Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Genius of Stan Lee

Spidey's debut appearance - Amazing Fantasy 15

For as long, and possibly even longer, than I've had an almost genetic devotion to music, a second secret passion has quietly but constantly simmered alongside. Comics. Superheroes, secret identities, bizarre accidents and incidents leading to superpowers - crimebusters in capes and cowls - tights and fights as they call them in the trade.

I could make excuses, justifications or perhaps mention heavy-hitting comic fans like Elvis, Sid Vicious, Marco Pirroni, Samuel L. Jackson, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Andy Partridge. But, I've been a total devotee for to long to have any embarrassment about being a life long fanorak of the genre.

And as with every area of entertainment, there's always a genius or two amongst the usual runners and riders. I don't use the 'G' word lightly, but in the world of Comicana there is one name that towers mightily, monumentally and marvellously over the entire Universe - Stan 'The Man' Lee.

If you're unfamiliar with his name - you won't be with his creations. Spider-Man, Silver Surfer, The Hulk, The X-Men, Iron Man to roll call a handful of Stan's heaviest hitting heroes. Or possibly his expressions, now absorbed and embedded in mainstream phrasery: Nuff said, natch, true believers, spider-sense.

Forget the Hollywood by-numbers blockbusters or generic formula films. Stan's original sixties and seventies storylines were unlike any fantasy tales of the time- certainly comic writing, which until Marveldom, would retread and peddle variations on vanilla plots and thin interchangeable identities.

Stan Lee, and the Marvel artists Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, John Romita created a rolling repertory of anti-heroes - ordinary people with extraordinary (and often unwanted) superpowers. A galaxy of tragic, tortured souls, hulking ungainly lumps or geeky teens cast as cente stage superheroes, not sidekicks. And referencing college life, popular culture (James Bond, The Beatles, Woody Allen) the counter culture, drink or drug addiction. Occasionally even breaking the fourth wall of comics with self referencing in-jokes or lines like 'that's enough soap opera for now', or a wrap up a dynamic, climatic city-scape ending with the intro... ' and because the artist loves drawing crowd scenes'.

Unlike the first generation of superheroes, Marvel's heavy hitting, high-flyers and their off duty identities were grounded with hang-ups and personal problems: alcoholism, teen angst and self-doubts or disabilities (blindness, heart conditions) - all of which made for stronger stories, dialogue and personal inter-play. Their public and private lives were be peppered with life-changing tragedies, heart-breaking ironies or cold, cruel misunderstandings and woven into multi-layered, cross-title story lines of explosive action tempered with high drama and every day problems. All framed against an authentic New York cityscape - not some generic fantasy town - but a real grit, grime and crime city where heroes would be booed, jeered or cheered in sparky local dialect by native New Yorkers. Often, wrongly accused of crime-making or rejected, shunned and viewed with a wily eye as creepy freaky mutants.

However, one of the richest ironies is Stan Lee's own story. For decades Stan has been the public face of Marvel Comics, building a gallery of genre-breaking titles and record-setting sales. Producing a portfolio of icons, ideas and inventions generating millions of dollars through comics sales, film adaptations and multiple merchandising formats. Ultimately reaching a peak with Disney's multi-billion buy out of Marvel last year.

But away from the spotlight and back in the Marvel Bullpen, Stan wrote, scripted and art directed across multiple titles and plotlines - re-inventing comicana codes and conventions and pushing Marvel into new editorial territory. Yet as a freelance writer, paid per page - he had no ownership or financial rights to any of his comic creations or characters and it's only relatively recently that Stan has finally received some reflective remuneration

Stan Lee will be 88 this year. Marvel comics celebrated 70 years in business last year. If you've never read anything by either I would recommend hopping on at any of these starting points pilgrims.

The Essential Spider-Man - ground breaking, web-spinning. It all starts here.
The Essential Silver Surfer - Not strictly a graph' nov' - but all eighteen editions of ol' Chrome Dome's first flights, collected in one volume - it is classic tragi-comic Marvel with a mixture of Shakespearen, Biblical and New York-speak scripting.
Spider-Man The Death of The Stacys - heartbreak, death and drug addiction
Marvels - not Stan Lee, but Kurt Busiek puts the Marvel timeline and Universe in context and order with jaw-dropping artwork from Alex Ross

The Ramones - Spider-Man

Amazing Fantasy 15 - re-rendered by Alex Ross


Istvanski said...

