Toon Musings: Stan the Man
It is with some sadness that I note the recent passing of Stan Lee, impresario extraordinaire. When I started reading comic books, I started out with DC—the home of Batman, Superman, the Flash, and Blackhawk. They were mostly bland, upright types then; Adam West’s portrayal in the old TV show was old-school Batman. Marvel comics introduced heroes with personal problems in the early sixties, and immediately captured the older, angsty teen market. That was largely the brainchild of Stan Lee, who with his various collaborator artists, devised backstories for his heroes and gifted them with a psychology textbook of insecurities and neuroses, the better to help his newly adolescent target market identify with them, I guess. They did seem a lot more human to me as a result, since twitchy personality is better than no personality—more interesting, anyway. There also seemed to be more drama regarding the various romantic triangles, trapezoids or dodecahedrons; or which hero had a hate-on for which other hero; or which villain was which hero’s long-lost dad, or somesuch. Good fun! The complicated backstories also combined to create a shared universe, rife with crossovers, that encouraged fans of one title to experiment with other titles in that same shared reality. Good business! Stan created and nurtured this angsty, interwoven weltanschauung, and in doing so, saved a dying industry.
The true extent of Stan’s talent seems to be in some dispute; he considered himself the creator of all those characters, while his two principal collaborators, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, insist that he only juiced up the dialog after the fact and had little or nothing to do with the actual conception. Most of the confusion is due to the unique method of storytelling Lee devised in order to keep up with the job of writing up to eight titles a month and editing many more. His secret: delegate! He’d give a page-long (or shorter) outline to an artist and trust the artist to come up with the specifics. It gave the artist much more freedom than the previous practice of working from a finished script; they could tell the story however they wished, using whatever cinematic tricks of blocking and pacing fit their preferences and talents. Then he’d supply the dialog based on whatever notes the artists supplied.
Unfortunately, with great increase in responsibility came no great increase in pay for the artists, and little to no extra credit. A Marvel convention was to feature a shoutout to the contributors at the beginning of each story, listing the penciller, the inker, the colorist, the letterer, but in the stories he was personally involved with, he reserved sole writing credit for himself. You could always tell a Stan Lee story by the bombastic language and purple prose: lots of wailing and shouting, lots of exclamation points, lots of bold type, lots of what would be capital letters, if comics weren’t usually lettered in all caps. Switch the adjective and the verb, and there y’go; heroes didn’t just gain powers, they were “endowed with the Power Ultimate!” or something in that vein. He would punch up the dialog as a finishing touch for these stories, but since nothing about the process was written down and division of labor was a bit … fuzzy, it’s hard to know for sure who contributed what.
At the time, I thought Stan’s writing was a bit over-the-top, a little more sensationalistic than I liked. I came to prefer Roy Thomas’s writing, particularly in The Avengers circa 1973 or so. But Stan’s other job was fan ambassador. As editor, he answered the fan mail and he wrote the editorials wherein he regaled readers with tales of life in the bullpen: the Voice of Marvel, creating a community of comics lovers—catnip for the lonely nerds who comprised his audience. He was the handsome, charismatic frontman, gladhanding the yaps who came into the store and ushering them into the back where the good stuff waited.
So you can call the superheroes and supervillains, and the stories they appeared in, a synthesis, where the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. They’re the perfect product of a large corporation, company-owned then and still company-owned. Stan helped, certainly, and lent his considerable powers of hype and salesmanship—his superpower—to their promotion and eventual conquest of all media. Being a company man, he got lots of the credit and a good living. The artist-collaborators, being less company men and more contrarian bastards, got what credit and cash they and their lawyers could shame the corporation out of. But I guess that’s showbiz.
It’s Stan Lee’s Universe by Abraham Riesman
Riesman’s obituary for Stan Lee
Photo credits: Many thanks to Wikipedia and wikimedia.org for the public domain and Creative Commons images used here, including the Stan Lee portrait by Gage Skidmore, Hall of Fame tribute by Sidrao21, and DragonCon 2012 photoshoot by Kyle Nishioka!
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Press, the Opera, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his formidable wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring forgotten ruins, discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures.