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Friday, November 10, 2017 

Sonny Bunch on Stan Lee's universe

Sonny Bunch, one of the editors for the Wash. Free Beacon, wrote in the Weekly Standard about Lee's history as a comics writer, and makes an interesting note in the following:
Reed Tucker’s Slugfest: Inside the Epic 50-Year Battle Between Marvel and DC tracks both sides of the most interesting era of the struggle for the soul of comic-bookdom. Featuring new interviews with a bevy of industry heavyweights, Tucker’s book is lively and engaging. He does a good job of capturing some of the confusion DC Comics—home of, among other superheroes, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman—suffered in the mid-1960s as it saw its market share slipping away to the upstarts over at Marvel. “So DC did what any big company does when facing declining sales and potential ruin: it called a meeting.” DC staffers pored over Marvel books, analyzing the covers, the colors, the logos, the word balloons, the art. Jim Shooter, who worked at DC as a teenager in the 1960s and would later go on to be Marvel’s editor-in-chief, recalled one theory his mystified DC colleagues aired: “They thought maybe the readers liked bad art because [Marvel’s was] crude, like a kid would draw. . . .‘Maybe we should tell the [DC] artists to draw worse.’ ”

DC didn’t get it because compared to Marvel DC has long been a more corporate entity, an organization that made as much revenue from licensing its iconic characters as from its creative storytelling. Plus, there was a generation gap. “DC’s brass grew up during the Great Depression, which had imprinted on them a respect for work and the firm that employed you,” Tucker writes. “In short, they were company men.” Ironically, that description will sound familiar to anyone who has read Batchelor’s book on Lee, who was himself deeply affected by the Great Depression and absorbed the ethic that a good job was worth tolerating all manner of crap, so long as you’re putting food on the table. That Lee transcended this limitation even as his enemies at DC struggled with it helps demonstrate just how special he was.
Maybe, but the problem is, if Lee began as somebody who believed in being a company man, he remains that way today, having lost direction in his old age and descended to the level of tool for the establishment, since he's never critical of anything they do, if at all, and his penchant for promotion's thus degenerated into a sad theater of the absurd. For example, if we take into account his sugary comments the other year about Nick Spencer's transformation of Captain America into a Hydra-nazi agent. That was a real low, and a sad demonstration in a nutshell of how far Lee's fallen if he couldn't gather up the courage to say Quesada/Alonso's steps were poor taste. Then, on the topic of DC/Marvel rivalry, Bunch says:
That rivalry continues today, but not on magazine racks. The comic book itself has devolved into a niche product aimed at a shrinking market; whereas bestsellers in previous decades would sell millions of copies, the highest-grossing titles today are lucky to crack into six figures. There are event-driven booms followed by individual title busts. The lifecycle of Marvel’s rebooted Black Panther series is instructive: Debuting atop the charts in April 2016 by moving more than a quarter-million units on the news that bestselling activist-author Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing the new book, the title’s sales dropped to just over 25,000 copies by this summer, and a Coates-written spinoff has been canceled.
I would've appreciated the above a lot more if guys like Bunch would lay the blame where it matters most, at the feet of Quesada/DiDio, clearly state how men like them have to shoulder blame for bringing the universes they're in charge of down to toxic levels, and insist they be distanced from the properties. Or, encourage people to boycott the companies until these sorry excuses for editors and publishers are taken off the list of staffers and they stop turning them into these enclaves for leftists. If you can't stand up for an art form by calling out those responsible for its decline, you're not championing it at all.

Since we're on the subject, it reminded me of some recent news about a student interview at Virginia Tech taken in 1977 with Lee (videos available here and here) where he had some odd things to say about DC's attempts to figure out Marvel's success overtaking theirs. His discussion included the following:
Lee said he and his staff had friends who worked for DC, and they would tell their Marvel pals how DC staff would have big meetings to try and crack why Marvel was moving more books.

"They studied our books, and they'd say, 'You know, I noticed they use a lot of red on their covers. Maybe that's it,'" Lee said in the vintage interview. "And they would start putting a lot of red on their covers. The minute we would learn of that, we would take all the red off our covers. And our books still sold better, and that would drive them crazy."

