Tuesday, November 20, 2018

STAN AGAIN



I’ve been looking at various press reports on Stan Lee's passing, most of them sincere, some of them extraordinarily inaccurate. Saying, as one did, that Stan was just a guy who "filled in the balloons” in stories by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko is as wrong as saying he created all those stories and characters himself. And to laud Stan as a superb PR man (which he was:  Without Stan’s ability to sell Marvel to the public—to charm, coax and cajole an entire generation of readers—those books, no matter how brilliant, might never have found an audience) while dismissing his contributions as a writer is just as bad.   

The reason some folks are resentful of Stan is because for years the Marvel Myth portrayed him as the genius behind it all, while the artists just drew his stories—which we know wasn't true. By most accounts (and here’s Stan himself talking about it in a 1968 interview), the plots for the early issues were collaborations, with significant input from Lee; but, as time went by, both Kirby and Ditko were plotting the stories solo, creating characters and whole universes out of their imaginations. They were both visionaries and their contributions to Marvel were incalculable.


That said, Stan did so much more than just write copy that mirrored the artists’ stories. Only people who don’t understand how comics work could think that. As I know from personal experience, you can profoundly change a story in the dialogue stage, bending plot and character to your vision. And as both editor and scripter Stan had tremendous leeway...pun intended...to do just that.  (I’ve heard tales of Stan actually cutting pages of artwork up and then pasting them back together—changing the order and meaning of those pages—so that he could tell the story his way.) In fact, some of the bitterness that arose between Stan and Jack, and Stan and Steve, was because Stan changed things in their plots that they viewed as fundamental.


In the end, the key word is collaboration. Lee and Kirby—who co-created the bulk of Marvel’s characters in those early days—were like McCartney and Lennon: the creative tension, the conflicting visions, the desire to one-up each other, made the stories stronger. Same with Lee and Ditko (who was, perhaps, the Bob Dylan of 60s comics?) where, from all reports, that tension was even stronger.  Together they created something that they never could have created alone. It’s not one side or the other—it’s not “there’d be no Marvel without Stan Lee" or "without Jack Kirby" or "without Steve Ditko."  It was all three. Each of these men brought a unique point of view, and unique talents, that, when melded together, birthed the Marvel Universe. That creative Big Bang changed comic books forever.

And we’re all the better for it.

©copyright 2018 J.M. DeMatteis


11 comments:

  1. Dematteis, you struck a chord that has been bugging me for a while.

    Many of the complaints against Stan Lee don't even make sense when looked at in the whole view.

    It is claimed that Stan Lee both did nothing, and that he committed the cardinal sin of changing what Kirby wanted.

    First. Lee was also the editor, so... not unusual. More importantly, that makes no sense. You can't claim someone did something, and then that they did nothing.

    More over, and I know this will get a lot of flak, Kriby was not a god. He had series problems with his work, that never went away.

    Just look at the Kirby creations without Lee or Simon that Didn't go on to be icons, or smash hits. All of them. It was all of them.

    I LOVE the Fourth World, but it was cancelled at 11 issues for a reason. It was a lot of good ideas. A lot of passion. But the human touch was gone.

    Yes, they were Gods, but so was Thor. Yet, Thor and the Asgardians were more popular, and easier to connect with... I wonder what was different.

    Or look at His 80s Captain America. it is a struggle to get through. Again, really cool ideas, but the guy had a tin ear for dialogue. What's more, Cap and Falc come off as anything but realistic most of the time.

    S for his great hopes for Silver Surfer, he did it. It was called Machine Man. It links up perfectly for what he said The Surfer was intended. How often do you hear about Aaron Stack? Did you even remember his alter ego was Aaron Stack?

    Kirby's ideas were grand, and epic. Mind-blowing. However, he never had that human touch that was needed.

    Lee is the one that poured life and personality into those characters. In equal measure to Kirby's briliant art.

    However, here is the unpopular truth, Kirby was not just a saint or a victim.

    He discounted Lee's work at Marvel first. AND created Funky Flashman to insult him, and Roy Thomas. What did Roy Thomas do? Honestly, those tactics sound a bit too much like our current presid... nope, don't get into politics.

    As you pointed out, Lee was up front about much of the plotting early. A lot of the reverse seemed to happen after Kirby started claiming he was not much a part of it. I mean that is also wrong, but... you know.

    AND, he actually cheated people out of money. HIM, Jack Kirby. ON the Sky Masters newspaper strip.

