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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, December 17, 2011


To recap: fannish opinion usually considers that famed editor/writer Stan Lee didn't do anything of worth prior to Silver Age Marvel Comics; that he must have been coasting on the talents of his artists-- largely Kirby and Ditko, though sometimes the argument is extended to all the Marvel artists as a whole.

I for one find this argument may be a bit too pat.  Whether one agrees with it or not, though, depends on whether one believes that the work Kirby and Ditko did prior to their collaborations with Lee was substantially like the work they did slightly later with Stan Lee.  Many fans have seen no essential differences between the Kirby of CHALLENGES OF THE UNKNOWN and the Kirby of FANTASTIC FOUR.  I take the position that there are considerable differences between these two phases of commerical creativity.

However, "Defending Stan Lee" in terms of his pre-Marvel creativity presents two large problems.

The first is that in many of his public statements following the success of the Marvel line, Stan himself dismissed his Golden Age work in the comic book medium.  Of course, in so doing Lee was patently attempting to design a story of heroic proportions: in which his Marvel Comics work alone shone above the dreck he'd been creating for the previous twenty years.  While it's quite likely that Lee had no deep and abiding regard for the work he'd done prior to Marvel, his judgment of it isn't centered in any critical process as such.  One suspects that if an early comics-character like Lee's "Jack Frost" had become as extraordinarily popular as the Human Torch was in that era, and continued to be revived to good effect, Lee would probably not have minded linking his name to that chilly concept.

The second problem, though, is that unless one goes out and buys tons of hard-to-find Lee Timely-Atlas comics, there's no way to assess the quality of Lee's "dreck."  Recent years have seen a greater turnout of reprints of the Timely-Atlas line, but I suspect that we're not going to see omnibus editions devoted to goofy teen-comics like MARGIE, WILLIE and NELLIE THE NURSE-- even though it's arguable that it was in stories like these that Lee honed the brand of "insult humor" he used so well in his Silver Age superhero comics.

The expected riposte from Lee-loathers would probably be, "So what?"  While Steve Ditko didn't enter the comics field until 1953 and didn't work for Timely/Atlas until 1955, Jack Kirby had been working in comics only a little longer than Stan Lee had.  In contrast to Lee's middling record, Kirby, albeit in concert with Joe Simon, had turned out a plethora of conceptions.  Not all of them were successful, but even co-creating only Captain America and the Boy Commandos would put him (in many fans' estimation) far ahead of Lee's co-creation of such minor figures as the Destroyer and Headline Harris.

For many fans, this ends the discussion.  Early Kirby created more famous characters than early Lee did, so Kirby alone was the creative one, period.

However, that's not a viable measure of creativity as such.

Were Lee's Golden Age stories dreck?  I've read only a smattering of his works, though it's not always easy to tell what Lee did or did not write, as demonstrated here by blogger Nick Caputo.  Some have been bad, and some have been good-- but only in a special way: the way I would term "exemplary," but never "exceptional."

I said in EXEMPLARY AND EXCEPTIONAL 2 that I felt a story could be very ordinary in some respects yet exemplary in just one, as was the first Batman story.  The same is generally true of early Lee work like his war-comics, humor comics, and superhero comics.  A collaboration between Stan Lee and Dan deCarlo (Stan 'n' Dan, as they were then billed) might be, in terms of plot, a fairly ordinary cute-girl comic like MILLIE THE MODEL, but it would in my view be exemplary if it possessed some quality above the ordinary.  I did perceive a sprightliness, an effervescence, in Lee's early humor work that I don't see in a lot of the humor comics of the period, which I do dismiss as entirely ordinary.

Kirby's work, however, also has its moments of badness and goodness, but when it was good, it was good in the "exceptional" sense, or, to gloss John Romita's remarks, once again, in its sense of "completeness."  Even enjoyable Kirby works might present a number of narrative problems, as I argued in my analysis of the first CHALLENGERS story.    But Kirby's narrative lapses never diminish that sense of artistic integrity.

I mentioned in Part 1 that one of my forum-foes dismissed not only Lee, but pretty much every comics-writer in the Silver Age.  It seems puzzling to me that this opponent could see special qualities in everything Kirby did, and nothing in the work of his contemporaries, even though most if not all of them were engaged in addressing the same pre-teen audience, and were usually employing most of the same story-motifs.

I suggest, in my intersubjective way, that what this individual took for absolute quality was just one type of creative quality: the quality of the artist who brings "integrity" and "completeness" to his narrative world because almost everything in it constitutes something of significance to the artist.  This is the world of the exceptional.

However, the world of the exemplary does not cease to exist in comparison to the exceptional, even though many fans have expressed such opinions.  Stan Lee probably was never a visionary creator as Kirby was.  He probably wasn't even as productive of new concepts as another non-artist writer like Gardner Fox was.  But I find it amazing that many fans can view creativity in terms of absolutely nothing else than "new concepts"-- particularly since even "new concepts" are always derived in part from previous ones.

Lee's type of "exemplary" creativity was certainly not focused on blazing new trails, in contrast to the highly personal approaches of Kirby and Ditko.  But fans who can dismiss twenty years of work as being uniformly bad just because earlier generations of fans never said much good about the work recalls the parable about how medieval doctors refused to investigate the nature of any disease not covered by the works of Galen.

In other words, the fannish narrative of Lee as dreck-producing drone-- even when it's been put forth by Lee himself!-- is just another example of "received wisdom."

Which, as we all should know--

Is no sort of wisdom whatsoever.


Nick Caputo said...


I very much enjoyed your analysis of Stan Lee's worth. It was even handed, sensible and well written. We need more analysis such as yours, that delves into the specifics and does not get bogged down in dismissive pap. I've tried to do the same in my writings.

Gene Phillips said...

Thanks a lot, Nick. Looking forward to more of your blogposts as well, especially since you know a lot of this stuff much better than I.