Monday, October 15, 2012

Village Voice 1965: The Super-Anti Hero in Forest Hills (Spider-Man)

 Village Voice 1965: The Super-Anti Hero in Forest Hills
An Interview with Stan Lee

In stepping back and looking over the era of the Marvel Age, we can see that Stan, Marvel’s leading promoter, wanted needed and welcomed publicity. In speaking to many comic book artists and writers, you discover that columnists and newspaper writers come to you with their premise or slant that they want to prove or go along with. If you go along with it that write the article, if you don’t they either don’t do the article or don’t include you. So the interviewee learns to go along. Sally Kempton defines the term, or her term “anti-hero” much differently Stan did, demonstrated a year later in an interview with famous editor and writer Ted White that appeared in a publication entitled, “Castle of Frankenstein.”

Ted: Actually, doesn’t this go back to company policy back in the days in the Forties when the Submariner and the Human Torch were fighting with each other?
STAN: Well, the only thing is . . then the Submariner wasn’t that much of a good guy. It was sort of his personality that he would not get along well. They were natural enemies. Fire and water.
Ted: Well, this was pretty unusual. I guess we can say that, in the comics, Marvel pioneered the whole idea of the anti-hero ... the superhero who isn’t really a hero.
STAN: Yes, I think you could say that because I think certainly Submariner is the first one that I . . . that I can remember. Bill Everett did the first SUBMARINER. . . he was sort of a hero-villain. He was really more hero than villain ... but he wasn’t 100% hero in the sense that the heroes are today.

Stan saw the anti-hero as part good guy part bad guy. Spider-Man, to Miss Kempton is an "absurd" hero, an anti- hero, as she states in her penultimate paragraph because unlike other superheroes, has never yet saved the human race from annihilation. His battles are unfailingly personal, hand-to-hand combats between’ a young man of precarious courage and the powerful social forces which threaten to destroy his hard-won security. He has no reassuring sense of fighting for a noble purpose, nor has he any outside support.”

Stan was learning that if you want the interview and the publicity, you had to go along with the idea of the interviewer.

Super Anti-Hero in Forest Hills

By Sally Kempton 

(The Village Voice, April 1, 1965)

Cult setting, a branch of the old science of trend spotting, became a national sport in the days of the old American Mercury, when H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan first, made I fashionable the cultivation of ‘- trivia. Mencken and Nathan probably invented Pop as well, but since people had other things to think about in those days, nobody else bothered to record it.

            Today, the press having finally I caught up with Menken and Nathan, both trivia-cultivation; and cult spotting has risen again to public prominence. Their latest manifestation is pop cult spotting, which began- in earnest in 1964 when Time magazine spotted the long-established Harvard Bogart Cult. Since then no trivia-cultist has been safe from the feature writer’s predatory eye.

Realizing that if Time was onto I a trend the trend must, be in its death-throes, other magazines rushed to spot newer pop-cults. The New Yorker came up with the Sunday: Afternoon-Reruns of the-Lone-Ranger-Cult. The Tribune noted that a small cordon of “stay-at-home intellectuals” Was’ watching daytime television. The Times began doing textual analyses of homosexual publications. At this point, the whole thing got out of hand and, in a desperate effort to stay e-step ahead of the in cognoscenti, the press turned to cult-creation. Defining pop as any object of ‘which a normal aesthetic judgment would disapprove’, the press took to, describing the 18th-century painter Fragonard as the object of a pop-cult. And, “Everybody on the social scene is working on pop movies,” crowed Eugenia Sheppard last October, in the Tribune. By “everybody”, she meant the girls in, Andy Warhol’s, “13 Most Beautiful Women” film.

