Saturday, October 9, 2010

A Few Words About Stan Lee

I'm been meaning to write more for the blog, and more on comics, than I have been, so, to get things back on track, I am going to write something that's been on my mind for sometime: fanboys really need to reel back on their Stan Lee hatred and start giving the man his due. Lee is one of the most important men in history of the comic industry and its most influential writer. You read that last bit correctly: Stan Lee is the most influential writer in the history of comics.

Lee, born Stanley Lieber, got into comics straight out of high school, when his uncle got him a job working for his cousin's husband's company, Timely Comics. It was the sort of menial work you'd expect a kid to given, getting people's lunch, erasing pencil marks, whatever needed doing. Except for a stint in the Army Signal Corps, Lee stayed at Timely, aka Atlas, aka Marvel, growing up, starting a family, and getting tired of it all. Legend has it he told his wife he wanted to quit, to write something else, something better, to experiment. His wife told him that, if he's going to quit anyway, why not start experimenting now, with the comics you're already writing? Its funny that, with all the debates about who deserves credit for what, nobody mentions Joan Lee's advice, without which Lee would never have re-invented comics--because re-invent comics is exactly what he proceeded to do.

I know there is a long history of complaints about Lee's artistic collaborators being unfairly treated by Marvel, and I don't mean to dredge that all up again, but as long fanboys center their discussions on glorifying Kirby or Ditko, they overlook what Lee contributed altogether. Before Lee if a good guy got superpowers, he became a superhero. If a bad got superpowers, he became a supervillain. That's all there was to it. It was a black and white world, without characterization or complexity. But when Reed Richards, Sue and Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm got superpowers, it became as much a burden as a blessing. When teen Peter Parker got them, he saw a pathway to fame and fortune. They, and the hundreds of other characters Lee would write, reacted and behaved just like real people would. It was an important step in the maturity of the medium.

One that would take a couple of decades to really reach fruition. We look at works like Watchmen and writers like Alan Moore when we want to talk about how comics have grown, but works like Moore's are a part of the larger legacy of Stan Lee. One of the things that work against the recognition of Lee's influence, ironically, is its own pervasiveness. Today every character has problems, has a real life to balance with their heroics. If his contributions seem ordinary, commonplace, its because everyone is copying them and have been copying them for almost fifty years. Before Lee comics were written for children. Because of Lee comics were able to grow and mature and hold onto their readership. So step back and recognize the man for what he is and for what he's done. Because without Lee the chances are neither of us would be reading comics now!


Westside Goth said...

I respect him I just don't like most of what I read from him. I hated the characterization of the Fantastic 4 and found most of his books rather boring with the exception of Spider-Man. In fact, as far as writing goes, I like Jack Kirby more.

David Bird said...

I get that Lee's writing is dated, but I've never felt Kirby's strength was writing. In fact, if you take New Gods as an example, he stuck to the old fashioned black & white characterizations that preceeded what Lee did at Marvel.

Westside Goth said...

I think it worked for Kirby because he wrote for his art style. Lee was obviously trying for more characterization, the problem is that it seemed he would focus too much on simple traits and not expand beyond that. For example Invisible Girl was presented as materialistic and wanting attention and never grew until later. In fact, in the book Super-Heroines(great history of female superheroes) they point out Lee's flaws with writing women which is evident in a lot of what I read by him.

The only thing Lee's done that I like is Spider-Man9and one Superman story tribute to Julius Schwartz). Where as I much prefer New Gods or OMAC and definitely the Losers to much of what I've read by Lee. In fact, I actually ordered the Captain America omnibus from Kirby next year.

David Bird said...

There were limits on how far Lee could take his characterization and you still see the same limits in comics today. The characters exists as properties first and have to remain identifiable and marketable over the long term. Changes eventually lead to re-boots. What you see in comics is not what you see in novels or films, in which there is a definable beginning, middle, and end. Still, Lee did introduce a level of complexity that simply wasn't there before.