Alan Moore’s Lost Stan Lee Essay, 1983, part 1 of 2. (Part 2 is here.)
“I doubt that any of you sitting out there reading this are totally unfamiliar with the name Stan Lee…unless, of course, you happen to be one of those unfortunates who have spent their childhoods in a laundry hamper. Should this be the case, then please allow me to fill you in on the necessary details.
Stan Lee is the name of the flawed genius responsible for the Marvel Comics empire in its entirety. Without Stan Lee, you would not be reading this. Without Stan Lee there would have been no Fantastic Four, no X Men, no Hulk, no Thor, no nothing. Without Stan Lee there quite probably would have been no Conan movie and it is almost certain the comic book industry as a whole would be vastly different, assuming that it existed at all.
On the other hand, without Stan Lee you wouldn’t have to sit through such marrow-chilling dreck as the Spider-Man television show. I suppose it’s a case of having to take the rough with the smooth.
My long-distance acquaintance with this gentleman goes back some twenty years to the fateful day when, laid up with one of those loathsome childhood, I had sent my mother out to buy me my weekly comics ration. The particular comic I had been after was an issue of DC’s Blackhawk.
Knowing, however, that my maternal parent would be unlikely to remember anything as demanding as a two-syllable word like Blackhawk, I played it safe and told her that the comic I wanted featured a bunch fo people who all wore blue uniforms.
What turned up was Fantastic Four number three. Imagine my surprise.
My mother, of course, apologised profusely. For this reason I let her off with a mild cuffing and didn’t loose the dobermans upon her, as was my usual practice. Some two hours later, after I’d finished reading FF no.3 for something like the eighth time, I realised that she had in fact done me a tremendous service. This comic was utterly stark raving foaming-at-the-mouth stupendous!
Now, I was not the sort of child who regularly went in for lavish displays of gratitude but I recall that evening I threw mother an extra lump of raw meat and agreed to consider putting a couple of extra links in her chain…
At this point I should perhaps explain exactly what it was that devastated me about the third issue of the Fantastic Four. After all, when the issue first appeared, most of you readers were just a bunch of random genes and chromosomes wandering around looking for somebody to happen to. On top of that, you have grown up in a world where you have something in the region of forty different super-hero titles to chose from each month.
I doubt you can imagine the sheer impact that single comic possessed back there in the comic-starved wastelands of 1961 or whenever it was. Especially to someone whose only exposure to the super hero had been the clear-cut and clean-living square-jawed heroes featured in DC comics at the time. The most immediately noticeable thing was the sheer strangeness of Jack Kirby’s art. It had a craggy, textured quality that looked almost unpleasant to eyes that had become used to the graceful figures of Carmine Infantino or the smooth inking of Murphy Anderson. That said, it was a taste which quickly grew upon me.
Only a few short months later I couldn’t really look at Infantino or Kane or Swan or any of the other DC artists of that period without feeling that there was something missing… a lack of grittiness or something. Like I say, the art was very, very strange. Those of you whose only exposure to Kirby’s artwork has been something like ‘The Eternals’ can’t begin to imagine how strange.
The writing, however, was stranger. It wasn’t the plot that was so exceptional… as I recall the plot featured a second rate villain called the Miracle man who had the power to create illusions. He attacked the Fantastic Four, beat them, they regrouped, beat him, end of story. Nothing special.
What was special was the characterization…the way the characters talked, thought and behaved. I mean, think about it for a moment…there was a standard noble scientist type called Reed Richards who was given to making long-winded and pretentious proclamations on everything from Epsilon radiation to Universal Love.
There was his wimpy and fainthearted girlfriend, Susan Storm, who always looked as if she’d be much happier curled up in an armchair with a bottle of valium and the latest issue of Vogue rather than being captured by the Mole Man or someone of that ilk.
There was her skinny, teenaged brother Johnny who was brash, loudmouthed and not a little obnoxious, the sort of person who looked like he’d have less trouble picking up an articulated lorry than he would have picking up a steady girlfriend.
And last, but certainly not least, there was Ben Grimm, the Thing.
In those early days, the Thing was nothing at all like your cuddly, likeable ‘Orange Teddy-bear’ of later years. In those days he was portrayed as being something like a manic-depressive Hulk with a constant migraine headache, forever sprouting dialogue along the liens of “Bah! Out of my way, puny mortal!” and smashing up cars and buildings with a gusto that would leave the average soccer hooligan gaping with admiration.
On more than one occasion he came dangerously close to actually murdering the Human Torch while in a bad mood and in general you had the impression that he was always on the verge of turning into a fully fledged villain and quitting the Fantastic Four for good.
To someone who had cut his teeth upon the sanitised niceness of the Justice League of America, this was heady stuff indeed. I mean, in DC comics, if Superman ever said anything remotely nasty to Batman or Wonder Woman you knew that he was either suffering from the unpredictable effects of Red Kryptonite or was having his mind controlled by Lex Luther’s latest ‘Brain-Ray’.
