Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Stan: Still The Man?

Stan Lee is regarded as one of the most important figures in modern American comics. And whether it's JUST IMAGINE... or his ill-fated online venture, he's still never far the public eye. Al Kennedy wonders whether Stan The Man shouldn't put away his pen once and for all.
09 November 2001

If comic books had their own Gracelands, to which devotees could travel from all over the world to pay respects to the giants of the medium; if there were a Hall of Fame with statues of the greats from this corner of the art world; who would receive the highest honours? Whose face would beam down from a bronze effigy in the foyer?

Will Eisner? Maybe. After all, the man knows comics inside out, knows their mechanics better than anyone - although perhaps Scott McCloud comes close. Eisner is the consummate craftsman, working in diverse genres throughout his career, and the inventor of the graphic novel with A CONTRACT WITH GOD.

Jack Kirby, perhaps? Look around right now and you'll see a slew of artists working in a Kirbyesque style, from José Ladronn to Jorge Lucas and beyond. It's hard to think of another artist who has had quite the influence Kirby has.

Siegel and Schuster? They created the genre that makes up 90% of most companies' output. Alan Moore? Give him time - he's not even clocked up half a century yet.

But great though these men are or were, there's one other name that stands out from the crowd, whose legacy is perhaps greater than any other's. The man who co-created dozens of the richest characters ever to grace a panelled page. If you haven't guessed his identity, then you probably don't know much about comics, and stumbled across Ninth Art by accident. The rest of you will by now have cottoned on. The man in question is Stan Lee, Chairman Emeritus of Marvel Comics.

In the '60s and '70s, Stan 'The Man' helped shape the imaginations of many of today's finest creators, and left us with one of the most highly regarded bodies of work ever produced. Undoubtedly the strongest candidate for a statue in our Hall of Fame.

The problem is that he's still writing.

Lee's currently working on a project for DC Comics - something that seemed unimaginable a few short years ago. Even Lee himself said it would be like Walt Disney going to work for Hanna Barbera. But the world turns, Grant Morrison writes X-MEN, Frank Miller does DARK KNIGHT sequels and the End Times evidently approach. So Stan turns the other cheek and faces the Distinguished Competition.

The project is sound in theory (although it has its detractors, notably Alex Ross, who felt it was gimmicky). Stan Lee uses his incredible powers of creation to remake DC's key characters in his image. The series is called JUST IMAGINE STAN LEE WITH (insert creator here) CREATING (insert character here), and several issues are already out.

They're awful.

The first was BATMAN, as drawn by Joe Kubert - not far down the legends list himself - and concerned a black man, framed for murder, who befriends a bat whilst in jail (yes, it's silly. That's part of the point) and becomes a bat-man upon regaining his freedom.

The second, featuring Jim Lee's artistic skills, was a reinterpretation of WONDER WOMAN and added a rather more mystical slant to the character while transposing her country of origin by a couple of hundred miles. Following that, John Buscema and Dave Gibbons take on SUPERMAN and GREEN LANTERN respectively.

The premises themselves are sound enough, and the art is largely fine, but the whole package was built up by the DC hype machine (and Lee himself, who is a human hype beatbox) as some kind of apocalyptic comic book event that would knock the socks off everything else we've seen. Well, it's kind of sad to report that a single issue of a comic about a talking dill (Scott Morse's MAGIC PICKLE) was much less expensive and much more entertaining than all the JUST IMAGINE books we've seen so far.

Here's the problem: Lee's writing is the weak link in these books. His characters are one-dimensional, soliloquise like Hamlet and spout some of the worst dialogue this side of 1980s anime translations. Case in point: in the BATMAN book, Lee's hero (alliteratively named, natch) is the typical One Good Man who takes a fall for something he didn't do. On his road to revenge, he meets a vacant love interest and a frail old genius. They Fight Crime, as the saying goes.

First impressions? Hackneyed, bland, cliché... that's before we actually get into the nuts and bolts of the issue itself - and don't get me started on the influence of Moore's PROMETHEA on Lee's WONDER WOMAN.

It's hard to be all that harsh on Lee here, because he was working with characters whose basic archetype had to remain intact - Lee was not given a remit to take the name and start from scratch, Tangent-style. But the content is overly simplistic, and reads exactly like Lee's work from the early '60s. That's classic stuff, you say, and you're right. But we'll get to that later.

Lee also wrote a story for DAREDEVIL #20, which would have been the four hundredth issue of that title were it not for the Marvel Knights relaunch. It's a simple little thing about Spider-Man and Daredevil going out for a drink in costume and ending up owing each other favours of the crime-stopping variety. Like reading a Super Friends episode but with all the genuinely insane stupidity removed, this is the kind of story a small child could read and understand, with an ABC plot and a punchline at the end.

