Practitioners 50: Stan Lee (Part two)

In 2011 the first Kapow convention in London pulled together a line-up of incredibly popular and legendary writers and artists. Mark Millar, Frank Quitely, John Romita Jr, Lienil Yu, Dave Gibbons, Chris Hemsworth, the cast of Being Human, Merlin, Misfits, IGN stands, Marvel, DC, film previews and a Guinness World Record attempt. In 2012, arguably it’s main competitor has Stan Lee in his first visit to a British Comic Convention. People actually saw this as a coup.

Stan Lee, legend of legends appeared at the first Super Comiccon in February 2012 at the Excel Centre in London. The effect was enormous. In an industry trying to find it’s feet it had exactly the right effect. The event was an enormous success. The crowds were more mainstream than had previously been seen. You can claim a number of reasons for this but what it boiled down to was this – it was a chance to meet the man who changed the face of comics.

In the late 1950s Stan Lee was working for what was known as Atlas Comics. He was disgruntled, writing Romance, adventure, westerns, humour, medieval adventure, horror and suspense. By the end of the decade, Lee had become dissatisfied with his career and considered quitting the field.

A curious set of circumstances began to accumulate that was to fuel the creation of Marvel Comics. In DC, Editor Julius Schwartz had run into considerable success with the updated version of the Flash, reviving the superhero archetype, and later had the same success with the Justice League of America. In response to this, publisher Martin Goodman asked Lee to create a new superhero team. Lee’s dissatisfaction with the industry was now turned into an advantage. With his intention to leave comics and with nothing to lose, Lee’s wife urged him to experiment with stories he wanted to write. It was here that the crucible of the entire Marvel Universe was formed. Lee, who, having dutifly worked for comics since he was 19 was about to change every rule.

Lee acted on the advice, giving his characters a flawed humanity, a leap from the god-like archetypes that had been striding the pages of superhero comic books. Lee introduced complex, naturalistic characters who could have bad tempers, melancholy fits, vanity; arguing amongst themselves, but crucially propelled downwards at terminal velocity back to the streets of the real, now forced to worry about bills, relationships, homework. The Superman had been knocked off his perch, dressed as Clark Kent forcibly and told to work his way back up to Superman. Champions were no longer heroes by right; Lee brought the demi-gods of Golden Age comic books back to their literary roots. They were now subject to heartache, anxiety and could even get physically ill. These aspirational figures had become accessible. No longer beyond the reach everyone on the streets, they are everyone on the street – struggling with the same impassable issues we all do.

The first was the Fantastic Four. Workaholic Reed Richards, brash and impetuous Johnny Storm, thuggish and crude Ben Grimm and the occasionally ferocious Sue Storm were hammered with cosmic rays and thrown back to Earth where they respectively gained the powers of elasticity, fire and flight, invulnerability, super strength and impervious rock skin and invisibility. The combination of super powers and real life drama is reflected now in the popularity of supernatural and superhero TV shows. It proved a flawless and undeniable combination; real life issues and concerns propelled into battles with monsters, investigation of interdimensional travel and space giants!! The most noteworthy character was Ben Grimm, named ‘The Thing’ thanks to his new found craggy demeanour. Reflected in his personality, his is in fact a science fiction story of a successful, confident figure being faced with dismemberment. Susan Storm’s feelings of abandonment by the man she loves and his lack of understanding as to why his work isn’t more important to her are universal ideas, locked in high literature and TV soaps. When the emotional story lines might dip in other genres now there were Mole Men to smack down, or intergalactic heralds declaring the arrival of a globe threatening natural disaster.

