Eye Magazine,owned by Hearst, printed this article in an over sized magazine that came with a small comic book version of a Spider-Man Story.
The New Superhero
(Is a pretty kinky guy)
Spider-Men may be OK for fighting crime, but would you want your sister to marry one?
BY NORMAN MARK
Feel silly, don’t you? You’ve got visions of all those cute animals jabbering and stealing carrots, of strange guys in tights and jockstraps flying through the air.
Read a comic book on a bus and people stare at you: “Look, Randolph, he’s reading a comic book, isn’t that stupid?” Mention them at a party, and you’re suddenly alone in a corner. Talk to a kid who reads them and he thinks you’re trying to pass for an adolescent. But that’s all changing, brothers and sisters. No longer will you read your comics with a flashlight under the bedsheets, no longer will you wait for the cover of darkness to put down your 12 cents for a costumed crusader epic.
Comic books are surfacing, growing up, speaking out—maybe even becoming an art form!—and it’s time to take notice of them. One publisher at least, the Marvel Comics Group, is trying to raise this media to the level of a James Bond movie, a Mission: Impossible television series, or a Perry Mason novel. That is not bad company for a form despised by parents and ignored by critics. It all started about seven years ago when Stan Lee, an editor at Marvel, decided to create a new line of superheroes which would be more . . . relevant. For instance, Captain America (he, the Human Torch and Sub-Mariner were then the company’s biggest sellers) changed from a simpleminded, patriotic do-gooder to a brooding superhero who realizes his zeal for right is out of joint with the times. “He knows he’s an anachronism, but he can’t change, says Lee. “He’s sort of a contemporary Hamlet.”
A whole new team of antiheroes subsequently was created—Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Hulk, Silver Surfer, The X-Men—twenty-two in all and all with their own special peculiarities and hangups.
Stan Lee, the modern Aesop, is a tall, thin, bearded, bright-eyed, forty-five-year-old who lives on Long Island with his wife, 18-yearold daughter and four dogs. He will feel his career in comics has been justified, he says, the day his wife “will go to a cocktail party and won’t be embarrassed when she’s asked what her husband does for a living.” That’s a simple, humble wish, well-known to hairdressers, ballet dancers and second-story men. But for Lee, it has not been easy to do. After graduating from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he took a job writing obituaries for living celebrities at a news service. At seventeen, he went to work for Marvel Comics. An editor left and Lee took the job temporarily. He has been an editor ever since, except for service in World War II when he wrote training films and held the military classification of “playwright” (no kidding).
“I had always considered comics a stopgap until I could find time to do better writing,” he says. “Finally, about eight years ago I realized I would be here for a while and why not make out of comics something I would like to read?”
The problem was to create characters with some sort of superpowers—real comic book characters, no soap opera types. “If you had superpowers, how would you act in the real world. If you were young, wouldn’t you still have a case of acne, asthma, girl troubles, occasionally lose fights or be broke?” So gut reality broke into funnies.
Consider, if you will, Spider-Man, personality kid of comics. In reality, he’s Peter Parker, a normal college student who was bitten by a radioactive spider of human proportions sometime before October, 1962. Now Peter has the strength of a spider of human proportions, but he still acts with all the bumbling ineptitude that you or I would display if we were in his tights.
The people of his hometown, New York, do not trust him (would you want a spider living in your neighborhood?), the newspapers hate him and he simply cannot cope with his uniform, which is constantly being torn in the line of duty and he has to stop and mend it himself. (What tailor could be trusted with his secret?) Also, his outfit is not drip-dry and he is continually jumping into a wet suit, which gives him colds. He has trouble with his Widowed Aunt May, who suffers a heart attack in nearly every issue. Sometimes Spider-Man has to give her r call in the midst of fighting bad guys.
All of these things contributed to an inferiority complex that Peter has only recently controlled. But he still shows signs of paranoia, often has traumatic identity crises (he can’t tell anybody who he really is), has severe fits of depression and feels terribly alienated.
