To this day, one hears otherwise intelligent comic book creators saying that they want to recapture the joy of reading Fantastic Four #1, of its fun and its newness. This always shocks me, especially when it comes from writers whose work is cerebral, challenging, and fun. Even the pretentious, anti-mainstream Comics Journal gave the early Fantastic Four a place on its list of the 100 best comics of the 20th Century.
Why? Silver Age Marvel Comics set the industry on fire. Absolutely. But their products were crap.
Fantastic Four #1 would never be published today. And not because it’s so different, or so fun. Because it’s so stupid. A scientist for little reason kidnaps a space plane and get himself and his crew mutated on the spot by cosmic rays — then battles an army of underground monsters. This is more than camp, which suggests a bit more consciousness, a bit more cleverness. Its best sequences are those involving New York as setting, involving interactions with normal people — such as Invisible Woman holding a dollar bill for a taxicab driver. But this stuff is just plain bad.
I imagine that the creators of these comics actually did a good deal of laughing at their fans. You have to imagine so, unless you picture them like Ed Wood — idiots who take themselves far too seriously, admirable for their determination to make fictions even if they lack almost any ability. I mean, these guys got letters from people who asked how one ridiculous device or another worked — or what Spider-Man did in his spare time. From kids, really. And I suppose, as writing for kids, Silver Age Marvel wasn’t so bad. But, for goodness’s sake, you grow out of it.
And Marvel responded with pages explaining devices or powers, responding in their letter columns with explanations about continuity errors, how each and every goof could be rationally explained. Except you’ll notice that those explanations weren’t incorporated into the comics. The creators didn’t care. They didn’t take it seriously.
How else do you explain Stan Lee screwing up the names of his protagonists?
Remember the slogan “Make Mine Marvel!” — as if art should be branded? As if Paramount Pictures should promote “Proud Paramount Paramour!” as a slogan designed to get viewers to only see Paramount releases, as if nothing good was done by the “Distinguished Competition” (a reference to DC Comics), as Marvel still puts it, was just not important or worth seeing. This is a company that in the 1980s used “Marvel Zombie” as an advertising campaign — an even more insidious version of “Make Mine Marvel” because it openly depicted its fans as the drooling undead, hypnotized by a ringleader who one would suspect, by way of the tradition of the use of zombies, to be actually evil. Marvel even rewarded letter writers who proclaimed themselves “Marvel Zombies” — who would purchase anything Marvel published, regardless of quality, and who saw any art published by any other company as beneath the touch.
I mean, this really stupid stuff. And even if Silver Age Marvel Comic didn’t use holographic alternate covers to encourage, as TV Guide does now with an audience of similarly demonstrably questionable intelligence, it stems from the same stupidity.
Let me give you an example clear as crystal. Fantastic Four Annual #1 (published in 1963) boasts a story with a Spider-Man appearance. It is actually an expansion of the beginning of the second story in The Amazing Spider-Man #1 — which, one would think, would give them the hindsight and space to do it right this time.
The first panel, which consumes almost the entirety of the first page (after a large blurb with “Spider-Man” in enormous letters) depicts, with horrendously distorted artwork, Spider-Man walking on a line of his web as if it were a tightrope, the ridiculous webbing under his arms (from thighs to mid-arms) that served no purpose, made no sense, and later disappeared. The web tightrope is connected to a window of the Baxter Building — the headquarters of the Fantastic Four — wherein we see the entire team at work, reading, flying, and doing experiments in a ridiculously confined space, yet apparently unaware of the web attached to the window. Spider-Man is saying: “I should have thought of this long ago! I can probably earn a fortune by joining forces with the Fantastic Four! They’ll be real impressed when they see how easily I can break into their skyscraper headquarters!”
You don’t need a magic eight-ball to see where this is going: yet another excuse for Marvel heroes to fight each other, as they so stereotypically did upon meeting, even when not for the first time. The idea of ingratiating one’s self by breaking into someone’s house — especially a house that is often attacked by super-villains intent on murder — doesn’t need much intelligence to meet its match. Yet it stands in my mind as representative of the Marvel Silver Age. “We want Spider-Man to encounter and fight the Fantastic Four. Maybe he could break in. Why would he do that? Maybe he thinks it’ll impress them. Why not? Run with it?” This isn’t genius. It isn’t noble lack of self-censoring. It’s just plain stupid.
