Monday, November 12, 2018

Some thoughts on Stan Lee passing 28/12/1922 - 13/11/2018

I find that when one of my living inspirations or heroes pass away, I am compelled to write down my thoughts that swirl in my brain, kind of a "purge" so I can function the rest of the day without dwelling over and over on sentences. Below is a bit of a thought-stream on the passing of Stan Lee; one of the pioneering forces in the American comic book and pop culture landscape, and someone who, like countless others, wouldn't be doing what they're doing without his influence at some point. I have a complicated "relationship" with Stan Lee, but I just wanted to get some thoughts out that are a bit too long and ramble-ly for the likes of twitter etc.

In my Honours year of my Bachelors Degree in Animation, I chose to look into the works and research surrounding Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, as it fascinated me that the works of predominately small group could be a juggernaut in the modern pop culture landscape. It was 2009, and Iron Man etc. were storming across the box office, but other films like Spider-man, X-Men etc. had already series of flicks, and Marvel studios, now venturing out themselves, where planning big things with comic characters that were birthed in the socio-political landscape of the early-mid 1960s.
Even before that, comics as a potential career goal was born from my 12th birthday, receiving a copy of "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" by Stan Lee and John Buscema. Even being a book from 1978, the concepts in that book last the test of time, and it really is a good starting base to anyone wanting to wrap their head around the basics from the beginning. I loved that book, and there's still elements in those pages that I not only apply in my own work, but teach today. It's DNA exist in every other visual storytelling or comic book process book produced.

Anyways, the research, which carried over into my doctorate, shows not only the working dynamics of the 1960s Marvel bullpen, but also emerged was a complicated relationship between my comic creating heroes, and what boiled down to perhaps was the differences in definition of the words "writer" and "creator" (something that Mark Evainer has said as well, working with both men at one point, it's a fair assessment); such is the pros and cons of the famed "Marvel method" of writing comics, and the notion of who does what in the creative process. To complicate things (and my biggest hurdle to grapple with), is the credit taken during and after short period in these mens' lives; the showman side to Stan Lee capturing the public eye far and beyond that of his collaborators, who worked very long hours visually writing and creating the characters that too many don't realise weren't solely the product of Lee alone.

This is a slippery slope, and I find myself by and large greatly admiring the fortitude, work ethic and creative powerhouse of the late Jack Kirby in particular, who was a driving force in American comics from the 40s to the 60s, struck gold with the flair of Stan Lee in the 1960s, but solo work in the 1970s and again a 3 year period with Marvel in the mid to late 70s is going on again to impact the pop culture landscape in the likes of new comics with Kamandi, Mister Miracle, and the Demon, and animation and  films featuring The New Gods, The Eternals etc. Having said this, it is his work with Lee I admire the most. Lee was able to curb the ideas like a good writer and editor should, give context and a fun tone that complimented. I felt some of Kirby's post 60s work was trying to hurry ideas out so no one else would swipe them; almost as if the pain from the Lee collaboration impacted the speed of which he moved from concept to concept.

Though Lee was not able to capture lightning in a bottle again after collaborators Kirby and Ditko moved on from 'The Silver age of Marvel', there is no denying his canny editing savvy to not only assemble this dream team ( though as I argued in my hours and doctorate papers,  circumstances in the comics landscape that for better or worse happened to bring this small group of people back to Atlas comics (pre-marvel) in the late 1950s), he was clever to let them develop stories visually, partly for expediency, and partly to ulitise the experience these men had developed in comics up to this point.

Stan and his collaborators were able to roll the dices and try new things in comics which captured elements of the changing socio-political landscape, as well as comic industry elements which were proving successful; the reemergence of the superheroes at DC comics via Carmine Infantino, editor Julius Schwartz etc. which tapped into the space race and science fiction's popularity, the growing  US/Russian Cold War shadow, the "atomic age", the emergence of 'The Teenager', college audiences, and Civil Rights.

