It is a truism among those who talk about comics that Stan Lee revolutionised and revitalised an ailing genre by moving beyond the simple action and silliness of the Golden and Silver Ages of comics to give us characters who had depth, with real personalities and who had normal human interactions with one another. As such he is established in the popular consciousness as the creator of Marvel’s hugely successful gallery of superheroes.
Now, I find this troubling for a number of reasons. First, we know pretty well that in fact much of the creation of these Marvel superheroes was down to Jack Kirby, and we know from Kirby’s solo work (The Fourth World, OMAC, the Demon, etc) that he had no truck at all with the Stan Lee method: if his characters talk at all, it is to utter the largest of large talk; personal issues are entirely absent, unless directly connected with the plot, and even then, Kirby clearly finds the interpersonal relations bits dull and gets straight on to the big, big ideas. Second, we know that the Marvel method for creating comics was for the artist and writer to agree a basic plot outline, then for the artist to draw the comic, and then for the writer to attach words to the images. This is not a text-led approach, which is surely what we would expect if the supposed Lee-led revolution in fact took place. Third, to say that comics previous to Lee had no depth is simply nonsensical. Superman and Batman had complex personal lives from the very outset. Fourth, as I said above, Jack Kirby’s solo work is resolutely not inspired by the Lee approach, and yet his characters have enormous depth. As Alan Moore has observed, Lee’s characters are strictly two dimensional: Spiderman is basically a standard issue superhero who’s schtick is that he is a whiny teenager; Darkseid is a tremendously complex and sophisticated tragic hero who defies description.
So, in this piece I want to have a look at the Stan Lee revolution to see how it might really have arisen, and what this means for the popular narrative about the history of comics.
So as to avoid being invidious, rather than pick any one of Lee’s works, I will base my analysis on The Great Darkness Saga, a story from the ongoing soap-opera that was the Legion of Superheroes. This is clearly written in the Lee manner, with characters who chatter about their personal lives and bewilderingly complex relationships, but in this case I happen to have access not only to the finished comics, but also the original scripts from which they were derived. This makes it possible to see how the Lee style ‘character depth’ arose, at what stage of the creative process it appeared, and even that it came about not as a result of an artistic decision, but as a simple necessity, given the mode of composition.
The Great Darkness Saga is a series from 1982 featuring the Legion of Superheroes. Typically, it contains a vast array of characters who never seem to let the fact that they’re in deadly peril impede their desire to break off whatever they’re doing to have long conversations about their personal lives, especially their love-lives and their bizarrely obscure rivalries. In one particularly egregious example, at the height of a battle against a massively powerful evil that eventually turns out to be directed by none other than Darkseid, one character, who is meant to be handling the team’s communications , actually refuses to pass on orders from the leader, because he is annoyed that she beat him in a recent leadership election that the team inexplicably took time out from fighting off massively powerful evil and all that for the sake of. Clearly universes under threat are as nothing compared to campaigning to be the boss, and indulging in tediously long-winded outbreaks of jealousy and accusations of adultery. And, even more egregiously, nobody bats an eyelid at this grossly irresponsible behaviour. Sure, this person nearly lost the battle against massively powerful evil, but that’s not important: what’s important is that bad losers should be allowed to be as petulant as they want. At a lower level, individual legionnaires take every opportunity to stop doing what they’re doing, stuff that actually matters, and start discussing their relationship issues, to such an extent that sometimes one would think the enemy they were confronting was insensitivity to one another’s feelings rather than Darkseid. And all this is done in the style of an eighties soap opera, so the relationship talk is deadly, deadly serious.
So, let’s look at the script. Keith Giffen, who scripted and drew the piece, provided a script which essentially sets out, for each page or panel, who’s there, and what happens, pretty much at the level of ‘page 17, the Legionnaires talk while we wait for Darkseid’s minions to arrive on Earth’. Then he proceeded to draw page 17, and it was left up to the unfortunate Paul Levitz to produce sufficient words to sustain some kind of interest until Keith got back to folks biffing one another again.
Now, this method worked brilliantly for Giffen in his surrealist Ambush Bug epics, because there the whole point is that the visuals are fractured and change constantly and that the text should be incomprehensible. The fact that the two don’t fit is, if anything, an advantage. And, most important, the sheer speed of movement, from one lunacy to the next, means that the reader never gets time to settle down and become properly oriented, and to discover that actually what they’re reading is basically meaningless nonsense (and very good meaningless nonsense too). But The Great Darkness Saga is no Ambush Bug, and moves at the stately pace of epic, with plenty of long stretches where nothing much happens and words are needed to keep the reader engaged. So Levitz had to write lots of words about, basically, nothing, and, as a consequence we got lots of inconsequential filler about relationships and the like because, well, he couldn’t write anything relevant to the plot, because that could cause problems when he next had to synchronise with the pictures, so ‘What were you doing talking to my wife?’ or ‘I don’t care if you won the election and I lost my deposit, I still think I should be leader’ and the like ended up filling up an awful lot of space. Because, you see, all this Stan Lee method interpersonal stuff has the great advantage that it’s unimportant, forgettable, and can be stretched to fill as much space as is required.
After all that, the conclusion is obvious. Stan Lee’s supposed great revolution was nothing of the sort, and is simply the natural consequence of an over-stretched and not very imaginative writer who found himself pulled every which way by highly imaginative artists, and a production ethic that cared more for spectacle, and the look of the comic, than for whether it told a good story. It’s not a revolution; it’s simple expediency.