One of the first things I learned about comic books was the difference between Marvel and DC. (I was four.) DC was Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Sgt. Rock, The Unexpected. DC Comics were thick with reprints from the 40s to the 60s. The Bat-Mobile was always the Bat-Mobile, even if it didn’t look the way it did on tv, no matter what year it was. (In the early 70s, Batman drove a Corvette Stingray because OF COURSE HE DID.)
Marvel, on the other hand, was Spider-Man, the Hulk, Captain America, the Fantastic Four. Marvel Comics were always SHOUTING! Everything was CHAOS and HYPERBOLE, TO A COLLOSSAL DEGREE!!! Spider-Man was always a wise-ass, no matter what year it was. Spider-Man drove a dune-buggy for like, one issue because the Toy People wanted him to have a car. (“Batman has a car. Why doesn’t Spider-Man have a car?”) I’ll say that again – Spider-Man drove a dune-buggy in Manhattan because the Toy People said so.
There was a noticeable difference between Marvel and DC; in tone, in presentation, in style. It made sense that Batman had a cool car. Internal logic demands that Batman have a cool car. It never made sense that Spider-Man drove a dune-buggy in Manhattan. Marvel called themselves “The House Of Ideas”, neglecting to mention that some ideas are bad. Marvel was the Hard Sell mixed with love-bombing, everything they put out was ESSENTIAL to read, just to keep up with the frantic pace. They used words like “senses-shattering” and “pulse-pounding” to describe a stroll to the corner. Marvel went up to 11 when Spinal Tap was just an itch in Christopher Guest’s brain.
And if you believe Stan Lee, we owe it all to Stan Lee.
DC didn’t have an omnipotent editorial presence the way Marvel did, even when Julie Schwartz was running the show. And even though Stan Lee had stopped “writing” comics by the time I came around and was mainly merely managing Mighty Marvel, everyone (and I mean everyone) copied his break-neck, thesaurus-powered style. Even DC aped the upstart Smilin’ Stan the Man, trying to lend a little of the old carnival-barker charm to their line.
There’s a glorious 70s grunginess to the Marvel Comics of my youth, a weird kind of “Anything Can Happen!” vibe, an inclusionary feel. Marvel made you feel like you were special, a connoisseur, a part of an elite club, even while they picked your pockets clean. Barnum’s Dictum, in flagrante delicto, True Believer. Face Front!
Which, literary imitators aside, was Stan Lee’s true talent – “selling a bill of goods”. He made a fortune ripping off not only little kids and mental defectives but his own collaborators and employers as well. Stan always wanted to write the Great American Novel and he was “embarrassed” to admit to people that he wrote comic books but he had no problem cashing the cheques at the bank. The Kirby case is especially egregious – Stan has actually said the words “When I created Captain America …” out loud in an interview when the fact of the matter is his contribution to the creation of Captain America consisted of going out for coffee and sandwiches. Stan had a rule that ONLY HE, Stan Lee, could ever write the Silver Surfer. People liked the Silver Surfer. Jack Kirby created the Silver Surfer, not Stan Lee. Jack Kirby fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Stan Lee spent the war States-side doing captions for cartoons about VD.
Spider-Man is even worse. Why do you think Steve Ditko has been a crazy objectivist for the last forty-odd years? Stan Lee took credit for everything he ever did. Stan Lee gave Spider-Man a dune-buggy because the Toy People said so.
Whenever he pops up in a cameo in a Marvel movie, I boo, loudly. Jack woulda liked that, a jab at Stan and his purloined legacy. Still, I wouldn’t be able to string words together like this without Stan Lee and Mighty Marvel. (I tried to write like Bob Haney once and my liver almost exploded.)
Nobody fears Death like Stan Lee. Nobody. Jack Kirby is waiting for him on the other side.
COMING SOON IN PART THREE – I’M SURE I’LL THINK OF SOMETHING!