            Master Stroke
But the Tribune made its masterstroke of pop-cult creation a few weeks later when it discovered the Golden Age of Comics and announced that “everybody” is buying old Batman and Superman magazines. Now the Paperbook Gallery has put a six-foot poster of the Phantom in its window, and the. Old Comics Cult is, presumably, fact. Two college girls, passing the window last week, looked reverently at the poster. “That’s the ultimate of pop-art.” One of the exclaimed and with these words delivered fashions’ coup de grace upon the literature of her childhood.

            Real pop art or not the Old Comics Book Cult has to be a fake. Reading old comics’ books is hard world; is it possible to enjoy Batman only when you continually remind yourself that you liked him when you were 12. As for new issues of Batman and Superman they are thin, even by comic book standards, Superman’s only concession to modernity has been a formation of a league of super-heroes, a dubious improvement at best and he is still as addicted to time machines as he was in 1940. Batman has not even his old childhood self. There is a real Comic Books Cult, but it has: nothing to do with the old heroes and it has claims on our attention other than those of nostalgia.

 Three Rules
I realize that in Making the above statement I risk casting My lot with Eugenia Sheppard and the Cult-Spotters Guild: Nonetheless, it must be said, for the Marvel Comics Cult is, under the existing Rules of Pop-Cult Spotting, ripe for exposure: It conforms to the first rule of pop (see above) and-also to rules-two (“Your cult must replace a previous, inferior cult”) and three (“No one else must have publicly spotted your cult”). Furthermore, it is a legitimate cult. College students interpret Marvel Comics. A Cornell physics Professor has pointed them out to his classes. Beatniks read them. Schoolgirls and housewives dream about the Marvel heroes. I myself was deeply in love with a Marvel hero-villain for two whole weeks. The fact is ‘that Marvel Comics are the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist --can get personally involved. For Marvel Comics are the first comic books to evoke, even metaphorically, the Real World.

  Stories Signed
The Marvel Comics Group has been in existence less than five years, and during that time their circulation has risen to about six million a year. As benefits pop literature in a pop-mad world, the Marvel books are highly self-conscious. Their covers announce adventures dedicated: “The New Breed of Comic Reader.” and two pages on the inside of each magazine are given over to advertisements for the Marvel fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society. All the stories are signed (“Earth-shaking Script by Stan Lee, Breath-taking’ illustrations by Jack Kirby; Epoch-making delineation by Chick Stone; and the, heroes, who range in style from traditional action types like Captain America to tragic, ambiguous figures like the Hulk, seem continually bemused by the way in which their apparently normal lives keep melting into fantasy. “This is so stupid it could only happen in a comic book” says the wise cracking monster, The Thing as he and his friend the Human Torch flee across a collapsing dam with a deadly iron ball in hot pursuit.

Recognizing that life has begun to imitate fantasy to such a degree that the public is most comfortable with fantasy which imitates life, the creators of Marvel comics have invented superheroes wish discernible personalities and relatively complex emotions. Further, they have given the heroes a recognizable geography.

Real Rulers
Thus, a Marvel Comics reader can get the impression that costumed superheroes form a sizable voting bloc in New York. In fact, one suspects that they are the real rulers of Manhattan. And they have left the citizens quite bewildered.

A New York cop, exercising his stop-and-frisk prerogative, never knows when he may accidentally rip the dark glasses from the powerful eyes of Cyclops. a benign super-mutant whose refractive ‘lenses hide an X-ray vision which will burn through the sidewalk if exposed; And, last year, New Yorkers awoke to find that their city had been take over by the undersea legions of Namor, the ruler of the sub-continent Atlantis. Washington was ‘afraid to bomb the invaders lest the bombs injure innocent citizens. ‘’Wait ‘til the Fantastic Four get here!” murmured a bystander as the submariners marched through Central Park. He was right: the Fantastic Four ultimately drove the undersea legions back into the Hudson.

