Showing posts with label Mr Stan Lee. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mr Stan Lee. Show all posts

Thursday, July 27, 2023

Stan stans Stan

Stan Lee


In the 60s, Marvel Comics was known as the House of Ideas.

It's a telling phrase. Not the house of writers or the house of artists or the house of editors. The House of Ideas.

That's what made the decade from 1961-1972 so seminal. Not the pictures; not the dialogue; not even the plots. The ideas. And the source of those ideas was the son of a pair of Jewish Romanian depression-era immigrants: Stanley Martin Leiber.

"I have always thought I was the creator of Spider-Man because I am the guy who said 'I have an idea for a strip called Spider-Man an so forth'...." explained Lee. "You dream it up and then you give it to anyone to draw it."

Walt Disney's Life of Stan is not as bad as I expected it to be. It ends with the voices of Kevin Feige (director of the Marvel Cinematic Universe) and Roy Thomas (Stan Lee's anointed successor at Marvel.) Both of them distance themselves from the doctrine of Stan Sola.

"I often think of the 1960s and the famous Marvel bullpen" says Fiege "and think about the characters that came out of the imaginations of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and all of their co-creators, it's incredible. I often find myself thinking 'boy if we could just tap into just five per cent of that crucible of imagination' ".

"The seeds of all that stuff are all set back in what Stan did with Jack and Steve" says Thomas. "You know, you could always trace anything that they do now. It all kind of flows from that fountain that was unleashed when Stan and Jack and Ditko, you know, got together and suddenly became this wonderful triumvirate, creating a whole universe, and neither of them could have really you know done it without the other."

This represents one hell of a climbdown: Lee himself acknowledged Ditko as co-creator only with the utmost reluctance. ("I'm willing to say so".) I wonder if there is an element of arse-covering going on: a last-ditch attempt to shore up what remains of the myth? Stan Lee was not the sole auteur of Marvel Comics. No-one who has studied the evidence thinks that he was. Very many people would be prepared to argue that Ditko and Kirby could very well have created Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four without input from Lee. There are even some who think that they did. But talking about a triumvirate allows us to keep hold of Uncle Stan. He may not have done everything, but he still did something.

The choice of metaphor is interesting. Thomas talks about seeds. The Blessed Trinity didn't create the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but everything that came afterwards was implicit in their primal creative act. He talks about fountains. Whatever we mean by Marvel Comics already existed; the Founding Fathers merely channeled and released it. Fiege talks about a crucible. I prefer that as a metaphor: Lee, Kirby and Ditko as three radically different metals that were superheated into a single alloy.

Fiege and Thomas are careful to talk about creators in the plural. But their summing up is bookended by the singular Stan Lee, enjoying the glamour of the Marvel movies and looking back on his long career. 

"In the days I was writing those books..." 

"That's a camera-wrap on the creator of Iron Man, Mr. Stan Lee" 

"The fact that I'm working with characters I've created..." 

"You can only do your best work if you are doing what you want to do, if you are doing it the way you think it should be done" 

"If you can look at it and say 'I did that and I think it's pretty damn good, that's a great feeling."

I, me, my...

The documentary is very well put together. Lee ceased to be an active comic book creator in 1972: for the last fifty years of his life, talking about himself was basically what he did for a living. There must be a thousand hours of recordings of his voice. Director David Gelb has, with some ingenuity, collated a tiny fraction of this material into a fairly cohesive first person narrative: Stan on Stan. Not such a monumental undertaking as Peter Jackson's Get Back, but a substantial editorial task. A computer may have been involved to make the sound consistent, but it's all based on actual recordings. We are not told the provenance of the voice-over, so a remark made in 1960 and a remark made in 2020 might well be placed side by side. We also get film clips of Lee on chat shows and conventions and personal appearances, where the context is much clearer.

