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Monday, February 29, 2016 

Is the legacy of Stan Lee really in question, or does Vulture want us to think that?

NY's Vulture has a whole article about Lee's past career, and asks whether he's really the guy who created the majority of the superheroes in the Silver Age. But while it may be a valid question, and there is some interesting history to be read about here, I can't help feel that the writer is just trying to put down some of the veterans with better taste than today's bunch will ever have. And he even exaggerates something the mainstream press embraces way too much, subtly or otherwise:
...Lee may have personally made possible an expansive comics culture populated by idiosyncratic voices telling morally complex stories about relatable characters, layered over with much more darkness than had ever come before (achievements for which he still enjoys occasional bouts of adoration from the mainstream press and casual fans). [...]
Excuse me? I won't deny that some of the titles/heroes whom Lee created did have dark angles applied to their stories. The Hulk, Daredevil and Dr. Strange were examples of this, and so was X-Men, certainly by the mid-70s. But not all the titles he conceived were, and Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Thor, Avengers and Iron Man all had upbeat moments to offer, not to mention a sense of humor. How is that inherently "dark"? I think it's idiotic to infer that titles that did have joyful situations when he was around were darker than this article makes them out to be. Or that brightness is wrong. I get the feeling the writer's under the impression that when a cast member has a sad moment, it sums up virtually the whole story, that the heroes never have any happy moments, even though there were plenty of times when Peter Parker and various Avengers did, at parties and such. Even the X-Men had their joyful moments between the battles.

Oddly enough, in one of the following paragraphs about Lee's modern projects not making waves, this quotation of Marv Wolfman turns up:
Longtime friends and admirers within the comics industry will tell you, with a tone of embarrassment, that they don’t read or watch the stuff Lee produces these days. “The style of comics today is so different from the optimistic style that Stan has,” says veteran comics writer and Lee collaborator Marv Wolfman, trying to explain the decline in relevance. “Stan is very, very optimistic, and we're sadly living in a very pessimistic world.”
If so, then how could his older output be all inherently dark? And it wasn't. Why, take a look at some of the modern movies; they're not so dark either, one more reason why DC is making fools of themselves by sticking so much darkness to theirs, because they clearly think nobody will take their products seriously as leisure. Even Wolfman's stories in New Teen Titans weren't solely gloominess.

What the article doesn't make clear is that it's the mainstream comics publishers and writers they assign today who're obsessed with pessimism at the expense of plausibly happy moments. A whole bunch of hacks who'll never be happy themselves and inexplicably take out their frustrations on the properties they were given the keys to. Quite a few of these darkness-supporting writers are also the most left-leaning, and probably see past output representing all they don't like about conservatives. Some of this mentality came around following The Dark Knight Returns in 1986. And some of the people carrying this mentality likely don't even love Stan's older efforts, no matter how much they insist otherwise publicly. To them, his visions of yore are just throughly dated, tedious tripe that's not even dark enough to suit their own twisted visions. And I wouldn't be shocked to learn they don't even like his efforts to inject personalities into the casts. After all, they got rid of Mary Jane Watson to boot (I vaguely recall an interview with Joe Quesada from nearly 15 years ago where he said "well Stan was wrong"). Simultaneously, they likely don't have affection for DC's products either, personality or no personality. And the article writer sure doesn't seem troubled by that.

Interestingly, he also says that:
Lee wasn’t a radical leftist, but he knew how to tap the Zeitgeist: He and Kirby created a hyperintelligent black hero, the Black Panther; their female characters were often pugilists, not just pinups; and stories would often depict youthful rebellion and protest sympathetically.
If he's saying Lee was actually pandering radical leftists, I think even that's an exaggeration. T'Challa was a talented scientist/technologist, hardly what the Black Panther Party that was formed after Lee created T'Challa represents. And in the first 2 years of Lee's stories, the heroines' roles as combatants were very limited. It wasn't until Lee introduced Sue Storm's force field power in early 1964 that the heroines started getting serious roles in combat. Contrast that to how Black Canary at DC was a judo expert, and let's not forget Wonder Woman.