            Local Landmarks
 There are approximately 15 superheroes in the Marvel Group and nearly all of them live in the New York area. Midtown Manhattan is full of their landmarks. On Madison Avenue the ‘ Baxter Building (“New York’s most” famous skyscraper”) houses the Fantastic Four and their various self-protective devices. Further down Madison Avenue is the flagpole from which Spider-Man swung the day he lost his spider powers. Somewhere in the east 60s the townhouse of playboy industrialist Tony Stark (alias Iron Man) is secret headquarters for the, Avengers, a group of traditional fighters for justice which includes the thunder god Thor. Thor in his human identity Ls the lame doctor Don’ Blake (whose cane ‘turns into a magic hammer when, he puts on his Thor costume) who works surgical miracles in an uptown hospital.

The newspaper run by J. Jonah Jamison, sworn enemy of costumed superheroes, is also in midtown. And “on the outskirts of ‘ Greenwich Village” Dr. Strange, the most bizarre super- hero of all, has his secret retreat. Strange is a master of occult knowledge and often walks around in ectoplasmic form; his creators imply that he lives in the Village because no one there is likely to become alarmed at being jostled by a wraith.

 Intellectual Elite
....In other respects besides geography, the Marvel world Mirrors the real world. Occupationally, of course, it has a heavy concentration of scientists, but then, these characters are supposed to be members of an intellectual elite and one cannot blame comic book writers for, idolizing physicists. Within this larger elite, however, there are subtle gradations. The aristocrats or the Marvel world are the Fantastic Four, four healthy, attractive, and socially prominent young people headed by physicist Reed Richards (who is dull but very dependable and has(great body-stretching powers) and his blonde’ debutante fianc√©e Sue Storm (invisibility powers) Sues outside interests are clothes. novel reading, and doing her nails. Her brother, Johnny Storm the Human Torch, races can and seems to have a bit of a death wish, but otherwise we cart take him for the Marvel prototype of a normal adolescent superhero. The Thing, otherwise Ben Grimm, is Reed’s old college roommate. The cosmic rays which gave the F. F. their powers turned Ben into a monster, and-he is a trifle bitter about the whole thing. Still, group loyalty usually prevails over his resentment, and on the whole, the Fantastic Four are quite aggressively well-adjusted. Everybody looks up to them.

Neurotic Superhero
The most popular Marvel hero, however, is much lower on the social scale. He is the maladjusted adolescent Spider-Man, the only overtly neurotic super hero I have ever come across. Spider-Man has a terrible identity problem marked inferiority complex, and a fear of women. He is anti-social, castration.-ridden, racked with Oedipal guilt, and accident-prone.

Spider-Man began life as Peter Parker, a brilliant science student at a Queens high school who lived with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in a Forest Hills split-level. He had no friends and was plagued by a dominating mother -figure. Then he got bitten by a radioactive spider and took, on the spider’s climbing, jumping, and web-shooting powers. Being a child of the television age, he immediately went on the Ed Sullivan Show (for which he received a check which, having no Spider-Man identification, he was unable to cash). On his way out of the studio, he saw a burglar escaping but, having decided to use his power only for his own benefit, refused to capture him. When he went home, Spidey found his uncle murdered by the same burglar. So, in a fumbling attempt to expiate his guilt, Spider-Man decided to devote his talents to public service.
Cocky Manner

Ill luck has pursued him ever since. His shyness led hint to adopt a cocky manner which so alienated the other superheroes that none of them will have anything to do with him. He is always having trouble maintaining his secret identity. And his powers are so closely allied to his highly problematic virility that they often seem to be on the verge of deserting him. His castration complex is constantly tripping him up. Once, while on the trail of a gang, he was trapped by the sinister villainess Princess Python. “What am I going to do?” he murmured desperately as she caressed his neck. “I can’t hit a girl.” Her presence had evaporated his web-shooting apparatus.