Stan Lee was a professional raconteur. He created a persona on the pages of his comics and then adopted it in real life. Self-deprecating and egoistical in the same moment; never more arch than when he's being sincere, never more light-hearted than when giving a straight answer. We hear the voice of Joe Simon complaining that the Very Early Stan Lee used to incessantly play the piccolo in the office. We don't otherwise hear of an interest in music: he must have been inhabiting a persona even back then. I don't know if there is really a unique New York Jewish style of humour, but one can't help thinking of the later Groucho Marx when Stan speaks. Later on he dropped the flute and affected a cigar. If you fell in love with Marvel in the 60s, then Stan's voice is what you fell in love with. This is a strength and a weakness in any documentary. It is great fun to spend time in Stan's company: the ninety minutes shoots by. But we are drawn in. We want to believe the yarns he is spinning. It feels mean to interrupt and say "But wait a minute....?" and "Says who...?"

Jack Kirby and Joe Simon pointedly refer to him as Stanley. Stan Lee is a made-up character.

Lee's reminiscences are illustrated by static figurines in elaborate tableaux. (I don't know who made them, and if they are physical models or clever CGI, but they are terribly well done.) So as Lee talks about reading the pulps in his parent's tenement while his dad desperately looked for work; we see the scene enacted by the little plastic figures who normally populate model railway stations.

It's a clever stunt. Stan tells us. The pictures show us. But the artificiality of the pictures gently whisper "it ain't necessarily so".

We see a Steve Ditko figurine, hunched over a model writing desk, pencilling a comic book. To one side is a Stan Lee figurine, adopting a Spider-Man pose, demonstrating how he imagines a particular scene. The comic that toy-Ditko is working on is quite clearly Amazing Fantasy #15; the last page of the first section, when Peter invents his web-shooters. At his side are pencils, a protractor...and a typewritten script, several pages long. It's clearly based on the sample from Stan's 1948 Writers Digest Essay, There's Money in Comics, which envisaged a comic book script as a movie screenplay, with panel descriptions down one side and dialogue down the other. ("Panel 1: Louise in office, clearing her desk. Louise: (Thought.) He never notices me!") Elsewhere in the big open-plan Marvel office, there are four or five other artists, similarly hunched over drawing boards.

We would love it to be true. What Kevin Feige calls "the famous Marvel Bullpen" was such a big part of what made Marvel Comics so special -- a men's clubhouse that us little kids were allowed to peek into. But it never existed: during the Marvel decade the artists were freelancers working from home. Stan Lee didn't provide Ditko or Kirby with screenplays to work from: he provided them with short summaries or single line ideas. According to Flo Steinburg (Stan Lee's very own Betty Brant) Lee did sometimes stand on tables and mime scenes to artists. But there is something pernicious in the idea that Steve Ditko was drawing Spider-Man in poses that Stan Lee had first demonstrated to him. The one thing which characterised Steve Ditko's Spidey -- a flexible body perpetually twisted into unlikely shapes -- is implied to have originated in the Mind of Stan. Note that Lee has his third and forth fingers in the palms of his hands, in the classic "web-shooter" position: the idea that Lee suggested those kinds of details corresponds to nothing that we know about the pair's working practices. 

Ditko really did have the word THINK pinned to his drawing board, but that was in his home studio, not the Marvel office.

We hear a big chunk of the Merry Marvel Marching Society record, in which Stan Lee pokes heavy handed fun at the other creatives. This doesn't pretend to be anything other than a skit. At one point Steve Ditko, who characteristically refused to participate, is said to leap out of the window, to the sound of breaking glass. ("Maybe he is Spider-Man!") But the scene is lovingly recreated with the little Lego men. Perhaps that's a signal that the vignette of Lee and Ditko should be seen as part of the same, mythical, Bullpen play-world. 

But it's a vivid ideogram; visually conveying the idea that Ditko's job was to transmute Lee's thought into pictures. Which is. Just. Not. True.

"My mother said I would read the labels on ketchup bottles if there was nothing else around" says Stan. I am sure she did.

"I got a job as an office boy at the second largest trouser manufacturer in New York." I have no reason whatsoever to doubt this.

"When I graduated High School, I had an uncle, and he worked for a publisher, and he told me they were looking for an assistant, and I figured 'Gee, I'm going to apply', so I went up there, and I found out they also published comic books, they had an outfit called Timely comics, and they hired me to run errands, to proof read, fill the inkwell, whatever had to be done." By all accounts, this is perfectly correct. Stan's Uncle Robbie (Robert Solomon) worked for Martin Goodman, who published Timely Comics. 

