Tuesday, March 02, 2021

This blog, this biography

True Believer
Abraham Riesman

A Marvellous Life
Danny Fingeroth

I read two Stan Lee biographies back to back.

Danny Fingeroth's is the more laudatory book -- he knew and worked with Stan and was head of the burgeoning line of Spider-Man comics in the 1980s. Abraham Riesman's is much more critical, and has already been denounced by all the people you would have expected it to be denounced by. And the funny thing is this -- there is hardly a substantive fact on which the two books differ.

Fingeroth concedes that Stan Lee did not, in any straightforward sense "create" Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four: a very large proportion of the creative impetus came from Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Riesman equally acknowledges that the voice of Marvel comics, the brand identity, the intermingling of the characters into a universe -- everything that made Marvel Comics the publishing phenomenon which it became -- depended on Stan Lee. Sure, he calls him a "bullshitter" while others have merely called him a spinner-of-yarns. Sure, he counters the silly hype about Stan Lee being the modern equivalent of Homer with an equally shrill assertion that he "pulled off one of the most daring facts of artistic theft in modern history". But as devoted a Lee-booster as Roy Thomas agrees that Kirby and Lee co-created the Fantastic Four. As vehement a Kirby acolyte as Mark Evanier takes it for granted that the Fantastic Four were the products of a creative synergy between Lee and Kirby. The disputed area is more theological than biographical.

In some places, Fingeroth is less inclined than Riesman to full-on-Stanolatory. He admits --what anyone can see -- that the Fantastic Four issue #1 isn't particularly ground-breaking. Kirby was already producing that quirky, rough-hewn artwork in the Timely monster comics; and Lee was already adding cynical, wise-cracking speech bubbles to it.

"To say the issue was feeling its way is an understatement. The story is choppy, internally inconsistent, lackadaisically drawn, and indifferently plotted, whether by Lee or Kirby or a combination of the two. The other stories the team did that were on sale that same month, such as those in Rawhide Kid and Strange Tales, were, as far as craft and readability, far superior, far more polished."

Riesman is rather more inclined to take Stan on his own terms -- to say that yes, Fantastic Four # 1 was ground breaking, and then to try to work out whether it was Lee or Kirby who broke that ground. Lee says he came up with the characters and told Kirby to draw them. Kirby says he found Stan Lee crying in the Marvel offices one day, and took it on himself to create a bunch of new characters to save the company. Riesman correctly says it's a fallacy to assume that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: either man could be lying. Or both could. 

To be sure, there is extant a typed synopsis of Fantastic Four #1, and of course the provenance of that synopsis is worth pondering. Did Lee write it himself, from cold, without input from anyone? Did he write the synopsis after a brain storming session with Jack in the Marvel offices — putting on paper ideas they had together? Was he merely providing a narrative treatment for ideas of which Kirby was the onlie begetter? Or did he, perchance, write the synopsis after F.F #1 had seen print, to dishonestly make it look as if he had more input into the comic than was really the case.

The faithful Roy spends fully two thirds of his rebuttal of the book asserting the authenticity of the synopsis. But the truth is that is doesn’t make much difference one way or the other.

Fantastic Four issue #50, and Amazing Spider-Man issue #33 are immeasurably superior to anything Marvel had published in the 1940s or 1950s, and utterly different from anything that any one else was doing in the 1960s. It may very well be true that five years earlier it had been Stan Lee who said to Jack Kirby "Let's do a comic about a strong guy, a stretchy guy, a firey kid, and an invisible lady". It may equally be that Jack Kirby presented that idea to Stan as a fait accompli. But nothing in the Origin of the Fantastic Four leads inexorably to This Man, This Monster.

It is true that Alan Moore recalls, even as a child, feeling that the Fantastic Four was a bolt from the blue that changed his whole relationship with comics. ("This comic was utterly stark-raving foaming-at-the-mouth stupendous") But he found the F.F strange and different compared with the DC comics of the day and compared with the British children's comics he was familiar with. It wasn’t radically different from what the Stan/Jack synergy had produced the previous month. The Fantastic Four is a better strip than Doctor Droom (and certainly a less racist one). But it's part of a series of incremental changes, not a singular creative burst.