Earlier in the same issue, in a story in which Namor the Sub-Mariner battles the team, a panel showing Namor punching the shape-changing Mr. Fantastic, sending his upper body flying like taffy, is followed by a panel showing Namor with a tube of maybe two feet across and maybe four feet deep. A caption tells us that “seizing the pliable form of Reed Richards, Namor fashions a crude candle-snuffer out of his stunned body!” How the hell did this happen? You’d think this would be a complex maneuver — to roll back the 60-foot-long form of a man and mold it into a perfect tube. But in Silver Age Marvel, it happens between panels. This is the equivalent in film of a fight scene in which someone pushes someone else off a ledge, then is seen holding that person’s body and using it as a battering ram — with a voiceover that says “but he catches the stunned form of his opponent, then uses him as a battering ram.” It’s not only awkward. It’s stupid. And bad.
All of this, of course, is the product of the “Marvel Method” of producing comic books — a method of production in which there is no script. In this method, a writer and an artist meet to talk about the story, both brainstorming and coming up with ideas, though the writer hypothetically has the final say. Adapted for the internet age, a writer fashions a paragraph summary of the next issue. The artist then goes off and draws it, elaborating, constructing the setting and other people involved, depicting the specific motions — all with no input from the writer. Sometimes the artist changes the plot, without consulting the writer, as he draws. The drawn pages are then sent back to the writer, whose real work as writer is simply to tell the letterer what captions and word balloons to insert over the already-drawn artwork.
This is a wonderfully collaborative method, but it hardly arrives at a finished product that flows well or has the singular vision necessary to pull off a remotely complex story. In fact, that story isn’t even set until rather late in the process. The result is often captions explaining what you’re seeing in a panel and how it relates to the one preceding — or a couple word balloons that provide Spider-Man’s motivation, lacking as it may be, to break into the Baxter Building.
This is a really stupid way of making comics. It’s not a bad way to make experimental art, but that art is, to say the least, limited by a process that tends to prevent coherent vision. And the negative effects of this process can be seen throughout Silver Age Marvel comics.
In the 1960s, Marvel comics began featuring an explosive balloon on their covers advertising the issues as “Pop Art” — capitalizing on Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein, the latter of which obviously drew on comic books, redrawing panels by Steve Ditko and others at inflated sizes, complete with Ben Day dots. And I love pop art. But pop art, while provocative, while aesthetically compelling, is intrinsically disposable, a sales job — as Andy Warhol’s “Art Factory” expressed. And it seems to me that hastily-produced pamphlets with 22 pages or so of narrative are, however curious as art objects, hardly great literature.
The heroes of Marvel Comics reflect this. Spider-Man’s story is fundamentally an adolescent tale of a kid in high school who was picked on developing super-powers. His is the greatest case for the “adolescent power fantasy” interpretation of super-heroes. The Fantastic Four, who flew into space to beat the Soviets, and the Hulk, irradiated by gamma rays instead of cosmic rays (both of which do exist but do not cause on-the-spot mutations) because of a new bomb he was testing, are products of the Cold War. Captain America, whose 1940s tales were classic World War II-era dumb propaganda, has since his 1960s revival been most resonant when depicted as a man out of his time.
Marvel’s characters, originating in the 1960s, are far more historically-bound than DC’s Superman or Batman, for example, whose roots were in the pulps of the Great Depression. None of these characters are particularly intelligent. The Hulk or The Thing epitomize Marvel’s Silver Age brainlessness. Though Mr. Fantastic was a scientist, his insane and copious inventions, defying all common sense, were always created without any visible work.
Compare this with DC’s Silver Age. Barry Allen, the Flash, was a police scientist, his powers resulting from lightning striking a set of chemicals that doused him, electrified as they fell. He was a nerd. Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern, was a test pilot, hardly a scientist but also hardly without intelligence. Batman was a detective, solving complex and bizarre crimes. Superman was a super-scientist, a brainy uberman who designed robot duplicates of himself and had to convince an imp from the fifth dimension to speak his name backwards.
Silver Age DC comics typically featured a splash page, a first page that introduced the tale, that depicted some ridiculous and perilous situation, then spent the issue telling how that situation came about and how it was solved. Mind-bending time travel stories and the like were common. Ironies were frequent. This may not be James Joyce, but it is at least a creative mystery, a puzzle for the creativity. The laws of chess, the rules of realistic fiction, did not apply; but the rules of creativity did. A character was not going to roll another character up into a tube between panels — that would break the rules of the creative puzzle.
In comparison, Marvel comics feel thoughtless, its characters brawny and brainless, its stories all Jack Kirby flair and bravado.
Which brings us to Jack Kirby. Admittedly, he rarely got his fair share of credit for co-creating most of the Marvel Universe. Stan Lee went on to get his name listed as “presenter” for every Marvel comic book because Stan Lee was inoffensive, a corporate goof, a promoter who was never going to betray the company. Jack Kirby, on the other hand, left and went on to draw and write, in some cases impressively, comics for the “Distinguished Competition.” DC announced “Kirby is here!” Marvel, a company that only offered royalties as non-mandated “creator incentives,” refused to return Kirby’s original art, which he legally owned, leading to a brouhaha in the late 1970s in which Neal Adams and other creators campaigned for Kirby.
