonehenge. Humans are not seeking contact with a higher power or trying to become their best selves; even the most committed pilgrims are essentially selfish. 

God then goes off an a new track. Humans have no right to ask him anything at all: his duty was fully discharged by bringing them to life in the first place. Creation had nothing to do with a divine master-plan after all: humans were only ever God’s plaything. 

at first I found the plan was sound 
and somewhat entertaining 
but once begun, 
the deed now done, 
my interest started waning. 

This is quite shocking; but Stan Lee doesn’t seem particularly shocked by it. The creator of the universe is an abusive or neglectful parent, and there is no cosmic Child Support Agency to force him to face up to his responsibilities. 

Having complained that the Earth is full of noisy creatures who want to talk to him, God withdraws into space for a few pages, and immediately starts complaining that he is all alone in the universe. The Silver Surfer and Spider-Man spent most of their time moaning about how badly the universe was treating them and how it wasn’t their fault. Superheroes with super-problems, as the fellow said. Having been told that God is the greatest hero of all, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised that he is the biggest whiner in the universe. I suppose “circular incoherence” is Lee’s best stab at “divine ineffability” but this mortal found it very difficult to work out what point the Lord was trying to make here. 

like unto children, lost in the night 
they created a God to guide them. 
like unto children huddled in fright 
they must have their god beside them 
yet what sort of children from cradle to grave 
would grant him obeisance yet make him their slave 
they have conjured a heaven and there he must stay 
ever responsive be it night be it day 
he must love and forgive them and comply when they pray 
ever attentive never to stray 
and like unto children in their childish zeal 
they worship their dream and think fantasy real 

There is something to be said for the idea that humans cling to gods like children clings to a teddy bear — particularly if human beings are only God's toys. Lee seems to be saying that Allah and Jesus and Buddha are no more than stuffed animals designed to get human beings through the night, but the big blue glowy chap is the real McCoy. Humans claim to worship these made up gods, but they are only interested in what they can get in return. Big glowy Stan Lee God is every bit as jealous as Yahweh; fictional gods make him very angry indeed. 

The“they have conjured a heaven and there must he stay” part is particularly perplexing. Is the complaint that people think that God is confined to the spiritual realm and not relevant to day to day life? (The illustration shows people leaving Sunday Morning service and returning to their cars.) But wait a minute — weren't we just told that God found "spiritual" prayers every bit as annoying and noisy as materialistic ones? Is there some Gaiman-esque idea that the Demiurge is literally being transformed into a wish-granting machine because that’s all humans believe him to be? Or are prayers somehow physically trapping God in heaven in the way that the barrier of Galactus trapped the Silver Surfer? 

At any rate, God comes back to earth. He has a jolly good look round the place and starts bewailing Man’s Inhumanity To Man. 

how to make them understand? 
how to make them see? 
how to make them recognize? 
their own insanity 
tiddly tiddly, 
tiddly tiddly, 
tum tum tiddly tee 

It is a little unfair of God to complain about the whole idea of religion on one page and to wonder about how to share his divine wisdom with mankind on the next. 

He has a number of highly original divine insights. It seems that people want to be rich and famous even though wealth and fame don't make you live any longer. Politicians and generals start wars, but it’s the young who die in them. Wars are only ever about meaningless things like flags and skin colour and never about defeating Hitler. Both sides think that God is on their side and both armies pray to God for victory. God comes across here as a Sixth Form Atheist, claiming sagely that all wars are caused by religion and if we didn’t have any religions there wouldn’t be any wars. (Woah woah, woah woah, you may say I’m a dreamer...) But "justice", it seems, is also a false value which humans use as a pretext for conflict: 

only man 
earnestly praying 
to god as he's slaying 
and piously saying 
as the corpses increase 
he does what he must 
for his motives are just 
the mayhem, the carnage 
the slaughter won't cease 
God's in his corner 
killing for peace 

I quite like the increase/cease/peace rhyme, incidentally. Lee was a big fan of Broadway musicals and this could have fitted nicely into a song. 

It’s the “war” thing, not the “prayer” thing which pushes God over the edge. If humans persist in having fights about made up stuff like religion and justice, he's definitely finished with them, and off he goes, this time for good. 

