Purging the stereotype of 1990’s comics

I watched this video about Marvel’s pretty dismal reboot of some of their titles back in the 90’s, and on the whole its fine but uses the lazy stereotype of 90’s comics being all bulging Liefeldesque characters and really, not very good.

It seems to be the view of Millennial commentators that the 90’s were crap but the truth is the 90’s were probably the decade where one could still be surprised by what the mainstream would do with even Marvel producing quality work at the end of a decade where the majority of their output was instantly forgettable

Say the 90’s to a certain age and type of fan and they’ll think of Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man or Spawn, Jim Lee’s X Men or Image work, but many will think instantly of this piece by Rob Liefeld .

There’s nothing defensible about that piece. In every way it is awful It represents a small part of 90’s comics. It doesn’t represent say, Preacher, Sandman, The Invisibles, Grendel, Love and Rockets, Sin City, Concrete, Nexus, Yummy Fur, From Hell, Bone and Hate plus many, many other titles showed a real diversity when one walked into a comic shop.Even mainstream superhero titles weren’t all bad with Marvels, Kingdom Come and enjoyable runs on Batman stood out in a decade where you could still get a variety in terms of comics.

But of course there were piles and piles of trash much of which still live in dealers 50p boxes but as a decade, the 90’s were more diverse and adventurous than most of your YouTube generation critics give it credit for. Indeed one could make the argument that it was a golden decade for comics and personally, I like to think it was as the number of great comics that came from that decade after the Cold War and before the War on Terror.

What happens is though, that there’s an assumption for history from people that look only at it from one point of view which is often the view of the lazy consensus. As is often the case the truth is more revealing, not to mention interesting than the commonly accepted view of it.

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Avengers: Endgame is the blandest title ever!

After months of building up tension and excitement the new Avengers film has a trailer and title, and behold the name is AVENGERS! er, Endgame?!

Really?

Marvel have been good in using the comics for titles, which apparently has been nice for ageing creators who’ve ended up with a nice cheque and indeed, the name Annihilation was being thrown around and it’s a good, final, dramatic name.

But nah, we get Endgame, which sounds so bland it should be the name of a cheap margarine rather than a film which will make billions of squillions because it’s following Infinity War and is the end of the first decade of Marvel’s rise from risk taker (and in 2018 it is forgotten how much 2008’s Iron Man was a massive risk) to being a money-making colossus that’s helped rewrite popular culture across the world.

So we get a name probably dreamed up by marketing men playing things safe, but it is now a thing and we have to live with this thing.

And all this is about a trailer that’s gloriously bleak and downbeat. Enjoy…

The early days of comic collecting

I watched the video below featuring some names which will be unfamiliar to around 95% (at least)  of people reading comics today. It’s an often interesting, sometimes dull to be honest, chat about the early days of comic collecting but it is an amazingly crucial bit of comics history which could get lost in this age of cosplay and billion dollar ‘franchises’ which in the US, and the UK, has seen nothing of the appreciation that around the world has for the medium til fairly recently.Certainly back in the 60’s, the idea of collecting comics was like stamp collecting, trainspotting, coin collecting and wanking were childish things that would be put away upon entering adulthood, but as we know all these things are done by adults and seen as respectable.

Comics still were treated with contempt. Early comics fandom on both sides of the Atlantic tried to attach themselves to science fiction fandom but it was on the whole, treated with contempt for years which is why in the 60s comics fandom as an entirely different thing from SF fandom became a clear, identifiable thing.

The early history of British fandom sees this Cain and Abel relationship, and even after comics started having their own conventions 50 years ago in the UK, they still would often piggyback SF being it conventions or bookshops, andif you wanted to buy comics you’d have to scour cities to find them often in newsagents cum dirty old man bookshops of the type that no longer exists in the corporate worlds of the 21st century high street.

So I love the fact that this verbal history of early comic collecting exists as nature is taking its course and there’s not going to be much left of those generations up til the 80’s when comics finally became mainstream. Once we’re gone all these stories will be lost and I know for a fact I’m not the only person who thinks along these lines.In fact one of the attendees of the first British comic con in Birmingham in 1968 spoke to me on Facebook a while back about doing something to document the comics industry in the UK, and I need to get my arse in gear to help him with that.

History matters not only so the work of so many of us in building comics to where it is today goes recognised, but mainly to let fans of today know they’re just a small piece in an ongoing story that’ll never end. Sure things change, but they’re just having the torch passed on but we need to know where we came from otherwise people won’t know the history, and what it took to get us to the stage where we are today.

The legacy of Stan Lee

Now that Stan Lee’s death has sunk in, the conversation turns to his legacy which considering that some of his obituaries are crediting him with the likes of Captain America, the time for this to be made clear is now.

The first thing to be said is that Lee’s position in comics is unquestioned. Without Lee, comics today would be very, very different and as for Marvel, they’d have went bust without Lee’s work in the 60’s. There also isn’t any question that Stan Lee helped create iconic characters now worth billions or that his dialogue helped sell Marvel Comics, or that he was a very nice man as anyone who met him can testify to.

