Stan Lee, Presented (Part 2)

In the previous installment of “Stan Lee, Presented,” I argued that Stan Lee had functioned as a “truly creative editor” during his tenure as editor/writer at Marvel Comics.  I argued that the process by which Lee delegated many aspects of plotting and character-conception to his artist-collaborators could be compared to the manner in which Hollywood producers delegated writers to produce a working script.  A creative Hollywood producer would then revise the script to produce a better total effect, even as a creative comics editor would then revise an artist’s “plot” for a better total effect.

To be sure, the comparison breaks down insofar as the Hollywood writer is paid a standard fee for a standard script, while the Marvel artist who produced both plot and art was not being paid for both—a dubious business practice, to be sure.  Still, it’s false logic to assert that the story was essentially done once the artist finished the art, and that—as so many Stan-bashers have argued—“all Stan did was dialogue.”  I’d argue that Lee often fleshed out motivations, papered over lapses in story-logic, and, most importantly, formulated Marvel’s reputation for “individual voice.”

Comic strips, the sibling-medium of comic books, had a long history of giving characters distinct voices.  Comic books were less distinguished in this regard.  One could argue that anthology-books in certain genres— particularly those of crime and horror—allowed for more individual voice, but they had the advantage of dealing with characters that almost never appeared more than once.  In the realm of comic books with continuing characters, Will Eisner’s Spirit—a comic book distributed as a newspaper insert, and so aimed at comic-strip readers—was almost alone in terms of sustaining “voice” until Lee and his collaborators introduced the notion of “superheroes with problems.”

Neither Lee nor any of his collaborators kept detailed notes as to who did what.  Thus any comics-critic who wishes to evaluate the creative processes of the Marvel method must work backward.  On some occasions Lee is reputed to have given artists only minimal story-input at the outset, but we know that on other occasions he did hold story-conferences, and it may be that Lee brought more to the finished product when he took the latter course.  As a probable example of the latter process, I put forward the lead story of Amazing Spider-Man Special #3, “To Become an Avenger,” which deals with the first time Spider-Man auditioned to join the superhero-group The Avengers.  Debuting in 1966, this story took place early in the collaboration of Lee and artist John Romita.  At the time Romita had not drawn the Avengers before, so it seems to me likely that some prior story-conference took place, to keep Romita “on-model” with regard to the characters.

The story’s initial splash-panel shows evidence of this.  It depicts the Avengers sitting around their conference table, discussing whether or not to offer Spider-Man membership in their group.  Most of the Avengers sport neutral expressions, but Hawkeye’s expression is eager while the Wasp’s is cross.  Hawkeye had not had any sustained encounters with the title character, and his eagerness is explained by Captain America: “”You tend to identify with [Spider-Man], Hawkeye, because he too has been wanted by the law!”  This is a characterization Romita might have invented as easily as Lee.  However, the Wasp’s enmity for Spider-Man stems from an earlier story (Tales to Astonish #57 ) in which she and her partner Giant-Man encountered the web-spinner, and in which the Wasp disliked Spidey because it was supposedly natural for wasps to hate spiders.  Since Romita did not draw that story, it’s more than likely that Lee informed Romita as to that nugget of Marvel history.

A little later, Thor tenders the offer to membership to Spider-Man.  Again, Romita might have chosen to use Thor rather than another Avenger, but it seems more like one of Lee’s ideas, in that he as writer could get the most mileage out of verbally contrasting Thor’s grandiloquent verbiage (“It has fallen to few men to be honored in such a fashion”) with Spidey’s snappy patter (“Come up for air, helmet head!”)

Pages 9-13 stand out in terms of showing how well Lee could take seven heroes—all little more than simple archetypes with minimal backstories—and keep the voices consistent.  Thor is portentous, the Wasp “waspish,” Hawkeye and Spidey both impulsive and bad-tempered, Goliath analytical, Captain America diplomatic, and Iron Man a bit bossy (“Why don’t you step out of the room for a little while?”).  Even the scene that brings on the Usual Marvel Quarrel is rooted in character, with Cap trying to justify the need for testing candidates and Spidey becoming defensive as a result of his often-cited insecurities.

This is not to say that Lee’s script is stellar in all aspects.  When the Avengers hear that “the Hulk’s been cited in the city,” they decide that Spidey’s test will be to lure the Hulk back to them.  Iron Man provides some pretty spurious logic as to why they don’t want to go after the green-skinned public menace themselves: “We’ve all been too busy to go after the Hulk ourselves!”   Spidey then takes off before the Avengers explain that they just want to help the Hulk—though, given that they come up with this project on the fly, it’s doubtful that they have any idea beyond forcefully corraling the creature.

Spidey soon finds the Green Goliath, but their fight is raised above the level of the standard Marvel fracas by the way Lee plays the characters off one another:

Hulk: “Why do you fight Hulk?  Same as everyone else—everyone chases—attacks—tries to kill me!”

Spidey: (thinking) “He’s got a point there! He certainly didn’t come looking for me!”

By a standard comic-book contrivance, the fight ends when the Hulk transforms back to Bruce Banner.  Spider-Man empathizes with Banner’s Jekyll-and-Hyde plight, and decides to blow the candidacy test rather than hound the Hulk further.  On the story’s final page Romita presents the six Avengers reacting to Spidey’s apparent failure, and the scene presents them with various meditative expressions.  Lee’s dialogue does not simply follow the artwork, but expands on emotions the art cannot communicate:

Wasp: “Much as I detest spiders, I—I feel strangely disappointed!”

Goliath: “I’ll never understand females!”

“To Become an Avenger” is not among the greatest comic-book tales of all time; it’s just a solid, fun story.  But more than Lee’s celebrated collaborations with Ditko and Kirby, it may throw a stronger light on how much Stan Lee brought to the Marvel Comics universe.

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Also by Gene Phillips:

Minutes to Midnight: Twelve Essays on Watchmen


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