What Lee fails to mention is that Goodman's sister (Sylvia Solomon) was Robert's wife. That makes Lee the boss's nephew-in-law. And rather confusingly, Goodman's own wife, Jean, was Stan Lee's cousin. Making him the boss's cousin-in-law as well. There is nothing sinister about this. It's how second generation immigrants found work during the depression. Once Lee is ensconced as a gopher, sharpening Jack Kirby's pencils and bringing him cups of coffee, he slips into the royal plural. "We had the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner and the Patriot and the Angel and the Destroyer, but the main character we had was Captain America."

But hey. It's a good story. Office boy to world-wide icon. Isn't that exactly what we mean by the Great American Dream?

Stan Lee was definitely given the role of "Playwright" by the US Army during World War II: we are shown his discharge papers with the job title on them. He was writing instruction manuals and training-film scripts while Jack Kirby was actually getting shot at by Nazis. (Another "playwright" was one Theodor Geisel, who would later do quite well for himself writing children's books.) But is it really true that adding light-hearted cartoon characters into accountancy training books shortened the training period for army finance officers from six-months to six weeks? This is, of course, spun as a eureka moment; indeed, as an origin story:

"It was then I realised that comic books can have a tremendous impact; you can convey a story or information faster, more clearly and more enjoyably than any other way short of motion pictures."

With great power comes great responsibility. Thus were born the Fantastic Four and the world will never be the same again. 

Abraham Riesman mentions in her biography that Lee's most widely distributed army work was actually a poster with the punchy slogan "V.D? Not me!" No-one doubts Stan Lee had a way with words.

In Origins of Marvel Comics, written in 1974, Lee tells the story of how his wife, sometime in 1960, pointed out that he'd been writing comics for twenty years and still treated it as a temporary occupation. (Significantly, he was still pitching screenplays and novel ideas; equally significantly, none of them got picked up.) Why, asked Jean, didn't he fully commit to the industry he was actually in? The result was the Fantastic Four. 

It is sweet that Stan wants to say that he owes it all to his wife; but it strikes me as the sort of conversation two people might actually have. Half a century later, in a BBC interview, the story had evolved. Now, Lee had actively decided to quit comics and his lovely wife suggested that if he was going to do that anyway, he should "do one book the way he wanted" before he finished. The result was Spider-Man. 

Corollary: Stan Lee always had Spider-Man "in" him; but he had spent many years doing comics in the way he thought his publisher wanted. (*)

In the present documentary, we get the story from Jean Lee's own mouth. (I hadn't realised that she had such a wonderful cut-glass English accent!) And the choice of words is very telling:

"Why don't you create characters who you like?"

In the beginning was the idea. The Fantastic Four differed from the characters who came before because Stan Lee liked them. Because they were his personal vision.

On this timeline, Stan goes to Jack and says "Jack, wouldn't it be nice if you had good guys who occasionally make mistakes, who occasionally trip at the last minute and let the bad guys get away?" This is presented as the key moment: when the seed was planted, the fountain unleashed and the crucible heated. It is illustrated with a panel from the 1947 Secrets of the Comics strip about how Martin Goodman created Captain America in a single eureka moment.

"That was really the start of everything" says Stan.

So: that was the Big Idea. Not the idea that there should be a team consisting of a stuffy scientist, a beautiful lady, a cool, hot-headed younger kid and strong, bad-tempered older kid, and that together they should fight monsters. Not even the idea -- that Lee is inordinately proud of -- that the Scientist and the Lady were already engaged when the story started. The light bulb moment was when Stan Lee went to the guy he used to run errands for and told him that the Fantastic Four would be realistic and fallible

In fairness, we do get to hear Lee talking extensively about the Marvel Method; and acknowledging Ditko's primary input into the majority of Spider-Man's adventures. This is spun in Lee's favour: because he didn't know what was going to be in the comic until Ditko handed him the art, Spider-Man took twice as long "to write" than any of the other books. Lee says that Marvel Method was introduced as an emergency measure -- introduced because Marvel were putting out more books than he could personally keep track of. The chronology of the documentary implies that this happened after the post-Fantastic Four superhero explosion: but Lee has said elsewhere that he was already feeding Kirby and Ditko single-line story ideas (for monster comics and twist-ending horror titles) from the middle-fifties at least. The provenance of Stan's outline for Fantastic Four #1 is contested: but it's definitely a synopsis, not a script.