Spider-Man is the only comic book character in memory who has matured. Six years ago when Lee created him, he was a nudnick chemistry major with a skin problem; he was extremely unsuccessful with girls (who hate spiders and bullied by other students. Today, he dates sharp blondes, he has become more muscular and has a handsome, square-jawed face with no pimples.
Early on, Spider-Man created a secret formula for steellike webbing that adheres to buildings and helps him thwip (comic book for swing) around town. The webbing is also his most powerful weapon; he has been known to run out of it at crucial moments.
Spider-Man’s chief nemesis is the Green Goblin, but he doesn’t even hate him. (The Goblin is in reality Parker’s roommate’s father, and how can a guy kill his friend’s dad ?) So when Spider-Man fights the Green Goblin, he pulls his punches. That was why, in November, 1968, the goblin managed to blow Spider-Man’s mind with psychedelic pumpkin bombs. Spider-Man recovered, captured one of the pumpkins and forced the Goblin to breathe its fumes. During the bad trip which followed, the Goblin saw what a rat he really was and disappeared when the psychic shock of the revelation gave him amnesia.
Peter Parker works for a local newspaper as a freelance photographer. With a remote-control camera he gets exclusive pictures of Spider-Man rescuing everyone in sight and thus cashes in (as any normal, greedy, American student would) on his superpowers. The hitch is that editor Jonah Jameson hates Spider-Man, hates all those pictures and once offered one thou-sound dollars for Spider-Man’s capture, screaming, “He’s really an egomaniac, a neurotic troublemaker, flaunting his power before the ordinary citizens whom he despises.” Depressed, Spider-Man threw his suit in a trash can and retired. This action, by the way, lead to one of Marvel’s finest satires when a David Susskind-type character asked his television panel, “Do you feel that the human arachnid’s proclivities preclude the possibility of this being a monumental bit of chicanery?” One guest refused to answer, claiming he didn’t understand the question ; but a psychiatrist there said Spider-Man suffered “a schizophrenic withdrawal from reality ! Or to couch it in layman’s terms, he’s out of his tree.”
Stan Lee admits to being in love with language. Spider-Man once got into a fight with the Nails Hogan gang , when they surprised him placidly hanging from a ceiling, and shouted, “Look it’s him.” “Tsk, tsk, Spider-Man replied. “You mean, ‘It’s he’ Nothing infuriates me more than bad grammar. Or didn’t you know?” Ftoom.
This sophisticated approach to comics material has earned Marvel a passionate following on college campuses (and the six-year-old readers don’t seem to object either). The readership is reflected in the volume of letters Marvel receives—up to one thousand a day during the summer—some of which are reprinted on letters pages. One writer, from Clam Gulch, Alaska, pointed out, “Recently, there’s been a tendency to cut down on the amount of word balloons and human interest in your mags! Well, don’t!” Another elated reader proclaimed that a Fantastic Four issue (ish, to a Marvel fan) contained 2,532 words of dialogue. Yet another, writing about Hulk, described him as “the true existential man,” and quoted Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ovid in support of his theory.
“Marvel readers must be among the most fanatical in the land,” says Lee. “They ask questions, find mistakes, make suggestions.” Lee and his thirty-five staff and freelance artists often take the advice of readers. An art professor from the University of Connecticut who spent two hundred dollars collecting the complete Spider-Man asked that Peter Parker be outfitted with a helmet when riding his motorcycle (later, he was) ; the artists have been faulted for forgetting to put the webbing under Spider-Man’s arms, for putting too much grease on Peter Parker’s hair, for changing the hair-dos of his girl friends, and for making shadows go the wrong way. An Air Force sergeant asked, “Since both The Thing and Mr. Fantastic served in World War II, will Flame (now a teen-ager) serve as well?”