Everything in comics is 'Throw it at the wall, and see what sticks"; it's cheap and deadline-driven,  smashing together of art and commerce like no other medium. Coupled with the fact that pre-marvel's (they didn't have an official name between atlas and marvel) output was restricted to 8 books a month ( from somewhere in the 50s during the Atlas heydays) by the very distributor still standing at the time post-1950s comics implosion, who operate National Publications (DC), Lee and his crew had 16 bi-monthly titles in various genres; so Lee was able to somewhat formularise 'the marvel way' of comics, still playing with a variety of genres, but now dabbling back into superheroes that mixed the very sci-fi/monster types that was keeping the lights on, and hoping not to draw attention to the distributor that they were meddling with Superheroes (DC's Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were the only heroes to survive the industry implosion in the 50s and had continued publication since their creation in late 30s/early 40s. Revivals of 'The Flash', 'Green Lantern', and a 'Justice League' in the pages of Brave and the Bold (#28) had spurred on Lee and Kirby to do something along those lines. Not everything worked (Doctor Drumm was the first attempt before FF #1), and some needed retweeting constantly (The Hulk, Iron Man's armour, Ant-man/Giant Man), but the things that stuck, struck creative gold. The experience of the creators in genres such as sci-fi, western, medieval/knights-age, war, romance (Kirby co-created the genre in comics) allowed the experience to mash into superhero books, including the style of characters and an imagination re: the conflicts in the stories.

The thing that stood out from these monster/sci-fi/superhero/atomic age creations were that at the heart of it, Lee's dialogue added subtext to the images of Kirby, Ditko, Ayers, Heck, Everett, then Colan, Romita, Buscema, Trimpe, etc. etc. giving the characters and stories humanity, empathy. The Marvel heroes had real-world problems and issues to overcome, each character had a unique voice and personality; Lee was fantastic at fun, bouncy and banter dialogue; the better stories were always the ones when Lee and Kirby, or Lee and Ditko, or Lee and Romita, were firing. the conflicts of Reed Richards and Sue Storm in the Fantastic Four, or Peter Parker and Betty Brant, Gwen Stacey, Liz Allen, Mary Jane etc. in Spider-man, or Matt Murdock, Foggy Nelson and Karen Page in Daredevil, or Donald Blake and Jane Foster in 'Journey into Mystery/Thor' or  Hanky Pym and Janet Van Dyne in 'Tales to Astonish/Ant-man & Avengers, or  Scott Summers (Lee loves alliterations), Hank McCoy, Warren Worthington III and Jean Grey in X-Men, Bruce Banner, Betty Ross, and Glenn Talbot in the Tales to Astonish/Incredible Hulk , Tony Stark, Pepper Potts, and Happy Hogan in Tales of Suspense/Iron-man etc. etc. etc. etc. were human conflict. Peter worrying about school, his ailing Aunt May, Steve Rogers and his survivor's guilt after Bucky Barnes and his fellow WW2 soldiers died, and he lives on, the banter between Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm; Conflict wasn't just in the villains, and it wasn't just "Superman cooks up a scheme to avoid marriage with Lois"; the conflicts and human drama felt "real".

And the gravitas!: The ideas that spewed visually from Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four could fuel comics for eons. that 20 issue period in the Fantastic Four that gave us the Inhumans, Black Panther, Wakanda, Galactus, the Silver Surfer (Joe Sinnot's inking on Kirby is arguably some of the best American comic art even drawn. Thankfully at this point, Kirby was only doing a handful of books at Marvel, enough to spend more time on pencils, rather than "Everything but Spider-man and Doctor Strange"). The cosmic conflicts and galaxy-shaking adventures in FF and Thor were something else.

The biggest thing that helps any fledgling comics outfit is promotion, and Stan Lee was the ultimate showman, again able to ride the wave of the language at the time, the emerging teen interest in characters such as The Hulk (teen angst), Spider-man, X-men (they WERE teens), Doctor Strange (almost counter-culture in visuals, despite the creator Dikto himself), the vernacular etc.; all this contributed to the saleability and the penetration of the Marvel brand into popular culture, that by the mid to late 60s, Marvel were outselling DC's flagship titles.

