I’m always happy to see non-comics news media cover comics in a serious and thoughtful way, so I was pleased to find this article on The New Republic’s website last week. The writer, Glen Weldon (whose Superman: The Unauthorized Biography I’m definitely looking forward to reading) does a good job of bringing to a general audience a story about how some classic superhero comics got made. Which is also the story of how great companies and characters rose and fell, and how the creators of those characters got consistently shafted to one degree or another.
The concern I have with telling this story in a brief overview like Weldon’s is that it can tend to be as reductionist as the “official history” it aims to refute. And I worry the pendulum has swung from an accepted wisdom that says Stan Lee created everything to one that says he created nothing.
That Lee made himself the face of Marvel (for ego-boosting reasons or smart business ones, or both) is undeniable, as is the fact that Jack Kirby in turn felt undervalued. And when Kirby later asserted his creative importance by saying things like “I wrote those stories,” that was undeniably true in some very important ways.
But the Lee and Kirby stories read very differently from the Kirby solo or Kirby-and-anyone-else stories. And that was because of Lee’s words, preposterously showy and high-octane as they were; what made Marvel Marvel was the synthesis of what each man brought. As a kid I was more attracted to the comparatively staid DC books, and was even a little put off by the Lee brand of constant showmanship. But when Weldon says that “what made readers rabid for Marvel’s ham-fisted stories had less to do with how they were told, and much more to do with how they were sold,” I think he goes too far: at least in the early days of the “Marvel age of comics,” the selling and the telling were pretty inseparable.
So who did “write that,” and what is comic book writing anyway? (I should say at this point that I don’t have a personal stake in the answer to the first question: the extent of my acquaintance with those involved is that I’ve been introduced to Stan Lee a couple of times at conventions, and got seated next to Jack Kirby at a dinner once; I also had my first story at DC Comics drawn by Steve Ditko, and worked with Don Heck for a couple of years on Wonder Woman, though our communication was mostly through an editor). My experience tells me that while it’s true, as Weldon says, that Lee’s definition of “writing” wouldn’t line up with the average person’s expectations, the average person doesn’t understand how any comics are written, and certainly not that there are many ways to write them.
One thing I can say for sure about making comics is that anyone who wasn’t involved in a particular comic’s creation has no idea who contributed what; in fact, it doesn’t take long before even the people who did create the comic can’t sort it out anymore.
One reason for that is an aspect of the business of comics that Weldon doesn’t touch on: not marketing, but publishing schedules. Relentless monthly deadlines, especially when scrupulously attended to as they were in the sixties, mean an endless churn of pages and, if you’re producing a lot of work (or trying to), a lot of anxiety. There’s really a lot less time to think about how you’re going to do it, or what your master plan should be, or even how you’re going to sell it (if, like Lee, you’re wearing both the writer and the editor hat); it’s mostly about getting the damn work out!
And if some of it seems to succeed, and to strike a chord, then wow–give yourself a quick pat on the back before looking at your calendar to see when the next plot or dialogue job is due; or sitting down with the very exciting pages an artist has turned in based on a brief story conference and trying to figure out how they fit with what went before and what the characters might be saying in such a situation, while appearing to grow and change (without actually doing so, because your readers really want the characters to remain the same month after month).
“Plot-style” comics writing starts to look like a kind of salvation. And the truth is that comics stories can originate in all sorts of ways and then come together almost miraculously.
Yes, it’s hard to believe all of Stan Lee’s stories about the beginnings of Marvel Comics. My guess is that in many cases he doesn’t even know anymore if they’re true. Which is not meant as a slam. He’s a storyteller, and he’ll tell the story that seems to work in the moment–which may just mean that he’s never stopped writing, however you want to define the term.
One additional note on the Lee/Kirby relationship: I highly recommend Michael Chabon’s short story “Citizen Conn,” published last year in The New Yorker (Feb. 13, 2012). It certainly doesn’t represent the “true story,” but it richly imagines what might be at the core of such a partnership. And it’s anything but reductionist.