Lee’s first creation in 1961 was the Fantastic Four, a quartet of normal people who were zapped by cosmic rays during a space shot. They became Mr. Fantastic (actually Reed Richards, master scientist who can stretch any part of his body any length), The Thing (a huge, strong, orange-colored, rocky creature in blue briefs who was Ben Grimm, star football player), The Flame (teen-ager Johnny Storm who can fly around in a mass of fire at the command, “Flame On”) and Invisible Girl (Johnny’s older sister, Sue Storm, who can disappear behind an impenetrable force field). (F.F. follows close behind Spider-Man, who has over 5,000,000 readers, in popularity.)
For a long while the Fantastic Four really detested each other. The Flame and The Thing constantly bickered, Invisible Girl acted like a -typical snotty older sister and Mr. Fantastic just tried to keep the team spirit high.
All the while, Mr. Fantastic was dating Invisible Girl, although he had competition from Sub-Mariner, who lived under the water and in another comic book. Finally they married, with every villain in the world (Dr. Doom, Puppet Master, The Red Ghost, the Mole Man, The Mad Thinker, the Human Top, etc) trying to crash the nuptials. Did love stop the endless bickering? Certainly not. Just one week after the wedding while fighting the world’s greatest arch villain, Dr. Doom (king of Latveria, who has diplomatic immunity when he is in America), Sue disappeared because Reed didn’t notice her new hairdo.
Then she got pregnant! Pregnant! Could that ever happen to Wonder Woman ? Why, you couldn’t even get her bracelets off !
After a pregnancy of over a year, our time, Sue had a little boy in November, 1968, and retired from the Fantastic Four to raise him. Crystal, the exquisite elemental and Flame’s girl friend, took Sue’s place, perhaps stimulating another superhero population explosion.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Stan says. “I really don’t know if Sue’s baby is going to have supernatural powers when he gets older. Until the day of the final deadline for the issue, we didn’t know if she was going to have a boy, a girl or a monster. I think we flipped a coin.”
Numerous other questions about the birth of the child come to mind: Will the baby want The Thing as an uncle? Can an elemental and a human have children? What really happened on a honeymoon between a man able to stretch any part of his body any length and a woman with an impenetrable force field? We didn’t ask him, but we were sure he had the answers to every one of them.
Marvel comics also have a definite interest in the real world. Recently in Stan’s Soap Box, a short monthly letter in which the editor discusses great and small issues with his readers, he asked for a consensus on whether or not Spider-Man should take a stand on Vietnam. After much debate, the majority of responses indicated he should oppose the war, and he is. And now several of the superheroes are editorializing at the merest whisper of a controversy. Thus, Spider-Man’s involvement in campus demonstration at Empire State University becomes significant.
When ESU decided to turn Exhibition Hall into a private dorm for rich alumni instead of opening it to poor students (in the January, 1969 ish), there was agitation on campus. The Student Committee for a Low Rent Dorm, influenced by black power militants, marched on Ex Hall and occupied it while Peter Parker was viewing a valuable ancient tablet on display there. Parker was trapped inside and sided with his fellow students.
A subplot involved Kingpin, who looks a bit like Chicago’s Mayor Daley; he wanted that clay tablet. He used the demonstration to cover his nefarious activities, but Spider-Man saw him, tried to stop the robbery, couldn’t and Kingpin escaped with the tablet. As the book closed, the students were being led to jail for illegal possession and property damage and Spider-Man was leaving on the trail of Kingpin.
“We began taking editorial stands about a year ago,” Stan says, “when we realized from the mail we received that our magazines were very influential with the kids. They don’t seem to want just adventure stories; they want a whole ethos, a philosophy, within the frame work of the comic character. They seem desperate for someone to believe in—I guess McCarthy filled the bill for a while. Now, I have to resist taking myself too seriously. Suddenly, I don’t want to let them down.” (Recently, Stan has become a sought-after lecturer at college campuses, and has spoken at Columbia, Princeton, NYU, Duke and others. He is afraid some day soon he’ll be awarded an honorary degree, which is pretty wild for a comic king.)