This led to Stan Lee becoming the face and "Disney-esque" brand of Marvel Comics, and though his time in Hollywood in the 70s/80s pushing Marvel concepts into other mediums weren't always, say, smooth or successful, his legacy is undeniable, despite my heavy reservations to the substantial lionising of his contribution to these characters and stories in pop culture, and the washing over (to the vast majority of those in the public sphere, which only a passing knowledge in pop culture) of his collaborators, with Lee perhaps not setting the record straight when the many opportunities presented themselves, and in many cases downplaying them, despite earlier evidence suggesting otheriwise, which always boggles the mind. It seemed particular language was chosen at the opportune times, praising the works of Kirby and Ditko, but perhaps not going so far as to acknowledge the joint-joint-collabroation of the ideas, work, or sharing of the credit. Knowing how Kirby modestly worked hard for instance,  his dismay at being belittled or cast aside during his career in points, or the battles for any royalties promised, new company owners that would think Lee wrote and draw the books solo, or the battle for the return of his artwork in the 1980s sours in my mind in various elements to this. It was only a couple of years ago that the Kirby estate received payment settled out of court at the 11th hour that Disney finally embraced Kirby's legacy, but it's a bit bittersweet that Kirby or his wife never saw it in their lifetime.

Better writers and articles grapple with this issue, and it's not the point of this thought-stream. Nor is it to dismiss the work of the great creator and elderly man on the day of his passing. Rather, my post is to acknowledge that though my feelings and thoughts on the matter are forever complicated, there's no denying Stan Lee's impact on comics, his impact on my life in researching comics, practical development of comics, and teaching of visual storytelling; I would not be doing what I'm doing at the university and on 'The Phantom' if not for the work of Stan Lee.

On a more personal note, the Soldier Legacy, the comic series that spun out of my time and research at the uni, was directly influenced by Lee and Kirby's work on titles such as 'Tales of Suspense' with their run on Captain America, and 'Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos', which was a Lee and Kirby WW2 war title from the early 1960s. Issue 13 in particular set Captain America/Steve Rogers in the more "realistic" setting of WW2, coming across Sgt. Fury and his platoon in war-torn Europe. The elements of "Heroes with feet of Clay" impacted how I wished to present my own characters, which were also tying together elements of Australia, its war history, and its comic history.

In 2012 I was fortunate enough to be a guest at the inaugural Melbourne OZ Comic-Con, with Stan Lee also on the guest list. I have three memories. First, I had a photo with Lee, like many that day. The interaction was seconds, and I felt awful that he was not kicking back somewhere, enjoying a retirement (This year in particular highlights the drama his life became towards his passing, and I felt that no elderly man deserved that.) Having said that, he was friendly to everyone that came thru.

My second memory was in the green room getting a drink and a snack, and Stan Lee came in with his then handler Max. Lee took his medication, had water, and headed back out onto the con floor. It must be noted that he had flown in to Melbourne from LA that morning, and proceeded to work for at least 16 hours that day, signing autographs, taking photos. Thousands. I have never seen any guest to this day work as hard as Stan Lee did for his fans.

My last memory was meeting Stan Lee. I had a hardcopy Marvel Masterworks edition of "Sgt. Fury" which I recall him saying that he hadn't seen and said some kind things about Kirby when I'd mention that was some of my favourite stories. I gave him a copy of the first edition of "The Soldier Legacy" volume 1. I was extremely nervous and conscious of the queue and his time (and also that he'd probably heard the same speech for the last 4-5 decades), but said that his work with Kirby had really impacted on me, including the "How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way" book, that I was inspired to create these characters and stories for my uni degree studying his work, and I gave him the book. He held it in both hands and paused for a long time looking at the cover, I remember he said "Wow!". He then looked up at me, paused and put out his hand and warmly said "Thank you, Paul" and shook my hand.

Now I'll never know if he was just being polite, or if the book hit the trash bin back at the hotel room, but to me, I felt like this was very genuine; though I can be a pretty face value/trusting person at the time, my day job in 2012 while scribbling comics, was Loss Prevention/Security. We have to spot liars and falseness very quickly. And to this day, unless he was the world's greatest actor,  I am still adamant at the time, that he was very sincere.

So while I have this conflicted views on the legacy of Stan Lee in many ways, on the other hand, he impacted mine, and countless other creators and pop culture fans' lives, his work blew to top off my head, I loved watching his creations on TV growing up, dreaming I could be drawings comics for work one day, and that one time in Melbourne, I got to meet him, and he was very nice to me.

Rest in peace, Stan Lee. You will be missed.

"'Nuff said."

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