Why It’s Lame to Bash Stan Lee
It’s a necessary evil, a sad inevitability when the time comes for critics and academics to deconstruct wonderful things. Somehow, they never seem to understand what made them wonderful in the first place and manage only to diminish them under their microscopes.
It’s the fact of “The Illiad” and “The Odyssey” that is important. Not how they were written.
If you want to understand “contemporary American culture” through comic books and movies, fine, there’s a lot to explore. But engage with the work and find out what it does for people. Don’t look under the rug of the creators or you risk losing the plot.
There’s a new book out that says Stan Lee was a dick. It’s a bigger, “more important” book than the previous books which have said that Stan Lee was a dick, or that he was a genius, or that he was something in between. It’s bigger because the fruits of the collaborations between writer/editor Stan Lee and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko (and others) have jumped up exponentially to a level of global awareness and importance.
They have become mythology. Thor, the God of Thunder of 1,000 years ago has become Thor, the God of Thunder for our time. It’s amazing. It’s beautiful.
And sadly, it’s become important enough that people need to know about the creators… as if knowing what Alexander Dumas was really like, who he loved or who he hated might offer some secret key into D’Artagnan. It doesn’t. It won’t. But, nevertheless and inevitably…
It’s time for this stuff again. The microscope, the deconstruction, the oppressive insistence on elevating the personalities of the artists over their work. When, of course, it is only the work that will last. After all, we aren’t 100% certain Homer was even a real person.
In the 1960s the comic book industry saw an unexpected renaissance. A business which, by that point, had seen its day and was barely hanging on through dwindling interest and sales, a creative medium held under the thumb of a tightly wound “Comics Code” governing its content, what you could do, not do, or possibly get away with, suddenly found new life with the collaboration of writer/editor/and tireless promotor Stan Lee, and artists Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. The world at this point knew very well the famous superheroes of the 1930s and 40s, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Lee, Kirby, and Ditko created most of the other names everybody knows today. The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, Spider-man, Black Panther, The Fantastic Four, the X-Men, Kirby created Captain America decades earlier and Lee helped bring him back to team with the Avengers, and the list goes on and on.
Marvel Comics created a new pantheon of 20th-century heroes which have now blossomed into a new pantheon of 21st-century heroes with an exponentially larger audience.
And it is true that Kirby and Ditko didn't get as much credit as they probably should have in those days (though they do now). And once the business of comic books became an important enough cultural touchstone to be discussed in adult society, people and critics have spent a lot of time and effort downgrading the importance of Lee in favor of the importance of the “real” talents behind the work.
There are many avenues to go down in discussing the rightness or wrongness of this idea. I prefer to call it, simply, overcompensating. Yes, the artists deserve more belated credit than they received at the time. But not at the expense of denigrating the contribution of Lee.
Marvel Comics was a business of which Lee/Kirby/and Ditko were employees.
Artists have always been the creative “muscle” for the comics medium, but the “brains” at Marvel came not just from the writing and storytelling (to which Kirby and Ditko and others also contributed) but from the ability to see the big picture and turn it into something people really could get excited about. In other words, Lee was made the Editor-in-Chief for a reason.
As for Lee’s writing, I never really thought it was particularly “good” on its face. But that wasn’t the point. It was the vision and innovation that Lee brought to the books that launched the revolution. Yes, the dialogue was generally stilted as one might expect for stories aimed at kids, but while DC comics were digging the hole deeper and deeper into the silliness of “Rainbow Batman,” the absurdity of the various Super-Pets (Supergirl’s horse, Comet, because all girls love horses, right?) and Lois Lane’s constant plotting to marry Superman as she’s falling out of a skyscraper’s window for the 400th time… Spider-man’s dialogue was about the real issues of a teenage boy.
It sounds like nothing, I know, but it was closer to the introduction of sound to cinema than it was to “nothing.”
The Secret Sauce
Lee’s tongue-n-cheek promotion of the company in his personal missives to the audience (now fans) in his letters pages, his progressive support for civil rights and other real issues of the day, and most of all, the brilliance of his vision for painstaking continuity across all of the magazines, the unified world of Marvel Comics where you might see Spider-man, in need of money, trying to get a job with the Fantastic Four, only to have them turn him down because he’s nowhere near their level of celebrity or big-time super-hero cache in this very real world they share. That part was amazing. That was the secret sauce.
It’s the interconnected world, fostered, shepherded, and tirelessly promoted by Stan Lee, that made Marvel Comics special and so exciting. And starting in 2008, it was the interconnected world of the MCU that revolutionized the film industry, too. Kevin Fiege is using Stan Lee’s idea for the big picture and his methodology. You can and should give a lot of credit to Favreau, Downey, the Russo brothers, etc for its greatness and success… But those people would have been making movies anyway, just not like those movies. Just as Jack Kirby went on to make tons of far less successful projects for DC without Stan Lee.
A circus without a P.T. Barnum is just a carnival. Silver age comics without Stan Lee… were silver age DC comics, stagnant and silly.
It took decades for the previously industry-leading DC comics to figure out what Marvel had innovated in the 1960s that changed their business. They had talented creators too, many of them the exact same people. But they didn’t have the vision and leadership.
Just as Warner Studios keeps trying and keeps failing to duplicate the success of the MCU. There is something very special and not interchangeable about the publisher of the 60s and the studio of today that comes from the creative “head.”
But the truth is… I don’t care if Tolkien was Catholic, or if Michelangelo was gay, or if Arthur Conan Doyle really believed in Faeries. I care about Sherlock Holmes, The Sistine Chapel, and “The Lord of the Rings.”
I don’t care that Gene Roddenberry was an unfaithful husband, or that Harlan Ellison thought his original script for “City on the Edge of Forever” was better than what they filmed, or that George Takei thinks William Shatner is a jerk… I do care about the lasting impact of “Star Trek” making the world a better place for all the effort those people gave to create it.
Ultimately, as the human race rushes and scrambles to figure out just what we are going to do with ourselves and the constantly evolving world in which we live… won’t we all care more about the idea that “with great power comes great responsibility” than the guy (or guys) who put it into the mouth of the character who said it?
More from Stephen T. Harper…
…More food for thought on the legacy of Stan Lee from Roy Thomas, who knew and worked with Lee and Kirby both.