“My problem is that I’m not a fanatic,” Stan admits, “and I sometimes find it very hard to see that the other guy is completely wrong. In fact I think one of the most dangerous things in this country is the good guy—bad guy syndrome, where everyone must be cast into one of only two opposing groups. I believe there is a place in this world for a guy who can see both sides and portray that to the world.” He points out that during Spider-Man’s student demonstration neither the police nor the students were portrayed as villains.
Perhaps his most blatant editorial was seen in the July, 1968, issue of Thor, a caped, long-haired, blond guy with a magic hammer. (When the gimpy Dr. Donald Blake bangs his cane on the floor, faster than a thought the doctor becomes Thor and the cane becomes Mjolnir, the hammer.)
As the issue began, Thor had problems. The evil Loki might attack at any time and Sif, his lady, was sick. Thor didn’t even know that back in Asgard, the kingdom of his father (Odin), Ulik, the mightiest of the trolls, had set the horrible Mangog free.
Wouldn’t you know that just then Thor would meet some hippies, who liked his hair, but put down his hammer. Now, nobody puts down Mjolnir.
Thor showed Mjolnir’s power by creating a little cyclone and a little lightning. He lectured: “The true guru thou seekest doth lie within thyselves ! Heed you now these words: “rig not by dropping out, but by plunging into the maelstrom of life itself, that thou shalt find wisdom.... Aye, there be time enow for thee to disavow thy heritage.”
Stan creates his comics in a unique manner. Rather than scripting everything, including what is to be drawn, he writes only a plot outline. The artist is told then how many pages the magazine will have (usually about 20) and it is up to him to draw the action, Lee then writes the specific lines the characters say and indicates where the balloons will go.
The artist sometimes adds events that Lee hadn’t planned for and the writer must then weave them into a coherent story line. This gives Marvel comics an ad lib, flip quality. But there are guidelines.
“Our stories do not have violence that will disturb children,” Stan says. “It’s usually a case of pitting one super-powered character who doesn’t get hurt against a villain who doesn’t feel pain.
“We have the characters talk all the time during the fights because that also dilutes the violence.”(The magazines, however, do accept advertisements for 132 model Roman soldier sets, BB shooting model army combat machine guns, and a missile-firing tank “large enough for two kids inside.” The tank also has a “mighty cannon and rocket launcher, swiveling machine guns, simulated treads and other authentic tank features.”)
Hulk, a green-skinned monster who hates the world because the world hates him, has, several times, single-handedly, defeated the U. S. Air Force. But Hulk is still a near-classic case of paranoid schizophrenia. Somewhere down in his primitive brain is the knowledge that he once was a gentle soul (scientist, Dr. Bruce Banner). But the Hulk hates Banner for being weak and normal and he is obsessed with the fact that he can turn back into Banner at any time.
To begin one Hulk comic, Stan wrote: “Can a green-skinned introvert with antisocial tendencies find happiness and fulfillment in a modern materialistic society?” The answer, of course, is no.
“When I created Hulk with artist Jack Kirby, we had the feeling that people love a guy who isn’t perfect,” Stan recalls. “As a kid I always loved the Frankenstein monster. All kids know that Frankenstein’s monster really isn’t a bad guy, that he’s friendly to blind via linists and that he just fell into bad company.” (Hulk was friendly with teen-ager Rick Jones, but Jones drifted into other comic books and soon may become the sidekick of Captain America.)
In addition to a green-skinned star, Marvel Comics feature a number of Negroes, a significant breakthrough for the otherwise waspy superherodom (It has been suggested that the Bruce Wayne-Batman mansion is in a restricted neighborhood.) In addition to a Negro city editor (in Spider-Man) and assorted police and populace, Marvel has a genuine black superstar in the Black Panther, who is really T’Challa, son of T’Chaka. T’Challa, a prince of the Wakanda tribe and their representative to the United Nations, is one of the world’s richest men and owns an underground scientific city.