The final stanzas are vintage Stan Lee bullshit and I mean that in a deeply affectionate way: 

he looked his last at man so small 
so lately risen, so soon to fall 
he looked his last and had to know 
whose fault this anguish, this mortal woe. 
had man failed make or maker man 
who was the planner and whose the plan? 
he looked his last, then turned aside 
he had found the answer 
that's why God cried 

*

When the philosopher says “God is dead” he doesn't really mean that someone or something called God has really died. He means “People used to believe in God, but they don’t any longer.” When a scientist says “God does not play at dice” he doesn't mean that there is a an actual being called God who prefers games of skill: he means “I don’t think that at the most fundamental level the universe is random.” When a pundit says “Where was God on September the 11th?” he doesn't mean that there is an actual Deity who is capable of being in one place but not another. He probably means “When everything is going fine, it is possible to believe that the universe is benevolent; but events like this force us to think that it is indifferent or hostile.” And it seems that if a Bishop says “God died for the human race” he really means “Self-sacrifice is the most fundamental value I can conceive of: it is in a very real sense the ground of my being.”

All of these usages can be defended: but it is terribly easy to fall into nonsense without intending to. Someone says "Where was God during the last high school massacre?" and you reply "Don't you remember? You threw God out of school". The word "God" is being used to mean "religion" or "state religion": "we threw God out of school" means "religious studies ceased to be mandatory." But the same word is also being used to mean "the idea that the universe is just and arbitrary suffering doesn't occur." "If the universe is just, why do the innocent suffer?" is a good question. "The innocent suffer because there is no longer a daily religious assembly in this district" is a terrible answer.

I don’t think that Stan Lee ever seriously supposed he could turn the God of religion into a superhero character. A comic book about "the god of the Marvel Universe" — the most powerful cosmic entity in that entity filled cosmos — is perfectly imaginable. It may even be that that is how God Woke was originally conceived: a Silver Surfer story from the point of view of Galactus. But once Stan has named his protagonist “God”, he can hardly avoid talking about religion — or philosophy, or reality at the most fundamental level, or the ground of our, in a very real sense, being. He presumably doesn't believe that the actual Deity, if he exists, is actually capable of crying, or sleeping, or forgetting. “Galactus turned aside” or “Odin wept” are descriptions of things which happen to characters on the inside of a story. But "God cried" is a theological statement. We are entitled to ask "What do you mean by that?"

*

Lee presents the story as God complaining about mankind; but it is really a man, Stan Lee, complaining about God. The God of God Woke is not the greatest hero of them all. He is a bad God, a failed God. Instead of sticking around to nurture the human race he got bored and left them on their own. Result: wars, false religions and wasted prayer. God recognizes that this is all his fault. God weeps because he is finally aware that in this universe with ultimate power must also come ultimate responsibility.

Only atheists ever talk about a malevolent Deity. No-one who seriously believes in a God believes in a bad one. Indeed "Bad-God" may be a contradiction in terms, like "square circle". The ultimate Thing is the ultimate Good Thing almost by definition.

When someone says "God is bad" or "God has failed" they generally mean "the idea of God has failed" or "God is bad idea." When Stan Lee tells us that God created the world and went to sleep, he must mean "When we look at history, we cannot reasonably suppose that there is a God who is actively in charge of it", or more simply "History shows that God does not exist." When Stan Lee shows humans calling to God and God saying “Stop being so noisy” he is saying "No-one listens to or answers human prayers" or more simply “Religion is a pointless waste of time because God doesn’t exist.” 

Atheism could be a positive or liberating belief: but Lee's parable about a God who is useless, or asleep, or neglectful, or malevolent points to an atheism of the most pessimistic kind. The message on Stan Lee's bus is not "God is asleep! Stop worrying and enjoy your life!" It is more like "Only a God can save us; but unfortunately, God is asleep. We are therefore, fucked." 

But perhaps the poem is more hopeful than that. After all, God recognizes his shortcomings on the final page. Again, is is impossible to literally suppose that God is capable of recognizing his own faults and getting better at Godding. "God admits his flaws" can only mean "Human beings should recognize the flaws inherent in their own idea of God. So the message could be: "The Gods of religion cannot save us; but the alternative is not atheism, but a better idea of God. If we would shut up for a minute and listen to the real God, over and above our religious ideas about him, all manner of things may still be well."

*

If you are a gardener, you probably imagine God planting seeds and pulling up weeds and watering the universe. If you are a writer, you probably think that the universe is a great book which God is writing. Bob Monkhouse thought that God was a comedian and the Universe was a funnier joke than he could ever write. Freemasons call him the Great Architect of the Universe. It would not surprise me if sports fans think of the Deity as the referee in a very long and very beautiful game. 

God Woke was first presented as a performance piece, recited by Stan Lee’s wife and daughter, at the infamous Stan Lee at Carnegie Hall event in January 1972. It went down poorly. According to some accounts, the audience were throwing things at the stage before the evening was over. 

It follows that while God Woke was written a decade after the creation of Thor, Lee’s account of the creation of Thor was written a year or so after God Woke. The idea of God was obviously something Stan Lee was thinking about a good deal in the early 1970s.  Origins of Marvel Comics (1974) opens with a tasteless pastiche of the book of Genesis. 