    In fact his partners Dave and Dave Wood, had to fulfill Kirby's part of the obligation AFTER he reneged. Also, Wally Wood was brought on to illustrate, and the Wood brothers (no relation to Wally) wrote the dialogue.

    Still, Kirby was trying to claim a lot of the credit. It was still his idea, but...

    Look, I'm not trying to rag on Kirby. I like Kirby. Fourth World all day. I like Machine Man and the Eternal (and that is a small club). I like Devil Dinosaur. I even like Captain Victory... despite its stiffness.

    But he was a human. He was flawed. He had weaknesses that needed to be compensated for. That was my only point. That he was human.

    It is unfair to overlook Jack Kirby's weaknesses and character flaws, but not Stan's.

    continued...

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  2. And it is also important to point out, Kirby and Ditko weren't Lee's only collaborators in the 60s. What of Don Heck? John Romita? Bill Everett? Gene Colan?

    As I said when Lee died, on this very site, his superpower was that he understood people. It is why he was a good editor. It is why he was a good talent scout. It is why he was a good comic ambassador. And most importantly, it is why he was a good writer.

    The reason why the collaboration worked is because Lee's superpower was Kirby and Ditko's Kryptonite.

    Yeah, I didn't talk about Ditko, but he had some problems in that area too. In his indie work, and yes in his Charlton work as well, he often seemed much more interested int he ideas behind the story, than the characters moving it.

    Yet, I can still enjoy Mr. A....despite not agreeing with much of the philosophy... because Ditko WAS a good storyteller. He just wasn't a great character man.

    He even once said that he was against Peter continuing to struggle as he got older. to him, he should have been capable as a her. Confident. Only because he was a teenager did it make sense.

    Obviously, not the Pete we all know and love.

    Yet, Ditko's art and storytelling did add a bit of the weird "part of eh world but not of it" nature we associate with the character.



    IN short there is a reason Blue Beetle wasn't the next Spider-Man and Orion wasn't the next Thor.

    It just also happens to be true that Spider-man may not have been Spider-man and Thor wouldn't have been Thor, without Kirby and Ditko.

    Heck, a trio of jerks... I can't quite remember the name...had to turn Blue Beetle into a sitcom character back in '87 for anyone to take notice.

    And, you know, Lee had his fair share of flops without that classic 60s team.

    We are now officially now talking about three dead men. They all were pioneers. They all were visionaries. They were all flawed. They all had weaknesses. They all deserve the the same level respect.

    If you are going to praise one, at least be ready to praise them all. If you are going to detract from one, it is only fair to detract from them all.

    Jack

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    1. "They all deserve the same level of respect. If you are going to praise one, at least be ready to praise them all." Amen!

      I'll have to disagree with you about Kirby's DC work, especially NEW GODS. They're among my favorite comics of all time and Kirby's scripting (by which I mean his wordsmithing, not his plotting) is really quite powerful—although it took me some years to really appreciate it. Many of us picked up those books expecting Stan Lee. We got something different and it took time to adjust.

      And those NEW GODS characters and concepts have echoed on in the DC Universe for decades, in the comics, cartoons and films, growing more and more important over time. Being reprinted again and again. Just because they were cancelled too soon -- and there are conflicting tales about WHY they were canceled -- doesn't mean they weren't ultimately successful. And then there's the Demon and Kamandi and Omac and, back at Marvel, Eternals and...

      I think that people criticize Jack's later work -- and some things that Stan did later (I'm especially fond of the Silver Surfer story he did with Moebius and I really enjoyed some of the "Just Imagine Stan Lee..." stories he did at DC) -- because it's not 60s Marvel in terms of immediate impact and sales. But that's like criticizing a solo Beatles album because it's not the Beatles. They're not the same thing, they never could be, but some of those solo albums mean as much to me as the best of the Beatles.
      They're classic albums in their own right.


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    2. Hmmm...

      First some praise for The King.

      Yes. The Fourth World launched some great concepts. Powerful beings that leaped off the page. They took about a decade and a half to REALLY burst into the DC mainstream. Mostly because it needed fans who had passion for the characters that even approached Kirby's.

      His narration was, and you are going to laugh when I say this, but... biblical. Like The Bible, as filtered through the Lower East Side.

      Le's was great. It was friendly, and invited you in and made friends with even the most bizarre and out of this world characters.

