Thursday, May 9, 2019

Stan Lee, The Innovative Writer of His Time. And Ours.

I have recently seen posts about writers and writings during the Silver Age/Marvel Age of comics.  I sometimes think that people under the age of forty do not realize how much Stan Lee changed the writing of comics, all comics.

I do not want to get into the argument of who did what at Marvel at that time, a subject that a handful of people MUST always bring up.  If you want to, please start your own blog.

Individuality: Stan Lee was the first to give characters uniqueness. If you read a Justice League comic in 1960 you could move the dialogue balloons around and it would not make much difference.  Wonder Woman sounded like the Martian Manhunter who sounded like Batman.  At Marvel, you’d never mistake Johnny Storm’s dialogue for the Thing, or The Hulk’s for Ant-Man.

From Thor 154, the dialogue is definitely from the God of Thunder.

Personality: His dialogue gave the characters a deeper personality more like you’d find in a novel of the 1960s, not a comic by Charlton, ACG, Dell or DC.  We learned who a person was, what motivated them, what they worried about and often who they cared for.  Did you ever read a Superman comic in the 1960s and read that he cared about Lois Lane? Or thought of his job at the Daily Planet?

 Avengers #19

Intimacy: The personality expansion led to comments about intimacy among the characters. It is common today, but NEVER then, for the “real” first names to be used.  They called Captain America “Steve” and the Thing, “Ben” for example.  You saw that Reed and Sue were romantic, as were Pym and Van Dyne.  This was not common in other comics then. Note that in all the movies, DC and Marvel the “real” names are used. In fact, the words “Wonder Woman” are never used in her movie.

There is no Yellow description box here, from Fantastic Four #11. The characters speak for themselves.

Humor: Stan really introduced a great deal of humor to the comics.  There was often a financial reason that surprises people. There may have been a great page that needed no dialogue, but to be paid for it a writer had to write something. (This changed in the 1970s). So Stan often put in something amusing. He also used funny Sound Effects or humorous footnotes.  Looking back, but not so much at the time, people find the jokes a bit to corny.

There is really no need for dialogue here, but as a writer Stan had to provide some.

Marvel method and plotting and dialogue: At most other companies the story and dialogue was written and then the comic was drawn.  Since the writer could not see the images yet, he had to highlight the description in dialogue. For example,  when Superman is jumping out the window the panel would show someone below saying, “Look, there is Superman jumping out the window.”  Or the description would read, “One day, as Superman jumped out of a window.” Uniquely at Marvel that did not happen. Stan looked at the image and then did the dialogue. You saw Spider-Man jumping out the window, no need to repeat it. So Stan would have Spider-Man say, “I wonder if Aunt May is feeling better.”  Lee was able to advance the plot. 

Even The Human Torch reads Stan Lee!

DC writers would tell you what the character was doing, at Marvel Stan told you what they were thinking.

Perhaps Stan’s weakest attribute was coming up with a plot and developing it every single work day for ten years. He did rely on his artists in that regard.  And as an editor he succeeded very well and got the best out of the creative people he worked with. They often developed the plot, he advanced the story in the dialogue.  At DC, Julius Schwartz and Carmine Infantino told me that the artists often came up with the plots. Schwartz said he go to lunch and spend the entire afternoon with an artist think up a plot they would give to the writer.  Also, at DC there were often no credits. Yet, I guess, because Marvel gave credits people criticize Lee, but not Schwartz, Schiff, or Weisinger from DC.

Sometimes dialogue was not needed, the artist showed everything. As Kirby does in Tales of Suspense #96.

Continuity: These concepts allowed great continuity at Marvel. You would trouble reading the comics out of order, but a DC you could pick up a comic from three years previous and it usually made no difference. (yes, there were a few important exceptions).  While Marvel did have flashbacks to fill you in, they needed less because the dialogue filled you in.
Villains had their own personalities too!  Stan mixes dialogue with description. 

 Here, from Fantastic Four Annual #5 Doctor Doom just needs dialogue, no descriptions.