With Ben Grimm, you knew that he was quite likely to pull someone’s arms and legs off one at a time for no better reason than that his corn-flakes had gone all soggy before he got round to eating them that morning.
There was a memorable scene in that selfsame issue three which featured the Invisible Girl proudly presenting her team-mates with some new costumes which she had designed (Up until that point, the Fantastic Four had dressed in ordinary street clothes.)
The Thing’s Costume was a skintight blue affair complete with black boots and a blue helmet which did it’s best to conceal his hideous, lumpy orange face. By the end of the issue he had ripped it to pieces in a fit of temper and stamped off wearing only the black bootees and the modified Y-Fronts which we know and love today.
In the same time, the Human Torch threw a screaming temper tantrum that would have looked better on a five-year old and decided to leave the Fantastic Four forever. With all this going on, you can see why I was less than interested by the Miracle Man and his horde of illusory monsters.
It was my first taste of Stan Lee’s writing and I was hooked.
Subsequent issues were no let down. In issue four the Sub Mariner made his first appearance since the 1950’s, turning up in the guise of a down and out amnesiac tramp who was quietly rotting away in a Bowery flophouse until said establishment was visited by the Human Torch who was still on the run from his three teammates.
In what, to me, remains one of the most electrifying comic scenes ever, an awestruck Johnny Storm ignites one finger using his flame-power and begins to shave away the tramp’s shaggy mane of hair and tangled beard to reveal the unearthly triangular face and elegant curving eyebrows of Prince Namor, the legendary Sub Mariner.
And on and on it went. And not only within the pages of the Fantastic Four: during this period Lee was expanding the whole Marvel line-up, revamping the flagging mystery titles to include a constantly increasing menagerie super-humans, and, most remarkably, writing them all himself. Thor, Ant Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, The Hulk, The Avengers… bearing in mind that the majority of these titles were monthlies, perhaps you’d like to sit down with a pencil and paper and work out just how many pages of script Stan the Man was having to turn out in any given month in addition to being the managing editor of a rapidly snowballing comic-book empire.
I mean, I myself have been known to pen a page or two in my time, but the thought of a workload like the that makes me tremble uncontrollably and give voice to funny squeaking noises. The man must have had eight pints of black coffee where most of us have blood.
Naturally, not all the scripts were that good, although if anyone had suggested that to me at the time I would have ripped their spine out and fed it to them an inch at a time.
Like most readers of that period I had become totally brainwashed by the sheer bellowing overkill of the Marvel publicity machine. If a cover-blurb in formed me that Millie the Model meets The Rawhide Kid was “The Greatest Action Epic of All Time” then by God, so it was and never mind about War and Peace, The Bible, King Solomon’s Mines and Moby Dick. As far as I was concerned, if it wasn’t written by Stan Lee it wasn’t in the running.
Probably the most remarkable thing that Stan Lee achieved was the way in which he managed to hold on to his audience long after they had grown beyond the age range usually associated with comic book readers of that period. He did this by constant application of change, modification and development.
No comic book was allowed to remain static for long. Iron Man traded in his gunmetal-grey juggernaut of a costume for the sleek red and gold affair that was gradually turned into the costume we know today. The Hulk left the Avengers, never to return. A Howling Commando got killed from time to time. You can say what you like about the early Marvel universe, but it sure as hell wasn’t boring.
As the sixties wore on, Lee’s writing began to mirror the changes that were taking place in the society about him. The gritty, streetwise realism slowly gave way to a sense of adventure and wonder on a grand and cosmic scale, just as thousands of middle class American kids were donning kaftans, growing their hair and setting out for San Francisco in search of cosmic adventures of their own.
To many, this ‘visionary’ period of Lee’s writing stands as his finest work. Personally, although it knocked me for a loop at the time, I can see with hindsight that in many ways it spelled the beginning of the end. That said, while it lasted it was probably the most fun you could have without risking imprisonment.
The Fantastic Four encountered, in swift succession, the stunning planet-eater known as Galactus, the soulful and simonized Silver Surfer, the Black Panther’s technological utopia set in the heart of the African jungles, the Inhumans, the Watcher and a vast plethora of equally brain-numbing individuals.
Thor encountered the Rigellian colonizers and more memorably, Ego the Living Planet. I’ll never forget turning the last page of that particular issue of Journey into Mystery to be confronted by the full-page spectacle of a massive organic planet with the grafted-on face of a malign octogenarian.
Believe me, when people my age wax lyrical about the sense of wonder to be found in those old comics, that’s the sort of thing they’re talking about. It was the sort of once-in-a-lifetime utterly mind-roasting concept that made you wonder just long Lee and his Bullpen buddies could keep up that sort of pace and style.
The answer was, sadly, not long.”