We hear Lee's side of the Jonathan Ross interview; which acknowledges that Ditko believed himself to be the co-creator of Spider-Man. We hear the infamous moment when Stan and Jack nearly come to verbal blows about "who did what" on live radio. Lee accuses Kirby of never reading the finished comics, which Kirby does not deny. Kirby honestly believed he was the sole creator of the Fantastic Four because he genuinely didn't know what Lee was bringing to the table.

The trailer for the 1978 Christopher Reeve movie strongly implied that Superman's appearances in comic books, on radio, and on TV had been a preliminary, gestational period from which Superman-The Movie had finally emerged. Similarly, the 2018 Double Fantasy exhibition presented John Lennon as a peace campaigner, guru and avant garde artist who had served an apprenticeship in a British pop group. And clearly, it suits Walt Disney to present Stan Lee's story as a single creative decade, followed by forty years of obscurity, and universal adulation as an octogenarian. The documentary skips the years between 1972, when Lee ceased to be a regular writer, and 2008, when he started to cement his mainstream fame with a series of Hitchcockian cameos in the Marvel Universe Movies. We hear nothing of the decades of pitching ideas for characters and movies -- none of which get made -- and certainly nothing of the failed Stan Lee Media or POW Entertainment. 

Marvel Comics was the egg from which the Marvel Cinematic Universe hatched.

"In the days I was writing those books I was hoping they'd sell, so that I wouldn't lose my job, that I could keep paying the rent. All of a sudden, these characters have become world famous; they're the subject of blockbuster movies, and I'm lucky enough to get little cameos in them..."

"It's certainly nice to see the world catch up with what Stan Lee did" adds Roy "Even if it took movies and TV shows to do it. The world has to kind of admit now, maybe there is something to some of this stuff."

The final moments of the film juxtapose images from the movies with images of the same characters from 60s Marvel. But this only underlines how little the comic book characters have in common with the figures in the movies. The evil mutant with the silly red tiara unrecognisable as the tragically crazed witch from Wandavision. The lumbering cold-warrior in gun-metal armour has hardly anything to do with Robert Downey Jnr's sleek cyberpunk hero. The Hulk who Stan Lee dreamed up wasn't powered by anger and wasn't green. One of these things is not like the other one, but we are asked to suppose they have a unique essence which makes them kind of the same. Stan Lee's theory of Ideas which fall fully formed like mana from heaven is a necessary component of that essentialism. 

Jack Kirby created Captain America as a wartime hero; Stan Lee brought him forward to the 60s and killed off his annoying kid side kick; Ed Brubaker brought Bucky back from the dead as a psychotic brainwashed assassin. Gene Colon created the Falcon, and Steve Englehart made him Cap's partner and Rich Remender made him Cap's replacement. The very fine 1941 Captain America comic and the very fine 2021 Falcon and the Winter Soldier TV show are only instantiations of the same idea in the way that Trigger's broom (which has had fourteen new heads and seventeen new handles) is still the same broom he bought twenty years ago.

There's a political dimension to all this. The belief that there is a one true Spider-Man, who appeared in a snap-your fingers lightbulb moment feeds into the mentality which sets fire to action figures if a once-light-skinned character is played by a dark-sinned actor.

There is a really very touching epilogue in which Stan, now in a wheel chair, gets an ecstatic standing ovation from a college graduation cohort. His closing address turns the story-of-the-idea into a morality play, like one of those picture books about how Mother Theresa was a little girl who followed her dreams but doesn't mention that she was a Roman Catholic. 

"If you have an idea that you genuinely think is good, don't let some idiot talk you out of it. That doesn't mean that every wild notion you come up with is gonna be genius, but if there is something that you feel is good, something you want to do, something that means something to you, try to do it. Because you can only do your best work, if your doing what you want to do, and if you're doing it the way you think it should be done."