Titles: Let us not forget the wonderful titles Stan came up with that often addressed the plot: "Whosoever Holds the Cosmic Cube!," "If This Be My Destiny!," "Spider-Man No More!," "Bring Back My Goblin To Me!," "“Now, by My Hand, Shall Die a Villain!,” "This Hostage Earth!" and so many more.

In many ways Stan Lee had a novel approach.  Novel here does not mean just unique, but in writing novels.  Characters were developed and plotlines were made more complex. The were few Graphic novels before 1961 and none from Marvel until 1977's Silver Surfer. Yet Stan’s writing during the Marvel Age may have laid the groundwork for the Graphic Novels yet to come. That is, fans now appreciated longer and complex stories which may have made graphic novels more in demand.

It is fifty years later and people are still enjoying those stories. Even Millie.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

1977: The Year I stopped Reading Comics

By the mid 1970s I had long been a comic book fan and “keeper.”  I gave up regularly reading comics in 1977 and I have, in recent years, often been asked why.  There were several reasons as the industry went through great changes in that era.  You are certainly entitled to agree or disagree with my views, and I hope you will post your experiences. BUT PLEASE DO NOT explain why so many changes were made, I am responding to just what was in the comics

Reason #1: Girls. And money. I wanted to date and the price of comics was getting out of hand.  In 1965, for example, I could afford to buy all ten Marvel Age comics for just over a dollar each month. (By “Marvel Age” I mean all the super-hero titles and Sgt. Fury. I am excluding reprints teen-age romance and westerns.) At twelve cents each, it cost $1.20 per month, perhaps $1.45 if an Annual came out.  As a measurement, minimum wage then was $1.25, so working about one hour a month paid for my comics.

I had what I call the “90%” rule. That is, I usually liked nine out of the ten comics published each month from 1961 to 1968.  There was occasionally astinker in the bunch.

For 36 years, 1933-1969, the price of comics increased only 20 percent. In the next seven years comic book prices tripled from 12 cents to 35 cents.  But Marvel and DC also added “Giant-Size” and other specials that cost way more.

Let’s see what comics would set you back in 1976. In an average month, late in 1976 Marvel had 29 regular titles at 30 cents each, which came to $8.70; 4 “giant-size/annual” at 50 cents = $2.00; 4 magazines at $1.00 cents and a Treasury edition at $1.50 for a grand total cost of $16.25. (Granted, the number of comics produced each month had tripled and the single copy cost doubled.)

The minimum wage in 1976 was $2.30. So it would take almost 9 hours, with tax deductions, at minimum wage to buy all those comics Marvel produced in one month. I guess many readers, if they were anything like I was, then began to pick and choose.  But I was also losing at the “90%” rule. I was enjoying maybe one quarter to half the comics, but more on that later.

Reason #2:  I had basically given up on DC and other companies.  DC comics were written for younger people. This not only meant simplified plot and little character development, but they operated with the knowledge that they lost their readers at age 15 or 16. While the first 25 issues of any DC title might be interesting, the stories quickly became repetitive. Many that I liked, Green Lantern, Deadman (in Strange Adventures), were discontinued anyway.  A.C.G. was now long gone as was Dell. Charlton and Western seemed to come and go on the newsstand, mostly printing licensed properties of children’s T.V. shows.

Reason #3:  I was disappointed when Jack Kirby left Marvel in 1970 and went to DC. I know you expect me to say that my disappointment was due to Kirby’s leaving Marvel, but that wasn’t it. I expected Kirby to have an influence at DC and that their comics would grow up. They didn’t.   I am a huge Kirby fan and he started my love for comics with Challengers of the Unknown in the late fifties. Here you had the single-most important graphic artist of his generation, who had co-created a staggering number of characters that are still among the most popular heroes of all time, and his output for DC was disappointing. At first I found Kirby’s New Gods and Fourth World hard to read, then it became impossible I wanted to like them—it was Jack Kirby after all. Kirby learned to write in the style of Joe Simon in the 1940s, when dialogue was all plot. By 1970, Stan Lee’s influence in writing was prevalent.  Stan, along with “Marvel” trained Roy Thomas, demonstrated a gift for characterization and personality in dialogue. Kirby failed here. Despite an impressive number of new characters (including the Demon, OMAC, and Kamandi) none lasted long enough to influence DC very much. (I did, however, like The Losers, Spirit World and In the Days of the Mob.)