On the other hand, it does say that:
Lee was a genius at making fans feel cared for, addressing Marvel’s “True Believers” directly in his delightful letters pages and in missives sent to a Lee-created fan club called the Merry Marvel Marching Society.
And that's a lot different from today, when you have people like Quesada and DiDio around, who don't make even new readers feel cared for. But which doesn't concern the reporter, who later continues to say:
...Prior to the Marvel revolution, the top superhero series were DC Comics’ tales of characters like Superman, Batman, and the Justice League — and the characters never talked like human beings. (“Green Lantern, the power ring — it’s glowing!” “That means somebody has stolen one of the objects I marked with an invisible aura! Let’s go!”) Lee’s characters used slang, told jokes, and sounded distinct from one another. His narration often broke the fourth wall.
I'm afraid even this is a needless putdown at DC's expense. Even before Marvel, there were some DC characters who could be seen wisecracking, and having read some of the Golden Age Superman tales, Siegel and Shuster did seem to put in early templates for what we'd call wisecracks today. And if the Thing could make comments like "wotta revoltin' development" and "it's clobberin' time", then similarly, there were some DC heroes who had exclamations applied, like "great Caesar's ghost" and "great guns" in Superman, "great Hera" and "suffering Sappho" for Wonder Woman, "jumping jets" for Kid Flash and even Robin's own "holy [fill in the blank]" exclamations. They may not have been as elaborate as Lee's own ideas, but by all means they should count for something. I appreciate much of what Lee thought up, but my admiration doesn't come at the expense of DC's own contributors like Gardner Fox and John Broome, who came up with some of the exclamations and other quippings seen in the DC output of the times.

There's also a superficial allusion to the Gwen Stacy curtain call that doesn't tell the whole story:
Conway wrote a Spider-Man story in which Peter Parker’s girlfriend is thrown off a bridge and dies, and though it was a bold and buzz-creating sensation, Lee broke Marvel ranks and denounced the decision to kill off a beloved and innocent figure. But that was the trend in comics from the mid-’70s, well into the early ’90s: tales in which death stalked at every corner and heroes became antiheroes.
They don't mention that, when Lee attended a convention at a university after this story in 1973, as Sean Howe described in his biography, a lot of audience attendants were mad that Gwen was killed off. Even I didn't know this immediately years before. And after Lee tried to claim innocence of any participation in the storyline, Gerry Conway felt betrayed. (Given his far left politics, that's why it's hard to care.) It may not be mentioned much everywhere, but while Gwen wasn't resurrected, despite Lee's attempts to persuade his staff to try it, he reached a compromise with them, and they conceived a clone for Gwen in 1975, which, in a way, gave her a kind of happier ending than what her template went through at the hands of the Green Goblin.

And the trend of killing off co-stars still continues to this very day, or worse, turning them into villains, which is even sicker.

As for Lee's hogging all the attention at the expense of his co-creators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, yes, I'll admit it's regrettable he did that, because ultimately, it led to a lot of tension between them that never got fully mended. But I can't help feel this article is hampered by a lot of pretension coming from the reporter, who only sees what he wants when the talk of darkness comes up, and has almost no complaints about the long-term damage superhero comics have suffered from.

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Early 1960's Marvel did have more character development and complex plots than DC, but that doesn't mean that DC was totally void of characterization. And Marvel did have sub-plots that depicted the heroes personal problems and romantic entanglements, but they were far from the grimdark style that has been common since the 1980's.

Also, Marvel and DC both started leaning left by the early 1970's (e.g., protest marchers being portrayed sympathetically), but Silver Age DC was practically apolitical, and Marvel was downright hawkish on foreign policy and national defense. Captain America and Iron Man routinely fought "Reds" and "commies."

DC, not Marvel, revived the superhero genre and started the Silver Age. The Fantastic Four and Avengers were actually created to emulate DC's Justice League.

And DC had relatively strong female characters, with jobs and careers, before Marvel did. Lois Lane, Iris West, and Vicki Vale were journalists; Jean Loring was a practicing attorney; Carol Ferris was CEO of an aircraft company. Wonder Woman was an equal partner in the JLA, and Hawkgirl was usually treated as Hawkman's equal partner, not just a sidekick.

By contrast, Betty Brant, Pepper Potts, and Karen Page were secretaries, and Jane Foster was Dr. Blake's nurse. (Not that there is anything wrong with being a nurse or secretary, but those were traditional jobs for women even back then, so Marvel wasn't really pushing the envelope.) Even the super-heroines (Invisible Girl, Scarlet Witch, Wasp) often seemed like helpless damsels rather than helpful teammates. They were constantly getting kidnapped or taken hostage and having to be rescued, or they would lose power, or faint from the strain of using their powers, at critical times.

That said, Stan Lee and Marvel do deserve credit for making the superhero genre appeal to a slightly older audience. My impression is that DC was aiming at preteens, and Marvel was aiming for adolescents and maybe even college-age readers.

I'm not convinced that Stan intentionally hogged all the credit for the Marvel Age. I've seen interviews where he gave credit to the artists (e.g., he flatly stated that Kirby created the Silver Surfer). And the "Marvel method" involved the editor, writers, and artists coming up with a general outline, then the story was drawn, and then the dialog and captions were written. With that system, it would be easy for lines to get blurred as to who contributed what. And, naturally, a person's memory can play tricks when trying to describe something that happened years earlier.

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