“And the spirit of Marvel said ‘Let there be the Fantastic Four’. And there was the Fantastic Four. And Marvel saw the Fantastic Four. And it was good.” 

It is not surprising that Lee is attracted to a Deistic idea of God. The Demiurge isn’t personally responsible for each little flower that opens and each little bird that sings, in the same way that a comic book writer doesn't personally work out the storyline for the comics he works on. Once he has done the difficult bit of saying “Let there be the Fantastic Four!” he can leave the mechanism to run under its own steam. But that means that your creations won't always go in the way you intended them to. You might check in after a long nap and find that someone has killed off Gwen Stacey! And just because God set the whole thing in motion that doesn’t mean he has read every damn line of every damn fan letter and listen to every damn cry of every damn fan at every damn convention. The "Stan the Man" to whom the faithful send letters is partly a fictional figure anyway: he can't possibly be the real Stanley Martin Leiber.

*

he looked his last
he turned aside

That first performance of God Woke! took place in January 1972. The following August, he relinquished control of the Amazing Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. He would be admired and revered — worshiped, even — as Creator of the Marvel Universe right up until his death in 2018. But he would never be a comic book writer again.

*

“I thought up the Fantastic Four, which did well” Stan Lee told Jonathan Ross in 2007. “So we did another book, called the Hulk, and then we did Spider-Man and the X-Men and on and on and on. And then, of course, on the seventh day, I rested.“





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6 comments:

SK said...

"If the universe is just, why do the innocent suffer?" is a good question. "The innocent suffer because there is no longer a daily religious assembly in this district" is a terrible answer.

Although, 'you removed from the curriculum the very subject which is about answering questions like that' is a reasonable response.

'We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.'

Andrew Rilstone said...

Reasonable in the sense of “if you don’t know the answer, answer a completely different question.”

I remember asking about the Atonement in my confirmation class. The Minister said it was a very good question and explained why the Methodist Conference still insistent on an itinerant ministry.

Apart from that, Mrs Kennedy, how was your day in Dallas?

SK said...

You don't think that if, say, the study of history had been banned, and then the question was asked, 'if wars cause so much damage, why do people go to war?' then a reasonable response would be, 'you have removed from people the very tool they need to be able to answer that question'?

Apart from that, some of that poetry was extremely painful to read. It must have been absolute agony to transcribe. I hope your fingers are recovering.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Noted,

Mike Taylor said...

God is greater than humans in the way that a human is greater than an ant: by virtue of being very much larger. Lee’s God, like Richard Dawkins’ God, is nothing more than a super-sized chap.

I think Lewis skewered this way of thinking very neatly in one of the (otherwise very skippable) poems in The Pilgrim's Regress, where he writes "Though they lay flat the mountains and dry up the sea / Wilt thou yet change, as though God were a god?" (I wrote a little more about this here.)

--

I’d have been inclined to treat it comically, with God wading through prayers as a human wades through emails. "I’ll get around to blessing Tiddles the cat right after I’ve given Mrs Jones her double six at Las Vegas."

This is essentially the entire plot of Bruce Almighty.

--

I laughed out loud at "tiddly tiddly / tiddly tiddly /tum tum tiddly tee".

--

“Galactus turned aside” or “Odin wept” are descriptions of things which happen to characters on the inside of a story. But "God cried" is a theological statement. We are entitled to ask "What do you mean by that?"

… which of course is why John 11:35 is such a big deal.

Andrew Rilstone said...

A.N Wilson tells Lewis off for falling into the same fallacy in "Mere Christianity". "If you want to get the hang of the incarnation" Lewis says "Try to imagine how you would feel if you had to become a slug."

Lewis himself says that the minute you imagine a God who can hear prayers or speak to the believer, you are creating an image or an idol -- (because "hear" implies ears and "speak" implies a mouth). At least I think that's what he says:

"He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, murmuring Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshiping with frail images a folk-lore dream..."

If my essay hadn't already been three times too long, I might have developed that point. It seems quite clever to say that all the religions of the world made God in their own image, and to imagine what the actual God might think of them. But "trying to imagine the actual God" by definition involves creating one more deity in your own image: Stan Lee rejects Yahweh and Allah and offer instead a big glowy blue guy who falls asleep, forgets things, and gets bored.

It's one of the reasons the Mystery Plays work so much better than Paradise Lost. You might very well think that Milton thinks God actually is an incredibly powerful white guy on a huge throne. No-one every supposed that Tony Harrison thought that the creator of the universe actually resembled Brian Glover on a fork lift truck.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KrK_MgK0hA8