No, the issue lies with ownership. Stan was always the publishers nephew and an exceptional companyman for Marvel even during the times he wasn’t welcome in the 90’s in the company he helped build.Stan claimed ownership of everything to the point where it became a joke in recent years.that Stan would have claimed credit for the Bible if he was around.

The issue of ownership is important because  while Stan was alive he never gave people like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko the credit they deserved. Sure, he’d give them credit for being great artists but never actually the credit they wanted, and because when Stan was interviewed especially after the 70s, it’d be no more than a promo film for Stan/Marvel, journalism failed. Except one time when Jonathan Ross interviewed him.

One of the reasons Lee’s claims to have essentially thought all the Marvel characters up and then gave them to an artist to fill out is nonsense, is partly because we can look at Lee’s post and pre peak-Marvel output and see how thin it is creatively. She-Hulk amounts to Lee’s one lasting post Jack Kirby/Ditko/etc creation. The main reason is the weight of evidence from not only co-creators but those staff who worked at Marvel, not to mention artists who came in after the peak 63-66 period of Marvel.

The site Comic Book Historians has an excellent listing of Stan’s, well, bravado and liberal application of what he created, and it’s pretty damning. Also in the week of Stan’s death, Howard Chaykin’s splendid history of comics, Hey Kids! Comics. released it’s fourth issue…

This issue deals largely with its version of Stan Lee. Its pretty brutal in places. Funky Flashman levels of brutal.It’s also essential reading as Chaykin’s comic is a telling of all those stories creators tell each other that never hit the history books…

So what’s Stan’s legacy? Is he a jocular grandad who built a universe from an amazing spurt of creativity over six years or was he always the companyman working to ensure the creations now worth billions stayed safe with the company? Was he someone who could make a wee boy’s year by signing a Hulk comic for him or was he someone who didn’t especially care about giving his co-creators the credit they deserved?

Fact is, it’s all of the above. Stan’s legacy is going to be a complex, and probably messy one. The truth is comics wouldn’t be the same without him, but the truth is also he wasn’t the creator he made himself out to be and that complexity is going to make some people reappraise Stan, but that’s probably a good thing. If it gets the names of Stan’s co-workers out there and helps give a more accurate picture of Marvel’s Silver Age before all the men and women involved pass away then that’s a good thing and that can be Stan’s legacy.

How to draw comics the Marvel way

How to draw comics the Marvel way is probably the best ‘how to’ book for beginners to learn to draw comics, and not just superhero comics Produced by Stan Lee and John Buscema, it’s a step-by-step guide to well, draw comics the Marvel way.

Back in the late 80’s a companion video was released featuring Lee and Buscema. Stan was just coming out of his Funky Flashman phase while Buscema was nearing the end of his career but his talent as one of comics true greats is clear. The video is a relic of the time but it’s still one of the best guides out there, plus Stan’s wig is amazing.

RIP Stan Lee

Stan Lee is dead at 95 years old. For me Stan is eternally wearing an open-necked shirt and a bad wig as he sailed through the 1960’s into the 70’s.

The first time I met Lee he looked like this. That was waaaaaaay back in the late 70’s when he came to the UK (something he did often as his wife Joan was from Newcastle) to sign copies of Hulk Weekly.

By this point Stan had barely written a word of comics in years but every Marvel comic opened with the legend, Stan Lee Presents… so us young folk assumed Stan was still there working away but by 1979 Stan was at best a figurehead as he pushed all of Marvel’s characters to a variety of film and TV studios, with at best varied results. However I’d also grown up saying ‘Stan and Jack’ because the idea of separating Lee from Kirby during a still astonishing period of creativity during the 60’s that saw Marvel develop from a company going out of business to a cultural phenomenon.

Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four remains the peak of what Marvel could do in the 60’s. The first 101 issues contain no filler. Every issue drops a new character, or concept or story that’s simply glorious and instead of spending a year developing an idea to death, Kirby and Lee would use two or three issues at most before moving onto something else. Take the run from FF Annual #3 with the wedding of Reed and Sue through to #44’s introduction of the first Inhuman, to #48’s introduction of Galactus and the Silver Surfer, ‘the sublime story This Man, This Monster in #51 and the introduction of the Black panther in #52.Any single issue would be something for most creators today to hang their C.V up on. Kirby and Lee were firing them out monthly.

Stan Lee helped shape me. Marvel’s tales of two-dimensional morality were great and with the visuals of a Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko or Wally Wood they were perfection. Of course I wasn’t to know that Kirby, Ditko, Wood, etc were being ripped off thanks partly to Stan’s myth-making. I only cared about the comics which brings me back to that first time I met Stan. He was everything I expected. Charming, witty and bigger than Galactus.  He may have spelled my name wrong but fuck it, Stan Lee signed my comic!!A decade or so later someone nicks it.Ah well.