The Fantastic Four’s immediate popularity led Lee and Marvel’s assembled Marvel Illustrators, including Steve Ditko, Bill Everett and led by Jack Kirby to create a field of dreams that would outlast almost every other book on the market. With Kirby, primarily, heroes known throughout the world, representing ideals and concerns and fears recognisable to everyone began to appear out of the smoke of heady creation. Bruce Banner saved Rick Jones moments before a Gamma blast irradiated him and created the angry, defiant, thundering Hulk, genius inventor Tony Stark meets his greatest fears as he is forced to create a metal suit to save him from shrapnel wounds to create Iron Man, the mutant X-Men are assembled in a Westchester School of Higher Learning by Professor Xavier, Lawyer Matt Murdoch gains super senses as a result of losing his sight as a young boy, swearing to represent justice at both ends of the spectrum. Captain America returns from the icy seas of the North Atlantic, Namor is resurrected from war-time comic books, the Norse God Thor appears from the thunder and the Avengers are formed. Finally with Steve Ditko, Doctor Strange – an arrogant doctor who loses his hands and uncovers, in his desperation to regain them – the art of mysticism and finally, the figure that represents most clearly Stan Lee’s ideals.

Lee had been watching a fly crawling on the surface of a window and ‘marvelled’ at it’s ability to move as it did. Imagining a man capable of the same thing he decided that ‘Fly-man’ had little appeal however perhaps a ‘Spider-man’ would have a better time in the cavernous streets of Manhattan.

Stoic, brave and heroic, Peter Parker is the absolute embodiment of the Marvel ideal and it’s most successful character. Representative of every one in America, his struggles are real, his fears and worries palpable and his capacity to overcome them unlimited. Parker is the little guy, the sickly, victimised orphan boy mollycoddled by his Aunt, he is clever and brave but struggles to utilise either. With the bite of a radioactive spider, Peter Parker gains the proportional power of a Spider. Over the years Spider-man has fought every major villain in the Marvel Universe, wise-cracking all the way in a fit of denial as to the situation he is throwing himself into. Those idiosyncracies and habits are real. The overcompensation of Peter Parker to be Spider-man on the battlefield historically irritates more seasoned, honed fighters but that’s the point. He’s no professional. And Lee understood this and presented a boy trying desperately to keep up with the lot life had shown him, without realising, as so many of us do, how capable he always was. The perpetual underdog, Spider-man shines with a humanity that Lee gave him more than half a century before – and one that will never dim. Editor-in-chief Joe Quesada’s decision to scrub out Peter Parker’s life with Mary Jane, his wife, was one of genuine affection and a need to return to the vulnerability that Lee had imbued him with previously. While the character was growing, it was the innate lack of experience that Lee had given him that made Spider-man such a mainstay character and it’s testament to Lee’s decisions so long ago that Quesada felt the need to reset it.

The other defining characteristic introduced by Stan Lee was that of a shared universe. This connected all of the various characters together in a way that united the creators and readers in a way. A community could now be formed around that universe. Based in the real world, the cities were those that the readership woke up in every day. The Human Torch left a message for Spider-man across the sky over the real Manhattan. Gods walked amongst men in a way unseen. The Hulk smashed in real states, not the purpose built spires of an imaginary city such as Metropolis, Gotham or Coast City. It also reduced the level of destruction that took place in the confines of the books which bred greater creativity in developing the plots. It turned the real world, in particular New York into a sandbox world to be played with, both recognisable by real and fictitious characters. It raised the stakes as well as the events taking place had the potential to end everything we all knew. Galactus would devour our homes and towns. The nuclear threat created by Magneto would radiate part of our planet. These were gods given consequences.

While Superman’s Metropolis had been laid to waste by Doomsday and flood and rebuilt, Batman’s Gotham destroyed by plague and earthquake and Coast City decimated by star ship as a mere plot point someone else’s story in order to facilitate a plot that would bring back Superman in Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe a single school is destroyed in middle america in a dust up between super powered ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ and the effects are far more divisive and far reaching than the destruction of an entire state in DC. Stan Lee gave Marvel pathos, real life drama, boundaries and greater emotional punch. He gave us figures that could bring down buildings but crack under emotional pressure. He gave the super humans their humanity. It is something that cannot be undervalued.

Stan Lee’s Marvel revolution extended beyond the characters and storylines to the way in which comic books engaged the readership and built a sense of community between fans and creators. There has been some dispute as to the creative credit associated with his works – particularly in the case of projects with Kirby and Ditko, however Lee did more for creative credit than any other editor previously. Lee introduced the practice of including a credit panel on the splash page of each story, something now adopted into every book brought out in some manner, naming not just the writer and penciller but also the inker and letterer. This has fuelled fans of writers and artists as well as characters, titles and companies over the years and has really allowed articles such as The Practitioners to develop. Regular news about Marvel staff members and upcoming storylines was presented on the Bullpen Bulletins page, which (like the letter columns that appeared in each title) was written in a friendly, chatty style. Lee had made the Marvel Universe friendly and easy to visit – his welcoming and inclusive style and his love of people clear in his approach to how he ran this company.