And Kirby had an aesthetic, a unique and distinctive look. It was a muscle-bound look full of foreshortened arms stretching melodramatically, of bizarre technology full of zig-zag detailing and overlaid dots to indicate energy, whether the business end of a gun or a portal to another world. Kirby was the artist of the Marvel brawny style, his faces just plain ugly, even on his women. When he drew Superman, DC had another artist redraw Superman’s face — and not without reason. Kirby was not the artist for Spider-Man or Daredevil; those sleek forms, muscled like swimmers or acrobats and not like distorted weight-lifters, were hardly Kirby’s forte.
His aesthetic would have been fine if it had been one of a dozen, but it defined the Marvel Silver Age and continues today as his ugly, muscle-bound aesthetic holds influence, however ebbing, over American comic book artists generations later. The Image style of the mid-1990s was just a stylized version Kirby, all exaggerated muscles and enormous bizarre weaponry.
It’s a sad fact that Stan Lee has become the ambassador of comic books to the American public. The American public has reflected the mentality towards comics that Stan Lee had: these can be cool, amusing Pop Art relics, potentially rising in value, but they aren’t art. There is no Citizen Kane, no Manhattan, no Natural Born Killers or Chinatown of the comic book genre.
This is, of course, complete bullshit. First of all, we should be looking as much to literary excellence, to Finnegan’s Wake, to Vladimir Nabokov, to Henry James, to Milton and Homer, rather than only to film just because it’s visual. Comics are, after all, a printed medium. And we have masterpieces, from Watchmen to From Hell, from Jimmy Corrigan to Palestine, from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to Sin City to The Invisibles to Cages. But none of that fits into the Stan Lee mindset.
Stan Lee’s response to these works, when he’s asked such rare questions in interviews, is usually along the lines of “that’s cool” — the same flippant demeanor he seems to take to everything. Articles on Stan Lee proliferated in the wake of Marvel’s new string of film successes, from X-Men (2001) to Spider-Man (2002) and the upcoming Daredevil and Hulk films. Stan Lee was in Kevin Smith’s atrocious Mallrats, associated in the public’s mind with the worst sort of adolescent stupidity. Stan Lee, and the mentality he represents, has meant stagnation for American comic books and their cultural role.
And as I mentioned at the start of this rant, even intelligent comic book creators — whose work is to Silver Age Marvel, and Stan Lee, like Philip Roth is to the Oprah Book Club — still praise Fantastic Four#1, Silver Age Marvel, and the Cult of Stan Lee.
Down with all that. Put your Silver Age Marvel on the wall and in display cases like the Pop Art artifacts that they are — they’re certainly not worth reading, except as historical curiosity. Mark Millar got it right in The Authority: that shit’s the status quo and there’s no real reverence due it. The revolution of 1980s and 1990s comic books, the avant garde mainstream work and the more mainstream independent work, will be remembered long after the thoughtless super-hero battle books and poorly drawn black-and-whites are studied as the Penny Dreadfuls of the latter half of the 20th Century.
It’s not that there’s not a fun to the Silver Age and its boundless creativity, its ability to throw bottled cities and shrinking rays into a comic at a moment’s notice. But it’s like Dadaism, noteworthy for its difference, for the philosophy behind it and not for itself. That sort of business only works as a counter-movement, opposing the artificial “high art” values of the establishment. The problem in American comics is that, even within the industry, the establishment is the disposable experimentation of Fantastic Four #1, with the counter-establishment so counter as to presume anything in color or published by a large press to be innately inferior — an attitude no different, qualitatively, than the dogmatic X-Men fans who think their shitty titles great because they sell more (as opposed to being innately superior because they sell less).
Imagine what would have happened if Stan Lee had died in the mid-1960s. If Will Eisner and his comics-as-literary-art had been more dominant. If we had literary greats, not faux greats like Toni Morrison or Martin Amis, doing comic books instead of hacks like detective and fantasy novelists. Where’s our David Mamet or Tony Kushner comic? Our Philip Roth or Oliver Stone comic? If it’s here, it’s here in Watchmen, in Dark Knight Returns, in From Hell and Jimmy Corrigan and Cages and Stuck Rubber Baby. Even in Miracleman and The Authority.
And that trend in American comics — stemming not from Stan Lee and Silver Age Marvel or the 1970s’ “social relevancy” twist on super-heroes, but from Alan Moore and Frank Miller, to Neil Gaiman, to Chris Ware and Joe Sacco and Dave McKean — is what deserves praise. And what I think, finally, will survive past the still-continuing Cult of Stan Lee as literary works in their own right.