And that's the message. Where the whole trajectory of Stan's career is collaboration, pragmatism, following trends, selling a product, the final message is individualism. Spider-Man was great because Lee had a singular vision and he stuck to it. Bull. Shit

And the pity of it is this: if anyone reads to the end of this essay, they will call me a Ditko hater and a Stan Lee shill. Because I do believe that Stan Lee was a creative genius. I do believe that Kirby and Ditko did better work with Lee than they ever did solo or with different collaborators. I do believe that Marvel Comics from 1962ish to 1972ish reads as a single text, adverts and letters pages and all, and the soul of that text comes from Stan Lee. Stan Lee's voice formed the soundtrack to my childhood, if not my whole life. Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four are great because of Stan Lee's ironic meta-textual self-insertion. The endless peddling of the myth of the auteur who never actually auteured anything is insulting to Ditko and Kirby. And it does no favours to the very talented man whose name is on the tin.

Stan Lee was a copywriter. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were draftsmen. What they produced was not ideas, but texts.     

(*) It also follows that he was not "doing" the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, or Thor in "the way he wanted" and that he became disillusioned with comics when he had already "created" Doctor Doom and reintroduced the Submariner.

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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. 


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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Friday, January 25, 2019

Listen, Bud

The Spider-Man Project

A close-reading of the first great graphic novel in American

"Perhaps the most detailed study of a comic book ever attempted; will be to The Amazing Spider-Man what Revolution in the Head is to the Beatles."

"You may think you love these comics. But Rilstone loves them more and has spent longer thinking about them than you have." 

"Whether it's Flash Thompson's honour code; the connection between Jonah Jameson and Stanley Baldwin or all the times Stan Lee wrote a caption without understanding the pictures Rilstone will point out things about Spider-Man you never noticed before." (*)

Steve Ditko 1927 -2018

Stan Lee 1922 - 2018


How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spider-Man

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Amazing Fantasy #15


Spider-Man - Freak! Public Menace!

Spider-Man vs The Chameleon

Duel to Death With the Vulture

Spider-Man vs Doctor Octopus, the Strangest Foe of All Time

Nothing Can Stop - The Sandman!

Marked For Destruction by Doctor Doom

Face to face with the Lizard

The Return of the Vulture



Green, Green My Goblin Now

It is a fact that Steve Ditko stepped down as plotter, artist and co-writer of Amazing Spider-Man after issue #38. 

It is also a fact that the Green Goblin's long-concealed secret identity was revealed in Amazing Spider-Man #39. 

The conclusion is inescapable. Steve Ditko quit because Stan Lee had decided to reveal the arch villain's true identity. 

This idea has been in circulation for so long that it has become a received truth: here, for example, is the Guardian's obituary for Ditko: 

"But at his creative peak, Ditko abruptly left Marvel. The reasons may have included a creative battle over a storyline in which Lee wanted The Green Goblin to turn out to be Parker’s best friend’s father, while Ditko wanted him to be a random character. Lee’s instincts proved correct." 

But, as Captain Blackadder might have said, there is one tiny flaw in this version of events. It is bollocks. 

The Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin (Amazing Spider-Man #14) begins and ends with the villain in his civilian clothes, but with his face pointedly obscured. This is repeated in issue #17, #26 and #27: we readers see the Goblin plotting against Spider-Man, but we are not allowed to see his face. This is a clear signal that if his face were not hidden, it is one we readers would recognize. There would be no point in hiding a character's face if it was not a face the audience already knew.

In issue #37, Once Upon a Time There was a Robot, Ditko introduces a new mystery, ostensibly unrelated to the Green Goblin. A businessman, Norman Osborn, is engaged in a longstanding feud with a scientist, Prof. Stromm. Osborn swindled Stromm out of some inventions and caused him to be unjustly sent to prison; Stromm therefore sends a flock of robots to destroy his electronics factory. But Stromm knows something about Osborn, and Osborn is prepared to commit murder to silence him. 

In #39, as everyone in the world knows, Stan Lee resolved both these mysteries. The Goblin, having unmasked Peter Parker, rips off his own mask and reveals that he is...none other than....[SPOILERS FOLLOW] Norman Osborn. 