Throughout the 1960s, Lee scripted, art-directed, and edited most of Marvel’s series, moderated the letters pages, wrote a monthly column called “Stan’s Soapbox,” and wrote endless promotional copy, often signing off with his trademark phrase “Excelsior!” (which is also the New York state motto). To maintain his taxing workload, yet still meet deadlines, he used a system that was used previously by various comic-book studios, but due to Lee’s success with it, became known as the “Marvel Method” or “Marvel style” of comic-book creation. Typically, Lee would brainstorm a story with the artist and then prepare a brief synopsis rather than a full script. Based on the synopsis, the artist would fill the allotted number of pages by determining and drawing the panel-to-panel storytelling. After the artist turned in penciled pages, Lee would write the word balloons and captions, and then oversee the lettering and coloring. In effect, the artists were co-plotters, whose collaborative first drafts Lee built upon.

Because of this system, the exact division of creative credits on Lee’s comics has been disputed, especially in cases of comics drawn by Kirby and Ditko. Lee shares co-creator credit with Kirby and Ditko on, respectively, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man feature film series.

In 1971, Lee indirectly helped reform the Comics Code. The US Department of Health, Education and Welfare had asked Lee to write a comic-book story about the dangers of drugs and Lee conceived a three-issue subplot in The Amazing Spider-Man #96–98 (cover-dated May–July 1971), in which Peter Parker’s best friend becomes addicted to pills. The Comics Code Authority refused to grant its seal because the stories depicted drug use; the anti-drug context was considered irrelevant. The comics sold well and Marvel won praise for its socially conscious efforts. The CCA subsequently loosened the Code to permit negative depictions of drugs, among other new freedoms.

Lee also supported using comic books to provide some measure of social commentary about the real world, often dealing with racism and bigotry. “Stan’s Soapbox”, besides promoting an upcoming comic book project, also addressed issues of discrimination, intolerance, or prejudice. This has been seen throughout Marvel’s history as writers introduce plots they feel particularly strong about, Peter David’s continued inclusion of gay and lesbian agendas in his work from The Incredible Hulk and X-Factor has allowed a subject he feels strongly about be presented in an unusual but popular medium. That, in part, is thanks to Stan Lee’s years of effort and devotion to putting out positive messages of tolerance and civility.

But it is Stan Lee’s lasting legacy (one that he still fuels) that has elevated him above other writers, artists and creators. His relationship with his fans and his creations have made him synonomous with them. If you type in Stan Lee into any search engine, the majority of the images generated will be of the man himself; as famous as any one of his creations. That was what we saw at Super Comicon in London on February 25th and 26th in 2012. A man who allowed millions to dream of seeing a man fly through the sky on rocket jets – but more importantly – made it clear that they could just as easily be that man themselves.

Next: The Legacy of Stan Lee.

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Practitioners 47: Alan Moore (Part 3)

In an unusual third part for The Practitioners, Alan Moore furthers the boundaries of leftist and liberal ideologies through comics and marriage and promptly slides back into the thorny embrace of the mainstream…

Alan Tiberius Benedict Leoness Moore III has almost none of those names. However, in 1988 he had a hate on for all things commercial and vowed to work separately from the mainstream with the able help of his wife Phyllis and their mutual lover Deborah Delano. As you might expect the independent comics publishing run by them was known as Mad Love. Tired of the requirements and apparently double handed treatment of creatives in his chosen field Moore moved away from his mainstay subjects of Science Fiction and Superheroes, revealing clearly a wish for more literary comic work, concentrating now on social, political and current subjects for his work.