Another time, while standing on a roof surrounded on all sides by phallic-looking skyscraper towers, he began thinking about his Uncle Ben and became so consumed with guilt that he lost his spider-powers entirely. As he crawled home, thinking that now he could devote himself entirely to his Art May (toward whom guilt had made him more sub-missive than ever), he received word that Aunt May had been kidnapped by the evil Doctor Octopus. Eventually the need to act brought back his powers for Spider-Man is nothing if not a functioning neurotic

Needed Care
Spider-Man’s most significant adventure took place when J. Jonah Jamison began writing articles about the hero’s mental, instability. A psychiatrist had told Jamison that Spidey needed immediate psychiatric care, and Spider-Man became so worried by this that he went to the doctor for help. The psychiatrist was finally unmasked as the villain Mysterio, who had been trying to flip Spidey out by pasting his office furniture onto the ceiling and convincing the tormented superhero, that he was hallucinating. So Spider-Man escaped with his interior defenses intact (a psychiatrist can be the functioning neurotic’s greatest enemy, after all) only to fall, in the next issue, into the arms of a robot controlled by J. Jonah.

Spider-Man, unlike other superheroes, has never yet saved the human race from annihilation. His battles are unfailingly personal, hand-to-hand combats between’ a young man of precarious courage and the powerful social forces which threaten to destroy his hard-won security. He has no reassuring sense of fighting for a noble purpose, nor has he any outside support. Even the public which cries up his victories invariably deserts him in the clinches. Spider-Man is, God save us, an absurd hero, fighting with purely defensive weapons against foes he cannot understand. And, in last month’s issue, he I was finally sabotaged at home: Aunt May burned his Spider-Man costume so that he is now unable to venture out of doors.

How can a character as hopelessly healthy as Superman compete with this living symbol of the modern dilemma, this neurotic’s neurotic, Spider-Man, the super-anti-hero of our time.


  1. I think you read too much in the difference between this interview and the other one. Both Sub-Mariner and Spider-Man are antiheroes in that they don't conform to the hero ideal. I see no reason to infer Stan Lee disagreed with either interviewer.

  2. Patrick

    You make a good point, but I think now that I did not clearly state what I wanted to. I am just saying that if you had asked Stan his definition of an Anti-Hero he would not have come up with the one Ms. Kempton did, he saw the anti-hero differently. However, he accepted her observations.

  3. Personally, I think Stan was more on target with his "hero-villain." I can see why some people would call Spider-Man an "anti-hero" but he's far more straight "hero" than its opposite.

    Kempton was possibly a little too much addicted to the current art-scene to comment incisively on these matters.

  4. Lots of Spider-Man, no mention of Ditko. Perhaps a sign of the times at Marvel (Ditko and Lee not speaking all year), and Ditko (as always) not a "dominant" figure - always in the background, much like Dr. Strange - in the promo/marketing world for which Stan was aiming.

  5. Love the mention of Bill Everett creating the first anti-hero in comics, though (from that CoF interview with Lee)!

  6. Barry,

    I've had no luck commenting on your blog. Twice I lost what I thought were some interesting comments. This one I had to totally re-do and I'm sure its not as good!

    The Anti-Hero concept that Kempton initiates may have been another reason Ditko was at odds with Lee. While Lee cannot be blamed for the definition he never refuted it. To Lee, all publicity was good publicity. To Ditko, the concept of a hero had to be maintained and the sanctioning of the Anti-Hero concept could not have pleased him.

    Kempton doesn't get what Spider-Man is about. Instead of reporing what was on the printed page, she re-interpets the character, adding psychological neuroses by the ton. Her definition of the character is riddled with words such as "malajusted", "neurotic", "anti-social", "castration ridden" and "oedipal guilt". She states that Spider-Man has " reassuring sense of a noble purpose" (I guess she never read the line "With great power comes great responsibility").

    Its quite possible that Ditko was working on ASM # 31-33 at the time this article appeared. I wonder if that story was in response to what he must have felt was Kempton's mockery of the hero concept. Those issues clearly define Spider-Man not as a neurotic, absurd character, but an adolescent who has learned from his mistakes and grown up.