Reason #4: Atlas Comics: I was excited that an entire new line of comics was coming out. Martin Goodman, the publisher who gave us the Marvel Age, sold Marvel and started a new company, Atlas. When the Marvel Age began with the Fantastic Four Goodman slowly brought out new characters and titles. When something didn’t work, they changed it.  Ant-Man became Giant Man; Iron Man got a new costume and supporting characters, Daredevil changed his costume, the Avengers changed their line-up stuff like that.

Atlas, for its very brief time, was totally inconsistent in its characterization, in its writing and its artists. Characters changed and even disappeared, writers went in different directions and no vision of a complete universe was there. I was disappointed that it failed so quickly.

Reason #5: Loss of Vision.  The Marvel Age began with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Don Heck creating the Marvel Universe. They were aided and abetted by Larry Lieber and Dick Ayers.  They produced they best comics they could, linking them all together. Roy Thomas, Gene Colan, John Buscema and John Romita were brought in mostly to continue what the “Big Four” began. Stan had said that he wanted to think of the ten monthly comics as one big one. In 1973 Stan Lee becomes publisher.   His vision of a single unified universe, so well carried on by Roy Thomas until he stepped down as editor, seem to evaporate as new editors came and went so quickly.

By 1977, that entire group of four was gone and so was Stan vision. As Marvel had quickly expanded from 10 to 40 titles new writers and artists had to be brought in.  Many writers were not “trained” in the Marvel way, concentrating on the story plot only, not on characterization or personality. Of course, I felt the artwork suffered.

Reason #6: Many titles for same characters.  In the beginning Stan was the only editor and often the only writer. Continuity, not seen at the other companies, was a paramount of the Marvel success. Characters grew and their personalities become part of the storyline. At DC, it seemed, all heroes had to appear in at least two comics. In any given month, Superman appeared in eight separate titles and Batman at least four.  In January of 1965, Superman appeared in Action #320, Superman #174, Lois Lane #54, Jimmy Olsen #82, Superboy #118, and #Adventure 328. The next month he also appeared Action, Superman, Lois Lane, World’s Finest and Justice League of America. With different writers and editors it was impossible to have any sort of continuity and no growth. In 1965, you could pick up a Superman comic from 1961 and find no difference in character development. Lois Lane continued to conspire to find out his secret identity, Jimmy Olsen continued to turn into a giant turtle man, and Superman would appear old, fat, bald, tall, short or disabled. There were no adventures, there was just gimmicks. Their best stories were imaginary.

Not so at Marvel. Characters fell in love and had their hearts broken, had doubts about their place in the world.  At Marvel, time passed (albeit slowly). In fact, Stan Lee wrote when he removed Iron Man and Thor from the Avengers in 1965: Didja know the real reason we changed the AVENGERS lineup? Here it is, honest injun! Iron Man, Thor, and Giant-Man were all starring in their own mags. After a while, it didnt seem right to have one of them captured in Transylvania in his own mag, while he might be taking in the Late Show on TV in the AVENGERS! The truth is, it seemed to kill all the realismall the immediacy of both strips! In fact, thats why we took the Torch and Bashful Benjamin out of Strange Tales.

By the early 1970s this was no longer true at Marvel. Spider-Man had Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, and Marvel Two in One, and Giant-Size Spider-Man along with appearing in reprints of Marvel Tales and in Spidey Super-Stories (from the creators of Sesame Street.)  By the mid 1970s all major characters appeared in two books. The worst offender was the Defenders where “loners” Dr. Strange, Silver Surfer, the Hulk teamed up.

Roy Thomas originally wrote the Fantastic Four and Marvel Two-In-One featuring the Thing. When Jim Shooter took him off Two-In-One, Thomas left the Fantastic Four because he knew there would no longer be continuity.  One Marvel author told me that writing the team books was like writing an “Earth II” story at DC because you could not change the original character.

