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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...

Thursday, May 28, 2015


Most online comics-critics prove themselves stunningly ignorant of the medium they critique, so there's some pleasure to be had from coming across a critical essay where the author knows his stuff, even if in the end I disagree with him.

On the blog THE HURTING, Tim O'Neil offers "Excelsior," a scathing look at the heritage of Stan Lee's Marvel.  While I don't validate O'Neil's arguments, his straightforward summation of Marvel's publishing history from the Golden Age onward provides a refreshing contrast to the hyper-ideological Marxmallow writings I've so often encountered on this subject, as noted here.

Still, even at the essay's outset there are some ideologically-informed problems with "Excelsior." O'Neil does not focus upon the many-splendored and usually opposed narratives of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but he leads off his essay by reprinting a highly problematic statement from Jack Kirby, in which Kirby painted himself as "saving" Atlas Comics at a time when Stan Lee was helpless to do anything about it. Significantly, O'Neil links this Kirby-quote to a Wikipedia article, which also quotes Gary Groth saying that some of Kirby's hyperbolic statements should be "taken with a grain of salt." Given Groth's history in the matter, wherein he generally promoted Kirby's narrative over Lee's, he's certainly no adoring fan of Stan-- so if even Gary Groth disputes Kirby's hyperbole, this might not have been the most balanced way to begin the essay.  And no, stating that both men had "motivations" for proffering/denying the story isn't good enough.

O'Neil's theme statement appears quickly enough, though:

This was the myth you bought into when you became immersed in the books. They were hip, they were happening, they were cooler than Brand X. Marvel was what cool college kids read - literally, your older brothers' comic books, not like those staid Superman magazines you read as a child. Marvel Comics was on the verge of world domination, and Stan was the man with the plan.
It was an attractive myth because everyone but young children knew it was just that - a myth. Marvel was cool and the books were better than National - and all their later imitators - and all that was true, at least for a while. But they remained stuck playing the role of perpetual underdogs even after the reality had shifted.

Here's a place where exact quotes would have been appropriate. On one hand, O'Neil states that "Marvel Comics was on the verge of world domination," which is certainly how I remember the Marvel of those days, with Lee's constant affirmations that the 1960s began "the Marvel Age of Comics." I also remember Lee playing the "underdog card" a time or two, particularly when he tried to argue that comic books were just as good as any other medium. I recall that at one point he even claimed that many comics of his time were better-written than contemporary television shows. Whether one agrees with this statement or not, or deems Lee's statement to be more hype than honest estimation, it certainly shows that Stan did portray comics in general, and his company in particular, as underdogs who always had to prove their worth, as against those media that had always earned their cultural cachet.

However, a point I think O'Neil misses in the above quote is that there are two distinctly different ways for fans to regard underdogs.

Some fans are "wide status seekers." They follow a given creator-- writer, artist, actor-- when he starts out to find his creative footing. These fans cheer the creator on as he gains widespread acclaim, and feel validated when he gains it.

Other fans are "wide status rejecters." They too begin following a creator from the beginning, but they want that creator to retain an edge that separates him from run-of-the-mill entertainment. This isn't to say that these fans don't want their favored creators to prosper, but they want him to prosper in this "edgy" manner, gaining a particular status by making his own rules rather than conforming to those who confer "widespread acclaim."

Robert Crumb would probably serve as the exemplar of the latter creator. It's hard to imagine a Crumb fan who would have faulted Crumb when he shunned working for Marvel or DC, or for having refused to submit to Marvel's "underground magazine" COMIX BOOK. To have "sold out to the man" would have removed Crumb's edginess in the eyes of "wide status rejecters."

Stan Lee, by contrast, has probably been mendacious about many things. But I don't think he ever pretended that he didn't want to obtain the same cultural cachet enjoyed by books, films and television. It's also my impression that most Marvel-boosters followed the pattern of the "wide status seekers," and that they wanted others to validate Marvel Comics as something that deserved special attention. Though in a larger sense they were right-- Marvel does occupy a unique place in the history of American comics-- they were certainly naive in thinking that outsiders could see past the juvenile elements of 1960s Marvel Comics.

I speak as one who harbored an analogous naivete. In my youth I was not an exclusive Marvel booster; I wanted to see the medium of comics, or at least what I knew of it, boosted in the public eye. I knew that there was just as much junk-entertainment on TV as there was in the comics, and I was aggrieved that comic books remained the whipping-boys of other media simply because the medium had so often marketed its efforts toward juveniles. It took another fifty years for the medium of comics to gain a cachet of sorts, though one that was filtered through the media of films and television shows, while the comics themselves remained "underdogs" in the sense of being a form of entertainment pursued only by a specialized niche.  So, to the extent that I ever believed that comic books might be enjoyed by the average American reader, I was certainly a "wide status seeker." I did not cherish the idea of either the medium or any particular company remaining a little-known underdog just for the sake of being edgy. Ironically, it might be argued that even with the movie-TV cachet, the comics medium itself remains an underdog, albeit not a particularly "edgy" one.

So I reject O'Neil's thesis that there's a significant gulf between "the role of the perpetual underdogs" and the supposed reality behind it all. Long before Marvel Comics even existed, there was nothing new for creators to draw attention to their "underdog status" as a means to promote themselves. Arguably, this was the primary rationale of the highbrow literature of the 20th century: "Look at me: I'm difficult but rewarding, and only a few people are smart enough to dig my scene."

I also disagree with other aspects of the essay, but those will have to wait for separate consideration.

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