When the color theory didn't pan out, Lee said DC assumed Marvel's success must be linked to the abundance of dialogue bubbles on the covers, so Marvel did away with those.

"It never occurred to them that we take the work a little more seriously and maybe we have a little bit more of a sense of humor," he said. "And maybe people don't like things that are a little bit stuffy. They like things that are whimsical or humorous."
While I do admire Lee's past work, this honestly sounded superficial to me, and not very accurate if you look under a microscope. The period I estimate he was referring to was the mid-to-late-60s, and while there may have been a lot of red in some of their covers, they still had some to offer even within the span of 1966-69. Mainly because, while they may have changed Giant-Man's outfit to blue, they didn't exactly change the red in Captain America, Spider-Man and Wasp's outfits. There's also their own Capt. Marvel of the Kree to consider, whose costume was usually red to boot.

The claim he makes about word balloons on the covers is even more disputable, because well before 1961, DC already made copious use out of them on their own covers. In the beginnings of the Golden Age, most comics covers could have captions with exclamations on them, but rarely used dialogue balloons. But as time went by, you'd see they gradually began using more word balloons on covers of the Golden Age (Action Comics #77 is one of the earliest I could find), and in the Atomic Age to early Silver Age, there came more. I looked at some examples on the Grand Comics Database, and between 1953-65, DC had dozens of titles with at least one word balloon on the covers coming out every month. For example, Action Comics #182, #245, and #252 featuring Supergirl's debut, Brave & the Bold #5, Wonder Woman #65, the 105th issue of the Flash, continuing the numbering from where it left off in 1949, Green Lantern #11, and even Aquaman #14. In the early 70s, that's when they actually began downplaying word balloons on some of their titles like the early Swamp Thing tales. Not all covers from DC had the balloons, of course, some made do with just captions, but there you have it, they were using them well before Lee claims they got the idea.

So how could DC think word balloons had anything to do with Marvel's initial success when they were already long using them as well? It just doesn't make sense to me. Also, DC already had plenty of comedy and humor in their own books; the difference is that they relied on much more bizarre slapstick than Marvel actually used.

By contrast, I'm surprised Lee didn't get deep into whether DC fully understood the emphasis on personalities, personal problems and character interactions Marvel was specializing in. When I watched the videos, I think he brought it up, but it was rather vague. From what I know, DC did figure out that part sooner or later, and tried to duplicate Marvel's success. Results were mixed. Some writers working on books like Teen Titans did work this part out well enough. But others dealing with books like Green Lantern were not so successful, as the attempt to put Hal Jordan through a dilemma over Carol Ferris initially choosing another guy for her fiance demonstrated, after which he took different jobs other than airline piloting, and this led to a drop in sales for GL, which even Dennis O'Neil was unable to boost, leading to a 4 year cancellation after 1972, putting GL in Flash's book, before it was revived in 1976. How come Lee didn't make that a big subject? I don't get it.

So anyway, there's a bit more about Lee's history in publication, and how he commented on the topics with press sources, and again, it's a shame Bunch wouldn't get deeper into the subject and argue what's gone wrong and why the Big Two have to cut out their modern leftist agendas and social justice propaganda.

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By 1970, DC was obviously emulating Marvel, with more complex plots, longer serials and arcs, and more character development. By 1985-86, after the Crisis reboot, there was no noticeable difference between the two companies.

Stan is a witty intelligent writer with a memory like a sieve, or like Black Canary's stockings. He was trying to make a point - that DC was imitating the superficial details of Marvel Comics without understanding the real heart of their success - and so he grabbed some examples out of the air, like the color red or the word balloons. You can't take him too literally.

Don't expect him to denounce diversity in comics, though. First of all, he does not read them anymore. Second, he pioneered diversity in comics, at a time when it was a moral stance that could hurt the bottom line. When Gold Key introduced a black cowboy character named Lobo, according to the writer of the book, distributors in the South returned the books without shipping them to the stores. When Stan introduced the Black Panther, he had a full face mask; no-one could tell from the cover that he was African. He is not going to criticize people for making that effort now.

People who don't share his politics should not treat him as senile or a hypocrite just because he does not agree with their views.

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