Which is a shame, as the kind of audience DAREDEVIL has now garnered - the same kind of audience Frank Miller was bringing in back in his heyday - will probably take one look at it, complain that it doesn't feature enough hand-wringing angst, and return to their MEMENTO DVD. To do so is to miss the point, however. Lee wrote this as a celebration of DAREDEVIL's three-decade tenure, and it's a reflection of the kind of stories he was telling back in the day. Simplistic? Perhaps overly so, yes, but not bad per se. The real problem is the nagging doubt that perhaps all his early work was as undemanding, as vanilla as this. And the truth is far sadder - much of it was just bad.

Take a look at two specific titles: AVENGERS and IRON MAN. Leaving aside the exposition-laden dialogue (where Lee would often describe things the artist had shown on-panel anyway, a problem Chris Claremont was ridiculed for just recently), a lot of the attitudes displayed were pretty backward.

For example: in one of the early issues of AVENGERS, Captain America brings up the possibility of giving Rick Jones Avengers membership. Now, quite aside from the fact that the only reason they keep him around is because he apparently hangs out with some fairly gifted research assistants, or whatever his Teen Brigade were, Jones has no powers (count them - none) and can only ever be a liability to them. The Avengers, understandably, are less than thrilled with this idea, until one of them comes up with a compromise. They'll give him a sort of associate Junior Avengers membership, just like the Wasp has.

Now, backtrack a little. That's right - the Wasp, who has more in the way of powers and has been with the Avengers for longer than Captain America, was only part-time Avenger. Add to this the fact that she is never portrayed as anything other than a dizzy shopaholic man-eater until well into Roy Thomas' run on the title, and you get a steady dose of real sexism.

Of course, this was written in the early '60s, but even then attitudes were changing and Lee's AVENGERS scripts were hideously behind. The same sexism crops up in IRON MAN, where Tony's secretary and part-time swooner Pepper Potts is prone to reminding the reader every issue how much she wants the dashing millionaire whom she can never have, which makes her come across as a leftover from YOUNG LOVE. Lee's abilities as a writer obviously don't extend to convincing female characters, and every one that crops up employs the same shorthand treatment.

IRON MAN's main problem, though, isn't sexism. It's racism. In a day when Fu Manchu is removed from the LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN screenplay for being un-PC, it's baffling to look back and see such Yellow Peril race-hatred being perpetrated by what was, purportedly, a liberal firm. Vietnam is a blight on the USA's collective memory, and many place it as the source of the cultural cynicism that would later become so widespread, but picture the scene: Tony Stark is a heroic US arms dealer.

Stop right there for a second.

This might seem bizarre to us now, but Stark's origin had to be tied together neatly, and if it was going to take place in Vietnam, he might as well be working to take out the Enemy. This was the rationale at the time, but looking back it's hard to see why Iron Man's origin needs to employ Vietnam at all, except perhaps for reasons of topicality (which have caused writers no end of problems since regarding their characters' age). Add in the occasional mention of 'Commies' across various Marvel titles of the day and a picture emerges of Lee as a mild paranoiac, certainly as a proponent of the establishment that so many of the students Lee spoke to on lecturing tours in the '60s rejected wholesale.

The Vietnamese in Iron Man's origin are caricatures, all wholly evil, and Stark is the one white man against Charlie. This is racial stereotyping at its worst, not to mention a tacit endorsement of the Vietnam war machine that scarred so many young Americans both physically and mentally.

And that's before we even get to his most recent stab at serial comics writing. RAVAGE 2099, part of Marvel's future-set continuity, was the first of those titles to get the chop. Lee himself left the book after less than a dozen issues. RAVAGE wasn't offensive in the traditional sense - it was simply very bad. Derivative of everything from Blade Runner to Mad Max in a way that most of the other 2099 titles managed to avoid, RAVAGE was the comic book equivalent of your dad dancing to Limp Bizkit - embarrassing for all parties concerned.

This was Lee trying to be 'hip' and 'street', and he proved fairly conclusively that his strengths in character creation were prone to miss as often as they hit. Sure, he co-created Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and countless others, but he also created The Living Brain, the Purple Man, the Toad Men and Paste Pot Pete. RAVAGE was a bag of clichés from start to finish, and Lee was wise to bail so early.

So where does this leave The Man? His next project is the adaptation of the SPIDER-MAN movie, due next summer, and it's hoped that his trademark style can adapt itself to the darker touch Raimi may have given the film.

In essence, Lee's contributions to the world of comic books can't be doubted. He is a master storyteller with the ability to concoct classic scenes and moments on a whim. He co-created many of the characters without which comic books would undoubtedly be less fun. It's just a little sad that, as good a creator as he is, he's often been a pretty poor writer - and that's going to be part of the legacy he leaves us with.

Will Eisner may need to be measured up for that statue after all.

Alistair Kennedy is the coordinator of the PunchDrunk Pop blog and a former editor for Robot Fist.

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