      Kirby, demanded your attention. HE made you feel that if you didn't pay attention the world would end.

      Neither one is bad, or worse. Only the more preferred.

      He also out did the the classic Renaissance painters. Okay, I probably need to explain that.

      So, people say that Highfather is God and Darkseid is the Devil. Not true.

      The source is more inline with how God is presented in the Jude-Christian religion. Especially in Judaism. Not surprising since Kirby was Jewish.

      In the Torah, the Talmud, AND the New Testament, God acts more as a teacher. Also through influence, voice, and non-physical form. Or at least non-humanoid.

      The real reason that modern society has adopted concepts of physical form for God is because of Renaissance painters. They so deeply effected views of religion (another example of influence on perception if the Virgin Mary in blue)

      The only reason why that form exists is because they couldn't figure out how to show the actual biblical concept of God.

      The Fourth World is an amazing exercise. Kirby was wrong. It is not an epic for our time. It is an epic for all time.

      It rippled through DC because it is one of the only things after the Silver age that was truly eternal or at least connected to a core concept in humanity.

      However...

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    3. ...So, I want and took a look at some of my Kirby Fourth World comics. Well... trades. What? The actual issues are expensive.

      I was sucked in within seconds. I was in that world.

      Of course, there is the dialogue. It tends to be very matter of fact. Very inhuman.

      I actually think this could work. Somewhat more inelegant, but still as legitimate as Lee's Elizabethan speaking Norse.

      However, the New Gods is not just about the New Gods. That same... peculiar... speech was present in the common people as well.

      I honestly believe Kirby was struggling with his own Golden Age Roots.

      To me the dialogue seems wrong. Or, as I said inhuman. Almost like robots at time.

      I actually took a look at the Kirby Captain America as well. It was some how worse than I remembered. I didn't think that was possible.

      While I enjoyed the Eternals (I'm probably the only person who bought issues after the series ended, but before Marvel announced plans to include them in the MCU), as a teenager I enjoyed them a lot, it sort of lacked the Kirby energy.

      Despite my critique of the dialogue, I DO love the Fourth World. I think all the pluses made up for tha tone (admittedly big) minus.

      Okay, i also think the characters are great concepts, but malformed characters... however given the mythological tones, that may have been the point. Like Gods of old, they are conceptional, with a bit of unrounded personality.

      Sill, I love it. I loved it so much, that after I got the first trade for my birthday, I had to go out and by the other three. As a teenager. They don't tend to have a lot of money.

      But I devoured them. I couldn't get them out of my head for days. WEEKS. My mind was exploding. Sepite the problematic dialouge.

      Still, it ws ike nothing else I had ever experienced... and I had read books with Fourth World charters. That is how amazing it was.

      The Eternals. Devil Dinosaur. Machine Man. I liked. They were good. They were enjoyable. They weren't Kirby.

      Or at least not the same Kirby. The passion was... muted. Maybe that was the nature of Marvel, you know, more down to Earth. As down to Earth as Space Gods and children on dinosaurs get.

      I really like he and Lee's Silver Surfer GN. Not in spite of it not being 60s Marvel, but because of it.

      Still. I believe Kirby returned to Marvel somewhat broken. And this is all theory, except for one thing I will say about the Demon.

      I think he thought DC would be what he wanted. Wide open spaces. He finally got HIS chance to create HIS story.

      Instead, he got 2/3 cancelled at issue #11... one the main book with hanging plot threads. Then was put on other books, including The Demon. A character he didn't have any interest in.

      Then, the remaining book was pushed into being more typically superhero.

      It always seemed to me, DC was its own set of problems. Perhaps worse, because the cold reality of business stole his dream.

      Yes, The Eternals, Devil Dinosaur, Machine Man, and Captain Victory are good fun reads (heavy handed anti-abortion metaphors even being interesting). I proudly own issue #1 of each of those titles. But they feel more like the Work-a-day Kirby.

      I remember I read once that Kirby didn't want to live the mechanized factory work of his father. I think I am remembering that correctly.

      I think he realized after the cancellation of the New Gods, certain elements of that life are unavoidable. You'll always have to compromise somehow.

      That is just my take. I always picked up a somber tone in post Fourth World Kirby...

      But...


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    4. ... Just because I notice flaws in the books doesn't make them unimportant. Or unenjoyable.

      It is healthy to notice flaws in works you enjoy. Like that classic Spider-man comic where the ape turns into a fire extinguisher. Isn't that a little TOO great for a mere comic book?