Marvel tower over their DC Comics rival for all the reasons you've mentioned here. Flaws in the main characters make them easier for the reader to relate to and it makes the superheroes more interesting. I actually look forward to seeing Stan's cameos in the Hollywood adaptations and I prefer the current artistic depiction of Spiderman.

Simon said...

I lost my comic collection a few years ago, apart from a few things like the Grant Morrison Doom Patrol and some Michael Golden artwork in things like The Micronauts. Oh and the early Claremont/Byrne classic Starlord.

Having discovered that there are oodles of torrents of comics though has reawakened my love for the things. And replaced loads that I thought I'd never see again, like the George Perez Teen Titans and Byrne's run on the Fantastic Four. That's my particular golden age, the late 70s, early 80s, a time I connect with a lot of my favourite music too. Something like the Human League's Dare album fills me with images of comics and memories of weekly trips to shops like Forbidden Planet (when it was on Denmark Street) and the long gone but never forgotten Dark They Were And Golden Eyed which used to be on St Annes Court in Soho.

Mondo said...

That's exactly it Istvan - while DC deal in clean cut heroics, Marvel are about a gritty human aspect. The Spiderman Ditko/Romita run, are loaded with angst and tragedy. The Silver Surfer issues (the original 18) are heartbreaking. But several of the new collections - Civil War, Planet Hulk or The Ultimates - are the Marvel essence bigger, bolder, better than ever. And try Stan's biog' - Excelsior, if you haven't. It's a must read for any pop culture fan.

PS - I'm sure you know already, but Stan's cameo of being refused entry to the Fantistic Four wedding in the film, happened in the original 60s 'wedding' issue.

Don’t know the Perez Titans run Simon, but will check out - I used to do the Denmark St run regulary, then on to Monmouth St for Comics Showcase, and a nutty little one down a Denmark St side alley, that gave you half a playing card when they took your shooping bags. Luckily I've never lost any comics, and have some great original runs the Frank Miller Daredevil sequence, Adams O'Neill Green Lantern. But did sell my first few 2000 Ads (and free gifts) for silly money (undervalue not over - years ago)

Mick said...

I loved Marvel back in the 70s. I didn’t stay with them into adulthood but maintained a strong affection and respect. Do you remember the weekly UK Marvel comics which reprinted the old US comics in black & white but good quality paper? They would typically contain three stories, each of which was half a US comic (if that makes sense). This meant that one week the cover would be a reproduction of the original US comic, the next week would be a usually pretty crap made up one, presumably by a UK based artist, to illustrate the second half of the story.

Back in those days there was a little shop in the small town where I grew up that used to get a supply of US Marvel comics every other Thursday and I used to race there from school to get first pick. Only problem was it was always a random selection so I never got consecutive issues.

I think some of these comics still live in a cupboard somewhere in Dorset.

Simon said...

The Perez run on Titans was in my opinion equal to the Byrne/Claremont X-Men.

Sigh. I had a fairly complete run of 2000AD and Starlord from 2000AD 1 through until about 1985.

The Miller Daredevil run, John Byrne's Fantastic Four, pretty much everything Michael Golden (my favourite artist back then) did, including covers. Everything Alan Moore did for several years, Barry Smith's Conan (some of the most beautiful art I've ever seen in a comic), pretty much everything Jim Starlin did, and lots of things by Howard Chaykin, Gil Kane and Walt Simonson. Initially I was a Marvel head, but the early 80s I was mad for DC: the art was cleaner, more stylised. Although Miller and Byrne's early 80s work had the clean lines I liked, even with Miller's shadow filled panels.

Neil Q said...

Marvel in the sixties is an astonishing era, and the ideas and dialogue in there are incredible - i'm a big fan of early FF.

But having read Stan Lee's autobiog, he also had a flair for ridiculous self-publicity and taking credit for other people's efforts, which have inflated his standing as a comic icon. as a friend of mine pointed out, once he fell out with artists like kirby and ditko, the quality of his work plummeted, and he was rapidly left behind by people like claremont etc.

maybe his business acumen in hiring the guys who'd take marvel forward and his genius got all blurred and that.

Mondo said...

I loved those Marvel UK comics Mick - mine were on a Friday with a bag of Kung Fu crisps: Spider-man weekly (great pic of the first issue and gift here), the Super-heroes (Silver Surfer and The X-Men) and of course Planet of the Apes with those stunning covers..if you haven't read any new bits try some I've recommended to Istvanski you'll be hooked. Also as Simon points out you can find complete runs for download via blog search - or Marvel do digi-versions of comics (including back catalogue) with a 4 page free preview.