'Growing Out of It' by Mark Vicars, Jamie Delano, Shane Oakley and Tom Frame for ARGH!! (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia) (1988)

Beginning with their first publication ARGH (Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia)- an anthology of work by a number of writers (including Moore) that directly opposed the Thatcher Government’s Clause 28, a law designed to prevent councils and schools ‘promoting homosexuality’ with sales going towards the Organisation of Lesbian and Gay Action, it’s fair to say they went for the political jugular of late ’80s Britain, something Moore, a dignified and practicing leftist all his life found great satisfaction in. Moore was pleased with his involvement, stating at the time “we hadn’t prevented this bill from becoming law, but we had joined in the general uproar against it, which prevented it from ever becoming as viciously effective as its designers might have hoped.”

His title, Shadowplay: The Secret Team, illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz for Ecipse Comics and commissioned by the Christic Institute, a public service law firm founded in 1980 and based in Washington DC, with offices on other major US cities, included in the anthology ‘Brought to Light’,a description of the CIA’s covert drug smuggling and arms dealing furthered his ideological goals to great success.

Adding to this Moore’s Big Numbers, an unfinished title involving a hardly disguised Northampton known as ‘Hampton’ and dealing with the effects by big businesses on ordinary people – a story certainly prescient of the situation we have found ourselves in now – and a Small Killing, hailed as Moore’s ‘most underrated work’ about a once idealistic adveritsing executive haunted by his boyhood self for Victor Gollancz Ltd publishing, it looked as though Moore was finally getting what he wanted. A career without compromise. An opportunity to change people’s minds without speaking through a (however kindly) censored soundbox.

Following this with Warren Elis’ ‘all-time favourite graphic novel, the now notorious From Hell, in which Moore, inspired by Douglas Adam’s Dirk Gently’s holistic detective reasoned that in order to solve a crime holistically, one would need to solve the entire society it occurred in. Using a fictionalised account of the Jack the Ripper stories almost every lasting figure of the period is in some way directly or indirectly involved in the story, including ‘Elephant Man ‘John Merrick, Oscar Wilde, textile designer William Morris, artist Walter Sickert and occultist, astrologer and ceremonial magician, Aliester Crowley among others. Taking nearly ten years to complete, using sooty, scratched pen and ink style by Eddie Campbell, it was a great work, very much toiled over. Hilariously, this caused it to outlive Taboo, the small independent comic anthology created by former collborator, Stephen R. Bissette that it had originally been intended for.

With his other work, Moore wanted again to attempt something innovative in comics, and believed that creating comics pornography was a way of achieving this. This is perhaps something that only Moore could tackle and remain viable, given what he did after completing this project. He remarked that “I had a lot of different ideas as to how it might be possible to do an up-front sexual comic strip and to do it in a way that would remove a lot of what I saw were the problems with pornography in general. That it’s mostly ugly, it’s mostly boring, it’s not inventive – it has no standards.” His answer to this conundrum was Lost Girls, another title that outlasted Taboo itself, in spite of also being intended for it, a story in which three women – of different ages and classes – Alice, of Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Wendy, of Peter Pan meet in a European hotel and regale each other with stories of their sexual adventures. Illustrated by Melinda Gebbie, whom Moore, in spite of being visually part-wookee, entered into a relationship with, Lost Girls was published erratically until the work was finished and collected in 2006.

In this time, Moore wrote a prose novel, Voice of the Fire, which was published in 1996 – following linked events through the Bronze Age to Present day in Moore’s hometown of Northampton through linked stories that formed ingeniously into one coherent story. It remains available online in Hardback and Paperback versions.

It was around this time that Moore became a ceremonial magician. Ceremonial magic, also referred to as High Magic and as learned magic and developed via Hermetism which, in late antiquity, grew in parallel to ancient religions including early christianity and was “characterized by a resistance to the dominance of either pure rationality or doctrinal faith.” Moore practices his magic through long, elaborate and complex rituals of magic and is far too complicated and steeped in ancient lore and anti-religion to go into fully here.