Most of us cannot conceive of a time when we did not know that Osborn was the Goblin, any more than we can conceive of a time when we did not know the name of Luke Skywalker's father. But as a piece of narrative I don't think the Osborn/Goblin story line is very satisfying. The mystery of Osborn's feud with Stromm is not brought to a particularly satisfying resolution by the discovery that he is the Goblin; and the long standing puzzle about the Green Goblin is not satisfactorily resolved by the revelation that he is Norman Osborn. We never find out what inventions Osborn stole from Stromm; we never find out what secret Stromm was going to reveal. (He never knew that Osborn was the Goblin.) And "some science blew up in my face and turned me evil" is not a great back-story. 

If we only had the comics to go on, I would guess that Stan Lee wanted to resolve all Ditko's dangling plot-lines as quickly as possible. So he chose the path of least resistance. What is Osborn's secret? He is the Green Goblin. What is the Green Goblin's identity? He is Norman Osborn. Onwards and upwards. 

But it is more complicated than that. 

You knew it would be.

The idea that Stan and Steve disagreed about the Goblin was in circulation as far back as 1974, when Marvel's house magazine, FOOM!, claimed that Lee was still clinging to the old idea of the Goblin being a resuscitated Egyptian Mummy and Ditko was going for the scarcely less far-fetched notion that he was Ned Leeds. But as the years rolled on, the "some random guy" theory gained traction. 

Here is Stan Lee talking in an interview in 2014: 

I never knew why he quit in the first place. It might have had to do with the fact that I was trying to tell him how to do the stories. With the Green Goblin we didn't know who the character really was. I wanted him to turn out to be Harry Osborn's father. 

Ditko said, "No, I don't want it to be. It should be somebody we don't know." 

So I said, "Steve, the readers have been following the series for the longest time, waiting to find out who he is. If it's somebody they've never seen they'll be frustrated." 

Anyway, I couldn't convince him and he certainly couldn't convince me, so that might have been what drove him away. 

But he never told me and we don't see each other anymore.

And here he is, telling the same story in 2017

I had a big argument with Steve Ditko, who was drawing the strip at the time. When we had to reveal the identity of the Green Goblin, I wanted him to turn out to be the father of Harry Osborn, and Steve didn’t like that idea, 

He said, ‘No, I don’t think he should be anybody we’ve seen before"’

 I said ‘Why?’ 

He said ‘Well, in real life, the bad guy doesn’t always turn out to be someone you’ve known.’

 And I said, ‘Steve, people have been reading this book for months, for years, waiting to see who the Green Goblin really is. If we make him somebody that they’ve never seen before, I think they’ll be disappointed — but if he turns out to be Harry’s father, I think that’s an unusual dramatic twist that we can play with in future stories.’ 

And Steve said ‘Yeah, well, that’s not the way it would be in real life.’

And I said ‘In real life, there’s nobody called The Green Goblin. 

And so Steve was never happy about that, but since I was the editor, we did it my way.” 

This story is so full of holes that it could be served up as a cheese course in a Swiss restaurant. 

The suggestion that Ditko might have walked away because Lee was "telling him how to write the stories" is mind-boggling. It corresponds to nothing we know about the two men's working relationship. In his infamous 2007 interview with Jonathan Ross, Lee was perfectly clear: in the early days, Steve worked from a brief plot summary which he could change and embellish at will. In the middle period, Steve worked from a one or two sentence plot seed from Stan Lee. And at the end -- certainly from issue #25 and perhaps as far back as #17  Lee had no input whatsoever into the creation of the plots. Steve "would just go away and do whatever story he wanted". In 1966 Lee told the Herald Tribune:

"I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories....We were arguing so much over plot lines I told him to start making up his own stories." "

And according to the accounts of people who worked at Marvel at the time the two weren't even on speaking terms. Ditko mailed finished artwork to the Marvel offices, or handed it to secretary Flo Stienberg or office manager Sol Brodsky. 

So — when and how is this perfectly reasonable discussion about a plot point supposed to have taken place?

Lee says that he "wanted the Green Goblin to be the father of Harry Osborn". But in 1966, Harry Osborn barely existed: he was a minor character, a wingman and foil for Flash Thompson. In later years, Parker would indeed make friends with Harry and become his roommate; and Stan Lee would insert flashbacks in which Parker's first reaction on seeing the Goblin's true face was "My best friend's father!" But none of this was true in 1966. If Lee had really wanted to make the Goblin's identity have a personal resonance for Peter Parker, why wouldn't he have insisted on him being the father of Gwen Stacy or Flash Thompson? 