The saddest thing that comes through in both books is how little Stan Lee liked, or cared about comic books: how rarely he read them. This may be why his own comics were so different from anything that had come before and everything which came after. A clever man, a talented wordsmith, was doing his very best in a genre with which he was always going to be at crossed purposes. Kirby and Ditko's fantasy characters were ventriloquized by a man who would much rather be adding risque jokes to photographs of celebrities or (this was new to me) chairing a talk show about Vietnam and the generation gap. 

Riesman and Fingeroth rehearse the basic facts -- Spider-Man is neurotic, the Fantastic Four quarrel, Thor talks like the King James Bible -- but otherwise they have relatively little to say about the actual comics that had Stan's name on them. One never gets the sense of a committed chronicler or world builder -- you don't hear Stan saying "I don't think Reed would react like that" or "No, Iron-Man couldn't get from Avengers Mansion to Forest Hills High School that quickly”. The stories about the later Stan Lee, acting as executive producer on an X-Men cartoon without knowing the names of any of the characters, or slipping out of premiers because he doesn't actually enjoy superhero movies -- are hard for any born and bred Marvelite to read. But that disjuncture -- that gap between the myth of the grey, smokey bullpen and the brightly coloured world of the superheroes -- is surely a big part of the unique ambience of Marvel Comics. Fingeroth refers more than once to the Wizard of Oz: part of the magic of Marvel was that Lee was always drawing our attention to the man behind the curtain.

It's worth having another listen to the spoken word record that was sent out to members of Marvel's first fan club. We aren't asked to imagine Stan and Steve and Flo talking about bank robbers and aliens and cosmic radiation; we are listening in on them wise cracking about deadlines and paychecks and days off. ("How come I don't get my name plastered all over the mags like you?" "Because I can't spell it, that's why...") The club song -- a parody of every club song that has ever been written -- doesn't mention superheroes. We are fans of Marvel because we are fans of Marvel. It could be a breakfast cereal or a duck hunting lodge for all you would know.

If you growl, if you groan with a down and sour outlook,
if you howl, if you moan, you can lose your sour grout
by keeping trim and in step with the vim and the pep
of the Merry Marvel Marching Society.

This is also true, incidentally, of the theme songs to the first wave of Marvel Cartoons, which seem to have been written by someone who hasn't read the actual comics:

Wreckin' the town with the power of a bull
Ain't no monster clown
Who is as lovable
As ever lovin' Hulk!

So there is not much point in having the who-did-what argument all over again. No-one who has bothered to look into the background believes that Steve Ditko was simply Stan Lee's illustrator, in the way that E.H Shepard drew pictures to go with A.A Milne's stories or Tenniel added illustrations to to Lewis Carol's text. And no-one apart from a very small number of fan activists think that Lee was simply annotating comics into which he had no-other input. Jack Kirby, or rather his wife, Roz, may have claimed that once, in one very acrimonious interview, but no-one at this point in time believes that Lee was functionally illiterate, as she seems to come very close to claiming. Everyone who has heard of the Marvel Method thinks in terms of co-creation.

But there are two questions which it is still worth asking. One is about taste. The other is philosophical.

The question of taste is simple. When I read the Fantastic Four or Spider-Man, how much importance do I attach to the words, and how much importance do I attach to the pictures. There is an extreme position which says that Stan Lee was, at best, adding extraneous verbiage to stories he had nothing to do with. Lee is no more a comic book creator than the man who scrawls graffiti on the Mona Lisa is renaissance painter. Marvel Comics would have been much better if Lee's bombast could have been deleted and replaced with bland, Silver Age exposition. Ignore the words and look at the pictures.