Big Numbers by Alan Moore and Bill Bill Sienkiewicz

At the same time, Moore made a choice that took him away from the core values he had grown to be known for throughout his career and took him back to the heart of mainstream comics, joining Jim Lee at Image Comics – something that shocked a great many of his fans. Image well known at the time for it’s ‘flashy artistic style, graphic violence and scantily-clad large-breasted women,’ it seemed an odd choice for a writer like Moore. But it was the content of Image that had enticed Moore, now looking at an industry that had changed dramatically in his time away. His first work was an issue of Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, which was then followed by the creation of his own Mini-series, 1963, “a pastiche of Jack Kirby stories drawn for Marvel in the sixties, with their rather overblown style, colourful characters and cosmic style.” According to Moore, “after I’d done the 1963 stuff I’d become aware of how much the comic audience had changed while I’d been away. That all of a sudden it seemed that the bulk of the audience really wanted things that had almost no story, just lots of big, full-page pin-up sort of pieces of artwork. And I was genuinely interested to see if I could write a decent story for that market.”

Writing what he saw as “better than average stories for 13 to 15-years olds” including three mini-series based on Spawn: Violator, Violator / Badrock and Spawn: Blood Feud, it appeared that Moore had grasped the nettle on this one. Perhaps even more unlikely, Moore was given Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.S. at issue #21, which he ran with for 14 issues.The series followed two groups of superheroes, one of whom are on a spaceship heading back to their home planet, and the others who are instead remaining on Earth. Moore’s biographer Lance Parkin remarked critically of the series, feeling that it was one of Moore’s worst, and that “you feel Moore should be better than this. It’s not special.” Moore himself, who remarked that he took on the series – his only regular monthly comic series since Swamp Thing – largely because he liked Jim Lee, admitted that he was not entirely happy with the work, believing that he had catered too much to his conceptions of what the fans wanted rather than being innovative.

It was arguably a laudable gesture and to Moore’s credit, conceding a great deal of control to the hands of the artist after years of delicate and intricate control of content, though it was – as conceded by the man himself – a mistake. History would confirm that this period had little lasting creative effect on the industry but at the time writers such as Moore were sidelined and choices were made based on the industry at the time – though with hindsight it is clear that this became a missed opportunity. Moore could have potentially reignited great writing in popular works, dragging the rest of the industry with him as he had done so many times – but that would have had to be intentional and Moore has never tried to influence the industry beyond the borders of his own work.

However Moore took over Rob Liefeld’s Supreme and acknowledging the considerable similarities with DC’s Superman, took the title towards the Silver Age Superman comics of the 1960s, introducing a female superhero, Superema, a super-dog Radar, and a Kryptonite-like material known as Supremium. This ‘mythic’ reimagining of Supreme departed from the character he was templated upon, giving the title fresh air between it’s content and that of the title it had so visibly been based on and under Moore, Supreme was to prove to be a commercial and critical success. Moore announced that he was finally back in mainstream comics after several years of self-imposed exile – something that no doubt saw the older reading fraternity cheer. Moore hadn’t realised something yet. That fans were still following him and waiting for the old Moore to return, fully formed and reinvigorate an ailing art form in a thriving industry. Something Moore tried soon enough with Rob Liefeld’s branched-off Awesome Universe.

With Liefeld’s departure from Image, he hired Moore to create a new universe for the characters he had brought with him from Image. This was Moore’s chance to bring to bear his considerable powers of imagination and he took to the job enthusiastically. Moore’s “solution was breathtaking and cocky – he created a long and distinguished history for these new characters, retro-fitting a fake silver and gold age for them.” Moore began writing comics for many of these characters, such as Glory and Youngblood, as well as a three-part mini-series known as Judgement Day to provide a basis for the Awesome Universe. However Moore was dissatisfied with Liefeld, saying “I just got fed up with the unreliability of information that I get from him, that I didn’t trust him. I didn’t think that he was respecting the work and I found it hard to respect him. And also by then I was probably feeling that with the exception of Jim Lee, Jim Valentino – people like that – that a couple of the Image partners were seeming, to my eyes, to be less than gentlemen. They were seeming to be not necessarily the people I wanted to deal with.”

And so with that, dear reader, the Ceremonial Magician named Moore chose instead to take to his own universe, forming it in the kernel of his own magnificent mind. To help him form the crucible in which this magnificent new universe would sit he employed his old friend Jim Lee and set about finally realising the great aspiration of generations of writers and artists. This time; the Magician Moore decided, he would finally create America’s Best Comics…

Part 3 Coming Soon