It makes little sense to say that "Since I was the editor, we did things my way." "We" didn't do anything at all. Steve walked outwithout completing a cover or a splash page for his final issueand Osborn storyline was wound up by John Romita.

Certainly, Ditko did like stories in which the villain turns out to be an anonymous nobody. Three previous bad-guysElectro, the Crime Master, and the Looterturned out to be no-one Spider-Man had ever heard of. Did Ditko really want to do it a fourth time? I suppose it is just possible that this might have been the hill Stan Lee chose to die on. But why would he say "readers will be frustrated" rather than "no, Steve, we've done that before"?

But Ditko didn't have any absolute aversion to dramatic unmaskings and surprising revelations. In issue #31, he deliberately made us curious about the identity of the Master Planner (allowing us to eavesdrop on his monologues from outside his base, but not to see his face). In #32, the Master Planner turned out to be, not some random fella, but Doctor Octopus. In #19, Ditko had deliberately made us curious about the identity of the man-in-the-dressing-gown who was spying on Peter Parker. The following issue, the man-in-the-dressing-gown turned out to be, not John Doe, but J.Jonah Jameson. The last time we saw the Green Goblin, he was holding his mask aloft while his face was blacked out by shadow. That was how Steve Ditko chose to draw him. There is no way that this character was ever going to turn out to be Matt Dillon or Norman Fester or Lucky Louis.

If Lee's version of events is hard to swallow, Ditko's own account is not much more palatable. 

"I knew from Day One, from the first GG story, who the GG would be. I absolutely knew because I planted him in J. Jonah Jameson’s businessman's club, it was where JJJ and the GG could be seen together. I planted them together in other stories where the GG would not appear in costume, action. I planted the GG’s son (same distinctive hair style) in the college issues for more dramatic involvement and storyline consequences.”

It is perfectly true that Norman Osborn had already been shown as a background character at J. Jonah Jameson's club before his first "named" appearance in issue #37. But it is a bit of a stretch for Ditko to say that he knew that Jonah's club-friend was the Green Goblin on day 1. The Green Goblin first appeared in issue #14; the Norman Osborn figure doesn't appear until issue #23the Goblin's third appearance (of four). And it is not quite fair to say that he showed Jonah and Club Man together in "stories" which didn't have the Goblin in them. He did so exactly once, in issue #25. "From the first appearance of Club Man, I knew that he would be the Green Goblin" is a plausible claim "From the first appearance of the Green Goblin, I knew that he would be Club Man", not so much.

Things got very sour between Stan Lee and some of his ex-collaborators in the 80s and 90s. (Jack Kirby once claimed that Stan never wrote a word and was functionally illiterate!) But if Ditko says that he always intended Harry to be Club Man's son and Club Man to be the Goblin I am inclined to believe him. It would be a very odd thing to lie about. 

The only way I can make Stan Lee's story make sense is to engage in a flight of fantasy  almost a piece of fan meta-fiction. Perhaps Ditko did indeed intend that J Jonah Jameson's friend from the club would turn out to be the Green Goblin. But he intended that Club Man should be known to Jameson but unknown to Peter Parker. Ditko intended that when Spider-Man pulled the Goblin's mask off, he would exclaim "I have never seen this guy before" but us readers would exclaim "Aha...but we have." (This is what happen in the case of Electro and the Looter. Peter Parker has never heard of Max Dillon or Norman Fester, but we  readers have.) Very late in the day, Lee insisted that Club Man should also have a personal connection to Peter Parker: that he should be related to one of his class mates. Ditko revealed that Club Man was the father of Harry Osborn, in issue #37, reluctantly and against his better judgment. His intention had been for the Osborn/Goblin story to be a slow-burner; a new cog in the story machine. Imagine all the ironic confusion that could develop once it was established that Jonah, without realizing it, knew both Spider-Man and the Goblin in their civilian identities. But Lee misunderstood Ditko's objection: he thought that Ditko wanted the Goblin to be someone who had never appeared in the strip before; whereas in fact, he merely wanted him to be someone Spider-Man himself did not know. And what angered Steve Ditko was not Stan Lee's decision to reveal that Osborn and the Goblin were one and the sameit was his decision to allow Peter Parker to find out far too quickly and easily.