Here’s a secret and it is MY opinion. Sue and Reed got married and had a child that grew to be about six years old and stopped. Peter Parker and the X-Men graduated high school and went to college. Then, continuity stopped and they everyone froze in time.  I REALLY think it’s because Stan never thought the characters would go on longer than 15 years. Other than Superman, no super-hero at that time, had successfully endured. (Batman and Wonder Woman were failing in the early 1960s)
Reason #7: I AM NOT a great horror fan, but I enjoyed Warrens’ Creepy and Eerie in the beginning because it had great artists, sometimes fie writing and was just not another comic book. So was excited when Marvel announced it was entering the Black and White magazine world. Previously they had published The Spectacular Spider-Man and Savage Tales. Both featured stories that were more adult and without the Comics Code. So I looked forward to this so much. Not unlike the Atlas comic, Marvel burst on the scene here producing a huge amount of similar comics, rather that slowly bring them out and developing them.  They were erratic and expensive. They featured many text stories (which I didn’t read) and a boatload of reprints from color comics, but now in black and white. At this time Marvel has MANY color comics, at a lower price, reprinting stories from the same era. It is interesting that the horror magazines (Dracula Lives, Vampire Tales, Tales of the Zombie, Monsters Unleashed, and Savage Tales) faded by issue #12.   Conan, Hulk, Crazy (humor) Planet of the Apes, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu lasted longer.  I really, really began to see that Marvel was more interested in quantity and filling up the newsstands then quality.

Reason 8: Also, to my surprise, I would buy a comic with a new cover but a reprint would be inside with some explanation on why there was a reprint.  I was paying with new money, but getting an old comic. The page count in the Marvel comics, early 1960s, when comics were 1/3 the prices was often 24, then 20 pages for the full length comics as 22 of the anthologies such as Tales of Suspense. They were down to 17 pages by 1976.

Reason 9: Titles began to come and go quickly, without any resolution.  The Black Panther in Jungle Action, Skull the Slayer, Omega, Man-Wolf and many others had brief comic book runs, but ended on cliff-hangers that would not be resolved during this period (Many were resolved years later.)  This, to me, should like of respect to the readers. Even the WORST titles were selling over 150,000 a month, yet Marvel seem to show no need to satisfy those readers who were probably reading their other comics.

Man-Wolf in Creatures on the Loose


I loved John Kowalski in "War is Hell"

Reason #10: Lost connection with readers: There always seemed to be a connection between the comic companies and the readers. DC had Superman of America, Archie had a fan club and Marvel had not just the M.M.M.S but FOOM and magazines that went out to fans. When Stan left as editor that connection was lost.

Reason #11: There were THREE major changes in comic book production at Marvel that really made the comics virtually unreadable to by the mid-1970s.

  • 1   By 1970, to save money on negatives, the industry shrunk the size of the boards used for original artwork by about 1/3. This meant that artists would be putting in far less detail and background work.
  • 2.    Due to inflation there was aa paper shortage in the 1970s and its price went up. Therefore, the paper publishers used was of significantly less quality and the quality of the artwork, already diminished, got worse.
  • 3.   Marvel decided NOT to use the traditional metal printing plates and switched to the cheaper PLASTIC plates. (Insiders called them paper plates.)  The combinations of these three events lead to comics that literally were unreadable. The lines and lettering blurred, the details were gone, and the colors seemed blotted on.  This was, for me, the last straw.
It doesn't show up well here, but this is a scan from the original Deathlok story. It was hard to read and, blown up to its regular size was blurry.

This is from the recent Masterworks, reproduced correctly

I  wonder if I just outgrew comics. There was just so many times I could read about Galactus coming to Earth and getting a new herald, or the Sub-Mariner attacking the Surface World or the Red Skull, thought dead returning. None of my girlfriends ever cared about them and thought they were childish to read.  When I stopped, I did look into older comics such as EC.  But I don’t remember ever missing the new comics.

As a kid, I told people I read Superman, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and Avengers and so on.  As an adult I realized what I was reading was Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Jim Steranko and Roy Thomas. 

When Kirby leaves Marvel in 1977, and all the other original creators were gone, I left too. My Silver Age was over.

Once again a big shout out to Carl Thiel who helped me with this article!!!! It is great to discuss these blogs with someone while you are putting them together.