Second time I met Stan was at one of the UKCAC‘s in London. He wasn’t a guest but was in town and heard there was a comic convention on. I remember Mike Lake and John McShane sticking their head into the free bar which Titan Distributors stuck on for dealers on the Friday evening telling everyone that ‘fucking hell guys, Stan fucking Lee is outside signing stuff’. Carrying as much free beer as one can, I stuck my head out the door and yes, there was Stan fucking Lee signing stuff. By this point I was aware of the stories that circulate both in and out of public domain but fuck it, there’s Stan fucking Lee reducing dealers, distributors and assorted hangers on to drooling fanboys. I mean I knew what he’d done to Kirby and Ditko especially, I knew he didn’t have anything to do with creating characters he still carries a co-creator credit on and I’d read Kirby’s vicious caricature of him; Funky Flashman, which featured a pathetic Roy Thomas trying to convince Stan to hand over the family jewels to him.

But Stan had a way to make you forget the stories and swallow the myth whole. This is basically what Stan’s done for the 21st century; sell the myth of Marvel and now he’s passed away and it’s impossible to tear apart the man from the myth that he’s spent 60 years cultivating.

So what did Stan actually do?

Without a doubt he sold Marvel Comics. The Fantastic Four would be an interesting alternative to the Challengers of the Unknown and probably sold well enough, but without Lee’s lines of dialogue punching up Kirby’s art, not to mention Lee’s careful stewardship of Marvel during the 60’s, we’d not have billion dollar films today. In fact superhero comics might not have lasted into the 70’s as DC’s superhero revival of the late 50’s was losing steam by 63, and they had to adapt to the world Marvel created. And Lee saw comics as an art form; a medium to tell stories that can’t be told any other way or to cultivate talent which couldn’t be cultivated in any other medium. His attempts to mainstream Underground Comix of the age testifies to that.

Stan Lee took what he had to push comics, and in a stab to the Gamergate crew, pushed a liberal agenda of basic human decency in editorials which spoke to us, the reader. it made us feel good about ourselves and for many of us having hard times or looking to escape, Stan sold us what we wanted. He gave us joy. The same sort of joy a wee boy getting a Hulk comic signed felt all those years ago.

There’s going to be a time and place to give Stan a real tribute that is warts and all the complexity that come with it. All that can be said for now is that for those of us with a long history in comics, Stan is a complex figure but his passing may not come as a shock. 95 is a good age, but with Lee’s passing another link to those early days of comics from the Golden to Silver Age is gone.

So lets remember Stan the showman. Stan the Man.

The comics industry is run by crooks and mobsters…

In my last blog I spoke about whether comics sales had declined, and laid out the question  ‘why have Marvel and DC failed so pitifully when the potential market is so huge?’ and said the failure of the direct market with a mix of talent/imagination being in short demand being blamed for this. I’m only partly right as the blame also lies with the big companies who act often like thugs from a Warner Brothers 1930’s gangster film.

Hyperbole right? Well not really. The entire comics industry was forged in the world of mobs and gangsters as laid out in Gerard Jones’s excellent book Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic BookIndeed as late as the 80’s, the mob had a hand in the distribution pie as Jim Shooter points out in his blog.

But the direct market came along, shifted the focus of distribution from newstands to specialist comic shops, the mob were gone, and for a while it seemed like the crooks and charlatans running the industry were gone, or at the very least, reduced to a handful and the business became professional. Some creators even became famous outwith the comics bubble and some even became very rich by finding a formula and selling it to film or television to be developed.  However creativity was reduced as companies moved away from being creator focused to being focused on developing ‘properties’ created by men and women paid little to nothing who if still alive, watch corporations and their executives grow fat and bloated from their work.

If this sounds bitter, it’s because this is a sad truth of the industry. There’s the tales told at convention bars in the early hours that aren’t able to be told in public for obvious reasons of publishers doing their best to wreck people. Some of these stories are leaking out as people die, or they’re being used as part of Howard Chaykin’s splendid Hey Kids! Comics!, which outlines the history of comics that’ll never be told on a Marvel or DC film making of documentary.

Comics, or at least the world of superhero comics, are not free of old-school gangsters, but they’ve been replaced by the thuggery of the corporation. Fans of the corporation and it’s ‘property’ are a thing now as they defend corporations against the sons and daughters of those creators who in many cases died in perjury. The corporations that are now Marvel and DC have chased away creativity for formula, as a whole as there is some diamonds in the rough.

So we have an industry whose works are more popular than at any time since the American comic book was born nearly a century ago, and an industry struggling to sell comics but both Disney and Warners see comics as farms for the real money in films, TV and merchandising. Yet there’s hope. The internet has opened up comics to more people, while creators who would never get a foot in the door of the Big Two are now making themselves known through self-publishing online. People are coming into the world of comics who love the medium and aren’t just speculators who won’t be around in a few years.

Things are getting better but right now the industry is suffering development pains, so it’s down to those who can to help guide things through to we all come out the other side better than the past.