At the other extreme, a few people have said that the words are what you are reading: you could delete the artwork and replace it with stickmen and the comic would be much the same. This is a much more problematic claim; since it smuggles in the idea that Kirby and Ditko were mainly illustrators. As a matter of fact if you erased the pictures, you would still be left with their breakdowns, their pacing, their narrative structure. That is why John Romita’s Spider-Man and John Buscema’s Fantastic Four are so much poorer than the Ditko and Kirby versions of those characters. They are arguably better draftsmen; but they are immeasurably worse story tellers. (This is also why Kirby’s brilliance shines through even when he is poorly served by inkers, mentioning no Vince Colletta’s in particular.)

There may be a wider question about how the text of a comic book is constituted. Is "Spider-Man" twenty two pages of superhero adventure; or does the text include the letters pages, Stan's soapbox, the adverts for FOOM membership packs and value-stamps, all the endless plugs for other titles? Should we indeed stop talking about Spider-Man and see Stan Lee as the author of an intertextual creation, extending across multiple titles and into T-shirts and TV cartoons? Certainly, when I transitioned from being a Beano reader to a Marvelite at the age of eight, the face of Lee and the cryptic references to mysterious people with outlandish names like Steranko and Forbush were a major component of my epiphany. Fingeroth is particularly good on this: Marvel Comics as a single interlocking text, pulled together by Stan Lee's voice, despite the undoubted contribution of superior creative talents to the collage.

"I was totally immersed in the inside news, gossip, and wisecracks found in the comics’ letters page responses and Bullpen Bulletins that Lee wrote. And I loved visiting with—or was it being visited by?—the literary creation, found in those pages, known as “Stan Lee.” Sure, I worshipped Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, but it was clear that Stan Lee was the one whose supervision held it all together. Some combination of the Lee-overseen comics’ words and pictures and colors—and even the ads—made up an imaginary world that I loved."

But the theological question is this: what is creativity? How do we bottle an idea? Did Spider-Man come into being in a single moment in the mind of a single creator, or can many people be said to have contributed to an emergent idea? George Lucas can be said to be the auteur of Star Wars, because he had an overall vision which he was striving towards. He hired artists and model makers and script writers to realise that vision. It is much harder to say that Sydney Newman (for example) created Doctor Who, although he unquestionably created a template from which the show could develop.

It seems to me to be overwhelming unlikely that the totality of Spider-Man can be contained in a singular moment of up-dreaming. But perhaps you do believe in inspiration. Perhaps you still have faith that "we could do a comic book about a teenager who sticks to walls" represents a promethean spark that no-one but Stan Lee could possibly have ignited. Then it must follow that the Silver Surfer, equally, emerged fully-formed from the mind of Jack Kirby and what was added afterwards by Stan is no part of the initial creation. Is the Silver Surfer without Shalla Bal, without Zenn La, without Mephisto, and without his particular mode of self-aggrandising dialogue still the Silver Surfer? But then in what way is Spider-Man, absent Ditko, still Spider-Man? 

And this, it is clear from both books, is why the third act of Stan Lee's life is so pathetic.

"He never sold himself as comics’ greatest editor" writes Riesman "but rather as its greatest ideas man. One can argue that that was a core tragedy of Stan’s existence and legacy: He was never able to put his most inarguable achievements front and center and instead opted for the ones that were most debatable."

He'd spent the 40s and the 50s beavering away at disposable monster comics which were often slightly better than they needed to be. He spent the 60s editing and dialog-ing a new series of superhero comics which became, if not best sellers, then certainly a cult. But he spent the the last two decades of the last century and the first two decades of this one trapped in the belief that he had a unique superpower — which no-one else believed in. He had the unique capacity to come up with ideas which could be instantly transformed — by someone else— into sure fire lucrative comic books and movies. "What if the hero is a milksop scientist by day and a terrifying monster by night — maybe he could turn green?" or "What if the hero is a lame doctor who can transform into the literal god of thunder -- maybe his walking cane turns into the hammer?" Either he convinced his business partners at Stan Lee Media and POW to believe in power or else they convinced their investors to do so. 