I'll check that lot Simon, some of it's been a blind spot for me, but yes I swing between Marvel and DC at varying times - you must, must, must get this book for a break down on the magic and mechanics of Silver Age art work. I'd never heard of Jim Steranko before, but am on proper buzz for it now..

PS if you get the chance nip down to Orbital near Leicester Sq, there's always a mini gallery of original art, and some panels for sale..

All true Neil, Stan is a furious self-publicist, but a great eye for talent as in picking up Ditko, Kirby etc..have you seen Ditko's cover for Amazing Fantasy 15..Lee bounced it in favour of Jack 'King ' Kirby - and definitely made the right decision

Mick said...

As you no doubt know the Planet of the Apes comics started by printing comic strip versions of the 1968 film (and the sequels I think). I tore all the pages out and put them in a binder to create a "graphic novel" though I don't think the term had been coined then. Bad move in hindsight.

I know that a little over 10 years ago the 1st UK edition of Silver Surfer was in that cupboard. Hopefull it's still there.

Simon said...

Oh god Steranko, I had a great set of Nick Fury issues that he did (in a reprint issue) absolutely astounding work, I can see it in my head, cinematic yet psychedelic all at once...

Mondo said...

You can get the entire Apes series here Mick - read 'em and go wobbly. I think I've still got the Surfer issue(it came with a poster?)

If I remember POTA was released the same week as Marvel UK's Dracula Lives title..And do you remember the weird sideways-shaped title The Titans?

I was at a comic convention on Sunday Simon and the Steranko's are just fabulous as you say, psych spage-age graphics and design

Mick said...

Thanks for the links. I’m pretty sure I’ve still got the poster. I never really bonded with the Silver Surfer the way I did with Hulk, Spiderman, The Avengers etc. I’d like to read Marvels POTA stories again. At the time their vision didn’t match mine so I gradually lost interest after the movie adaptations.

By the way did you ever see my POTA costume here and in context here?

Mondo said...

My god gawd those costumes are fab how did you do the masks? I had a solid plastic one with a hinged jaw and everything..I had a Robin costume for my fancy dress do ~ and was robbed as well.

I found the Silver Surfer a bit wordy at the time (it turns out the grammar is based on Shakespeare and The Bible), but read them again a couple of years back and was blown away

marmiteboy said...

Strangely I watched Iron Man at the weekend and enjoy a bit of Stan spotting.

As usual he turned up in a cameo appearance in a Marvel film adaptation.

Good work fella great post.

Piley said...

Your talkin my language here Mondo! Love a bit of comic action, and was Spidey crazy as a kid... My aunt in America used to ship over the comics and all sorts of memorabilia in the 70s... pre-net, pre-import days.

Was worried when i hit the Spidy 'essentials' link, but reckon you got it spot on there - DO NOT GO ANY EARLIER THAN VOLUME 4!!! is my advice. It's unreadable, and Stan has to take the can for some of that too! Yes it was groundbreaking in some ways, but Marvel treated the reader like a retard for 15 or 20 years. And this is STILL the reason comics have the misguided rep for being 'kids stuff'.

Flame on!


蜘蛛 said...


Mondo said...

I think he's in all the newer films isn't he Marmite. If you can track down a copy (reprint) of the sixties Fantastic Four wedding issue, you'll see Stan (and I think Jack Kirby) doing a cameo in the comic, and being refused entry to the wedding ceremony of their own comic creations. See what I meant about breaking the fourth wall - you wouldn’t get that from DC!

For continuity and as I've never read the full saga, I've started Spiderman from Vol 1 this month P, and it is a plod although not as bad as expected. Have you tried the Batman archives - properly hard work, Neal Adams and Denny O'Neill is where to start there..

swiss adam said...

All my comics are in the loft. Daredevil was my favourite. Might have a look for the Silver Surfer comp. Sounds good. Great post

Mick said...

Ok here’s the secret of the masks. Underneath there’s a very basic ape mask with no features and a single hole for both eyes. We built up the features with plasticine and painted it with nail hardener. We used to do battle with old biddies at jumble sales for anything that looked like it could be part of a POTA chimpanzee costume and that’s how we got the green outfits and hats. Little bits of black fur were stuck on the hats to match the hairline used in the movies hide our chins, which weren’t covered by the bottom of the masks and the leather parts were offcuts from a glove factory where my dad was manager. Easy.

Mondo said...

Have you got seen the Uri Geller/Daredevil team up Adam - I've got a copy somewhere..

Incredible - a stunning piece of work Mick

Leopold Stotch said...

That picture of The Thing is friggin priceless.