“We were going to play him up as the first black superhero with his own comic book,” Stan says. “But then we became a little gunshy. He was created before the Black Panthers got their notoriety and now I really don’t know what to do with him. The name is an unlucky coincidence, really. If we want to get involved in a civil rights story, we want to do it our way and not stumble into it because the name of one of our characters happens to be the same as that of a militant group.
“Maybe we’ll let him get involved in Harlem teaching Negro youths who do not suspect that he’s really their hero, Black Panther.”
Marvel even has a quasireligious character in Silver Surfer. That’s right, quasireligious. Silver Surfer appears on earth as a kind of angel surrogate and Stan says that his artists believe the Surfer to be “saintly, almost Christ like, and we try to do this without satire, we try to play him straight. This is the book where I do my most obvious moralizing.”
Silver Surfer, originally Norrin Radd of the planet Zenn-La, disobeyed his boss, Galactus (a supersuper-superpowered being), just once. For that he was sentenced to life on Earth, as cruel and inhuman a punishment as ever meted out to anyone within the memory of the universe.
So Silver Surfer skims along on his board which obeys his mental commands, both hating and loving us. Time and time again he saves the foolish earthlings, but whenever he surfs down to talk to the folks, they throw things at him, threaten him with arrest, send armies after him or yell that they don’t want silver-skinned guys for neighbors.
Silver Surfer rescued a young girl and our army subjected him to a missile attack, but his goodness forced him to say, “We must forgive them (humans) ! For in all the universe, only an insane humanity kills in the name of justice!”
Marvel also has a psychedelic comic book, Dr. Strange, master of the mystic arts, whose battles occur mainly in the mind, in hell or in unknown worlds. The draftsmanship, the construction and coloring, all the work of artist Gene Colan, are surely better than anything published in comics today. There are a half a dozen panels in each book that might even make it in a contemporary art gallery.
We have not been able to cover Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos who are still fighting World War II; Col. Fury or. Sgt. Fury all grown and now a top secret agent; The Avengers, a large group of super heroes formed to quell a Hulk; the X-Men, a group of good mutants who fight evil mutants and who just lost their leader Professor Xavier to Grotesk and a mysterious disease; Daredevil, an attorney blinded as a child when hit between the eyes by a canister from a radioactive garbage truck; or even Not Brand Echh, a Marvel-sponsored satire of the competition.
Speaking of the competition : D.C. (National) ) comics, with Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman, are still the circulation giants with 47 titles that sell 75,000,000 a year, compared with Marvel’s 22 titles, selling over 50,000,000 a year. In the last four years, however, Marvel has picked up some 15,000,000 readers, and they are predicting that by the end of 1969, Spider-Man will pass Superman, and not by brawn alone.
Stan’s characters are different; they are agonizingly realistic. Often they seem to stand outside themselves and think that running around in tights fighting supermen-aces is a ridiculous, low-paid profession. (Spider-Man, who had to sell his motorcycle for bread, yearns for a superhero union to demand a living wage.) They have such psychological complexity that if they did not dash into alleys to don their superhero costumes they would probably be protesting with the New Left or sniffing psychedelic pumpkins. They even acknowledge that sex exists, which is more than Lois Lane or Superman ever did.
In the general scheme of things, in a world beset with poverty, starvation, pop explosions, war, pestilence, plague, power politics, the bomb, traffic jams, strikes and injustices of every sort, a man who would dedicate his life to uplifting a comic book has got to have some good in him, or be a nut.
In a world seemingly overloaded with wrongs, there are still a publisher and an editor issuing books that extol freedom and virtue and right, pimples and all. The Marvel Comics take ancient tales, outrageous villains, add humor and a message or two, and if in their wildest dreams they hope someday the results might be called art, there are worse things to strive for.
Norman Mark is a young cultural writer for Panorama Magazine of the Chicago Daily News. He is also a playwright whose works have been produced on television.