A second story could go like this: Ditko did not intend Norman Osborn to be the Green Goblin: he had a quite different storyline in mind. For issue #39 he submitted artwork which continued the story from #37 and #38perhaps revealing what Osborn's current plans were and what secret Stromm knew. But Lee was so wedded to the idea that Osborn was the Goblin that he rejected the finished artwork. Ditko was so furious that he walked out. 

The difficulty with these two hypothesis is that there is not one shred or scintilla of evidence for either of them. But the alternative is to call the much-beloved Stan Lee a liar.

If Ditko had always known that the Goblin was Club Man and Club Man was Harry's father, I don't think he ever told Lee. We know how Stan Lee wrote: how much his characters brood; and how happy he is to allow the readers to listen in on their soliloquies. If he had known that Osborn was the Goblin I don't think he could have resisted the temptation to give him a thought balloon saying "Good...they suspect nothing!" or "They are talking about the Crime Master, but they don't suspect my secret!" And those first college episodes would have been improved if Nasty Harry had shared some of his inner thoughts about his own father with the reader. ("Why is Puny Parker blanking us all...just like Dad keeps doing to me.") 

Indeedto engage in another leap into meta-fictionperhaps Ditko didn't tell Stan who Osborn was because he knew that Stan would give the game away too early?

And so we crash into a brick wall. Lee's claim that Ditko wanted the Goblin to be Nobody is silly; but Ditko's claim that he knew who the Goblin was from the very beginning is hard to credit. 

In 1991 Ditko wrote:

"I know why I left Marvel, but no one else in this universe knew or knows why. "

Probably, we should leave it there. No-one in the universe knows what caused the final rift between Lee and Ditko.

Except possibly Jonathan Ross, and he's not talking.

"Robbie Reed", over on the "Dial B For Blog" site, writes about Ditko with an even greater obsession with minutiae than yours truly. And I think that that his guess about why Ditko left is as close to the mark as we are going to get. It wasn't the money: Charlton paid much less than Marvel. It wasn't editorial interference; he went and worked for Atlas which was the company Stan Lee's boss Martin Goodman founded when he finally parted company with Timley/Marvel. And it certainly wasn't the origin of the Green Goblin. But it may, perhaps, have been a point of narrative principal. 

Steve Ditko believed that heroes should be paragons: people to whom we look up; people we aspire to be. They shouldn't be overly burdened by human weaknesses and foibles. After he left Marvel, Steve Ditko wrote and drew the reassuringly one dimensional Captain Atom for Charlton; and moved on to do The Question and Mr. A, whose only superpowers were their moral clarity. He could cope with Peter Parker's whinging and insecurities as long as he was a schoolboy. He was telling the story of how a boy became a man. But he couldn't stomach the idea of him remaining a neurotic nerd forever. The infamous Herald Tribune essay identified "superheroes with super-problems" as Marvel Comics' unique selling point; and Stan Lee pretty much took that up as a company motto. He said that Peter Parker was the Woody Allen of the superhero world (shy, nerdy, nebbish.) He said that Spider-Man appeals to us, not because he is a hero to aspire to, but because he makes us feel superior. (We feel sure that we could do a better job of being a superhero.) Ditko couldn't live with that: and so he walked away. 

I don't know if I buy the whole story. But it is clear that the first great graphic novel in American literature tells the story of how the weak and dislikable boy from Amazing Fantasy #15 turned into the admirable young man from Amazing Spider-Man #33. The Final Chapter was the final chapter: Ditko couldn't go on telling the story of Spider-Man because, so far as he was concerned, the story of Spider-Man was finished.

So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly a history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man. When one writes a novel about grown people, he knows exactly where to stop -- that is, with a marriage; but when he writes of juveniles, he must stop where he best can. Most of the characters that perform in this book still live, and are prosperous and happy. Some day it may seem worth while to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present.  

Mark Twain.

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 use 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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