Stylin’ and Profilin’

Originally published for Funnybook Babylon on March 11, 2008

How do you sum up the career of a man who revolutionized an industry? Should you emphasize his triumphs?

When I first started reading comics, I experienced the rite of passage that any new superhero fan has to endure: the nostalgia of older readers. One of the primary paradoxes of superhero comics is that readers have to purposely ignore the long history of the title (and the characters) that produce huge gaps in narrative logic, and simultaneously learn more about the past in order to understand plot points and references. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were far past their prime by the time I started reading, but I was constantly inundated with the competing origin myths of the Marvel Universe. At that point, the consensus was that Lee had single handedly birthed the Marvel Universe, with some assistance from interchangeable artists. In some interviews, it even seemed as though Lee endorsed this view. My father (and his childhood friends) had a very different view. In their version of events, the artists (Kirby, Ditko, Romita, Buscema) were the real visionaries, and Lee was the businessman who robbed them of their dream. This counter narrative dovetailed perfectly with their political beliefs. It was simply a story of corporate interests steamrolling creativity. The ‘man’ crushed the dreamers. The latter vision turned out to be the one that was far more popular, and was evoked in a countless number of stories about the early days of the medium, as brilliantly discussed in Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

But now that we’ve all recognized the true genius of Kirby, et. al., it’s troubling to note that the pendulum has swung in the opposite extreme. In the latest Comics Journal (available for free for one week only!), Tom Crippen uses one of Lee’s most recent books, The Last Fantastic Four Story, and Jeff McLaughlin’s collection of Lee interviews, Stan Lee: Conversations, to discuss his legacy. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Crippen’s piece was published in The Comics Journal 288 published in February 2008). In the event that anyone doesn’t have the time to peruse the article, the short version is this: “At Marvel, Ditko and Kirby covered imagination and heroics; Stan covered pop-culture gimmicks, catch phrases – all the zeitgeist jabber- and he made it his business to keep the everyman angle coming through.” Essentially, his legacy is that of an ad-man, a guy who writes pithy phrases on packs of Bazooka Joe gum.

As Crippen suggests, we only have a hazy notion of the actual working environment in the heady early days of Marvel. I think that most agree that Lee played a substantial part in the creation of Marvel’s most revered characters. The real dispute is over how much of a part he really played, and whether the aspects of the characters that are appreciated today are the ones that he was chiefly responsible for. And the debate is framed by one’s view of American superhero comics, and of art as a whole. If you are an adherent of the auteur theory, it stands to reason that early Marvel was the primary creation of its resident geniuses, the artists. In that worldview, men like Stan Lee would best be described as Barnum style hucksters, or if the writer is being generous, facilitators. If one views art as entertainment, apportioning credit loses some of its importance.

Crippen, who describes Lee as a “man who puts out product for buyers”, appears to fall into the former category. He concedes that Lee was probably the man responsible for coming up with specific ideas, the man whose antennae were attuned to the cultural zeitgeist, and the man who introduced a crude early version of continuity. But he was also responsible for the blend of art and commodity that created an industry that was financially viable, but that burned out artistic geniuses and warped their brilliance to create ‘everyman’ pablum. There’s a lot of truth to that point. It’s hard to ignore the fact that Lee never forgot the fact that he was the boss, and responsible for publishing product that people were interested in buying. In that sense, it’s hard to argue with Crippen’s characterization. In that sense, he was a “lightweight”.

On the other hand, I don’t know whether a series of Stan Lee interviews resolve a more fundamental question: Was Lee an artist at all? Crippen helpfully defines the term for us, as “anyone whose primary work is exercising the imagination within an aesthetic discipline”. He refuses to put Lee in that category, and at one point argues that Lee “instigated” the early Marvel creations. But as Crippen admits, Lee developed the themes, he collaborated (or compelled under some circumstances) with artists to blend his populist outlook with their stark philosophies. Although Kirby intended the Silver Surfer was to be a distant space god, it is Stan Lee’s words, his hyperbolic dialogue, that helped burn the character into fan imaginations for decades. But the point seems to be that Lee’s efforts to market his work to a mass audience disqualified him from being an artist. “If you’re everyman, you’re in a very good place for coming up with mass-market ideas. Or you would be if everyman were good at ideas”. Something that’s easily forgotten, in what is a true Golden Age of diverse, amazing work, is how far we’ve really come. Stan Lee wrote comic books in an era where it was embarrassing to be a comics writer. In an age where the audience consisted of bored ten year olds who didn’t read the panels. So, if someone asked “real life questions about mass-media creations”, and took it seriously, it’s not easy, and it wasn’t widespread in the medium in the early 1960’s. I wouldn’t say that he “wasn’t much of a writer”, or a “lightweight”, especially in an era with so few comics writers who gave their work a second thought. Yeah, Alan Moore’s better. He did a better job of summing up Weisinger’s Superman than Lee did of summing up the Fantastic Four. I get the joke. But Moore wasn’t working in the industry in 1961. And the first hundred issues of the Fantastic Four are telling me that Lee doesn’t have to ‘sum up’ his own creations.

I’ll be the first person to tell you that Lee’s dialogue seems dated for today’s audience, or that he pales in comparison to the brilliant writers of today. Or that Kirby was the real genius. But to say that he “does not have talent”? That’s a tad too far.

(Just to note, everyone who’s even slightly interested in comics, and too cheap (or poor) to cop a subscription should go to the site now to print out some interviews. I don’t agree with their editorial stances much of the time, but you can’t hate on brilliance).