If you read comics you have heard of Mr A and the Question: you have certainly heard of Darksied and the Celestials. Ditko and Kirby continued to produce comics until an enviably old age. Parenex the Fighting Fetus was not Galactus, but he was unquestionably Kirby-esque. The old magic was still there. But as for Lee -- he scripted a decent Silver Surfer story for John Byrne, and a more than decent one for Mobius. And he came up with heaps of ideas: what if an exotic dancer led a double life as a secret agent? What if a crippled lawyer’s wheelchair turned into robot armour? What if Ringo Starr, or the Backstreet Boys, or Barak Obama were gifted superpowers by aliens? Not one of these ideas went anywhere. A writer could have written a story based on those premises — a writer could write a story based on any premise — but Stan Lee's infallible idea well had run dry. If, indeed, it had ever existed.

Stan Lee's end is no sadder than that of many other very rich and very old men. Either you die before your friends and miss out on a lot of life; or you die after them and end up all alone with your money and your sledge. It is sad to contemplate Lee being made to sign autographs for a hundred dollars a go when he could barely remember how to spell his own name; but the final YouTube videos suggest that he was very much Stan Lee right up to the end. I suppose most of us would chose to have been Charles M Schulz, turning in the final episode of your most beloved strip in your eightieth year and politely falling off the perch shortly afterwards. Dying all alone in your art-studio still working on idiosyncratic texts read by a few thousand die-hard admirers, knowing you never compromised, is not a bad way to go either. 

I hope that the next generation of comic book fans can dispense with the idea that Stan "dreamed up" Wolverine or has anything very much to do with Wandavision: but I hope they will still go back and read the comics he worked on, the only place where his words and his voice still live. So funny; so full of innovation; so very much of their time.


Richard Worth said...

Bonus question. If you were allowed to put up a statue to anyone in the comics industry, British or American (or Belgian if you really like Herge) who would it be? My impression of your impression of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and Dave Simm is that the bronze would very quickly tarnish

Andrew Rilstone said...

The most important American comic book creators are Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (who created Superman) and Jack Kirby (who created everything else.) Bob Kane is more than usually controversial, because while he definitely "created" Batman (wrote and drew the first issues) nearly everything we associate with Batman was added afterwards, chiefly by Bill Finger. Bob Kane unusually retained copyright on Batman: John Byrne used to say that he was vilified for doing what Siegel and Shuster were turned into martyrs for not doing.

Dave Sim is an outlier, however much I admire him.

I agree with the implication of your question: the erection of statues is an intrinsically political act and therefore always controversial A public statue of Stan Lee in New York City would not simply be a memorialisation of Stanley Martin Leiber, but an affirmation of the corporate myth of Marvel Comics (like the bronze statue of Walt Disney holding hands with Mickey Mouse.) A statue of Jack Kirby would be a repudiation of that myth. A statue of Lee and Kirby together (as young men as they appeared in the 1960s?) would be different again. And a statue of Dave Sim would, obviously, have nothing to do with the guy who draws clever pictures and everything to do with where you stand on -- all the issues that Dave Sim is associated with.

You might remember that there used to be a statue in Bristol of some regency era businessman. I can't remember his name. It was originally put up, not to remind everyone what the guy looked like, but to make a statement about how a particular Bristol club which he had been a member of was the best and most important club in Bristol. But it unfortunately became a symbol and a rallying point for those who thought there were two many black people in Bristol; and it was forcibly removed by people who wanted to show that we were a city which didn't care too much about ethnicity.

I think that this is why new public art tends to be symbolic rather than representative. It doesn't particularly matter that Mary Woolstoncraft was a woman of a particular age who dressed in a particular way and doubtless did some bad things as well as some good things. What matters is that she invented feminism, sort of, and the artwork in honour of her tried to convey that idea.