      I think it is more problematic to pretend a creator lacks flaws. Even idols.

      Look, I own Captain Victory #1. According to Mile High Comics, it is probably worth a grand total of $4.50.

      I don;t care. Its still cool. Yeah, it has some problems. For sure there are some problems wit that series. Still, I love it.

      Plus, I really enjoyed "Just Imagine Stan Lee creating..."

      And I have never actually heard anyone say anything bad about Silver Surfer: Parable.

      If it makes you feel any better, I'll criticize some Beatles' solo albums.

      -For a guy who says "imagine no possessions," you sure as Hell seem to have a lot of them.
      -McCartney, get a haircut, your in your 70s. Stop trying to be cute.
      -Ringo, its creepy you are singing about a 16 year old when you are in your mid-30s.
      -Harrison: Is it the moon or the sun coming!? Pick a side hippie. We're at war.
      -Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass my ASS!

      After getting real about Kirby, it felt goof to go after some people who deserve it.



      Jack

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    5. Thanks for all those thoughts, Jack. Great stuff.

      As previously noted I love all Kirby's NEW GODS books, even JIMMY OLSEN—and I'm also a huge fan of THE DEMON and KAMANDI, which may have been (at least in terms of longevity) Kirby's biggest DC hit. I've also heard amazing things about Jack's work on THE LOSERS, but I've never read those stories, a lack I should really correct.

      When Jack went back to Marvel, I mainly focused on CAPTAIN AMERICA (which was a fun romp, but not my favortie Kirby by any stretch; I especially loved the BICENTENNIAL BATTLES special) and the wonderful ETERNALS series, which died way too soon. But all of these, even the weakest ones, were first-rate comics. Flawed? Sure! Whose work isn't flawed? Even the classic Lee-Kirby collaborations had their flaws.

      Never read CAPTAIN VICTORY. I probably should.

      As for Stan: I, too, enjoyed his JUST IMAGINE... DC stories. Some of them didn't work but the ones that did were great fun. And the Moebius collaboration (which I adore), along with the Surfer gn he did with Kirby (ditto), are probably the high points of Mr. L's work after those classic Marvel years.

      And I know you're joking, but comparing "Here Comes The Moon" with "Here Comes The Sun" is kind of like comparing post-classic Marvel Stan and Jack with the work they did together in the 60s. They're different beasts and need to be enjoyed, and appreciated, on their own terms. I don't want to live in a world without BAND ON THE RUN or JOHN LENNON/PLASTIC ONO band any more than I want to live in a world without FOREVER PEOPLE or SILVER SURFER: PARABLE.

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  3. Well said, JMD. I don't think anyone benefits when we treat creative chemistry as a zero-sum game where one creator's contributions are seen as somehow detrimental to another's. Comics are a collaborative medium.

    --David

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  4. I get the impression that Kirby's later phase is that of an 'artists' artist.' Maybe it didn't catch fire with readers as had been originally hoped (though even that is probably debatable, given the different ways one might read numbers in a changing comics climate). But he certainly inspired future creators with his later work. The upshot is that Kirby's 1970s creations filtered into the public consciousness without his name attached in a public way. Not, I take it, because of any deliberate attempt to keep his name out of it, but rather because cartoons don't call attention to the creators in the same way that comics do.

    I knew of Darkseid, for instance, because of the Super Powers cartoon. And I didn't really become familiar with the New Gods until they showed up in Superman: The Animated Series and later Justice League: The Animated Series.

    At any rate, it seems like most comics professionals are really enthusiastic about Kirby's later phase. Maybe it's the equivalent of Lennon's solo work, which seems more appreciated by musicians than mainstream Beatles fans. (Maybe that's not the case, it's just the impression I get.) How many people first heard Lennon's "Imagine" as a cover, for instance?

    And I think many comic fans similarly came to creations like New Gods through later storylines (THE GREAT DARKNESS SAGA, for instance). And you just can't oversell how many homes The Demon reached when he popped up on Batman: The Animated Series.

    --David

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    1. I think there's truth in that, David—especially where later generations are concerned. I was buying those books (and albums) in real time, so the impact was very different for me.

      Although I have to say that, as much as enjoyed Kirby's solo creations when they were coming out, I've come to appreciate them even more over time. The work actually improves with more distance. Which says something about the extraordinary quality of it.

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