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.

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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.

Have comic sales declined?

One of the big arguments of the Comicsgate lot is that sales of comics have declined because women or black people are writing them, so obviously that’s meant a serious decline.

In the real world, there’s a variety of reasons why sales have declined (the fact sales of superhero comics from Marvel and DC aren’t in dispute, the reasons however are) from video games, the internet, and pretty much everything you can think of. There are no simple answers.

Yet we actually live in a new Golden Age for comics. I can walk into any bookshop, see a comics/graphic novels section and see a variety of comics in a mix of genres from a vast swathe of creators of all sexes and races, and as for sales figures it turns out things are a lot more complex than we all firstly assumed with the theory that sales figures have been flat for 20 years with that argument going into its own complex grounds.

Sales of superhero comics through the Diamond catalogue are probably in terms of numbers, around the same but now so split and fractured among different companies that the Big Two (Marvel and DC) don’t get the market share they did. Then there’s digital and there’s also the elephant in the room that is piracy. Plus there’s the real evidence that for the Big Two, sales have declined with a top seller barely scraping 100k per month at a time when superheroes dominate the cultural landscape.

The question that has to be asked isn’t ‘why sales have dropped’ but ‘why have Marvel and DC failed so pitifully when the potential market is so huge?’. That’s a question that has an answer and it involves the failure of the direct market mixed with the lack of talent/imagination of the companies themselves. That’s also a question answered in the next blog…

Go get ‘Poisoned Chalice: The Extremely Long and Incredibly Complex Story of Marvelman (and Miracleman)’

Pádraig Ó Méalóid’s, Poisoned Chalice, his long history of the British comics character Marvelman, or Miracleman, has finally been printed and is available from your favourite non-taxpaying retailer Amazon.My copy is ordered and on it’s way so more when the Royal Mail eventually delivers it!

Why don’t superheroes have daft sidekicks anymore?

Back in the day superheroes had daft sidekicks like this.

Or like this:

Or like this:

Those are the Martian Manhunter’s Zook, Captain Marvel’s Mr. Tawky Tawney, and Supergirl’s pet cat, Streaky. They were fun, stupid and silly. They reflected the fact readers were mainly young kids but they also realised that the concept of superheroes are essentially, daft, as if you can have a Superman why not then a Supercat?

It was fun, innocent times as the readership grew up and rather let this sillyness remain it was purged, so superheroes became dark, cats were no longer super-strong and sidekicks or groups like the Teen Titans became crammed full of murderers and psychopaths because of ‘darkness’.

The fact is when the main audience for superhero comics were late teens to 60 plus in age, the urge to read daft, simple things which are fun is lesser. Partly because of the urge to make a childish genre ‘dark and mature’ but mainly because these people don’t want to be seen as being kids and since the industry listens to these people more than they should we end up with grimness upon grimness. With one big exception, Squirrel Girl’s Tippy-Toe.

I miss the days where most superhero comics were silly, and I find the endless piss-coloured stream of grimdark superheroes tedious but I can dream of the days of flying cats and talking tigers thinking it to be better than grim, moody murderers.

I’m suffering from Superhero film exhaustion

It’s New York Comic Con this weekend which means reams of stuff being pumped out by the major film and TV studios, lots of cosplay, some stuff about games and toys, plus more TV and film. Everything!! Even some comics at a comic convention! Shocking I know.

Anyhow, the new Aquaman trailer has dropped and it looks alright.

I’m not going to see it at the cinema because it’ll be a waste of time, and frankly, I’ll save my tenner and wait til it comes on the likes of Netflix. I don’t think it’s going to be a terrible film; in fact it’ll probably be fun but we’ve been here and frankly, it is bloody Aquaman, a character who’s been a running joke for much of his six plus decades since he first appeared in 1941.

There’s also a Venom film out this week which is getting dreadful reviews and indeed, trailers look appalling but again, I’ll catch it on Netflix because I’m bored with massive media companies milking their properties regardless of whether people actually want to see them, or they’ll be very good. Instead it’s a case of throwing product out (and this is indeed, product), having a big week or two then tailing off. Repeat and rinse.

But this is all becoming exhausting, and frankly, boring. We’ve got a new Batman film coming drawn probably from the works of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, plus a few Joker films also drawn from Miller and Moore. Of course film companies are going to milk a genre while its hot, but this is genuinely exhausting to muster up any joy anymore. There will of course be a time when the superhero film tails off as studios suffer diminishing returns and the taste of audiences change onto something else. We’ll still have superhero films just not as many, and not as many pointless ones telling stories we’ve kind of seen before.

Til then try to get excited about bloody Aquaman!

Does whatever a spider can…

I’m struggling with writing blogs at the minute because I’m playing the new PS4 Spider-Man game and it’s fucking awesome.

There’s been lots of great Spidey games over the years, and in many they manage to capture some of what made Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s creation great, but this (so far) seems to get it. The fact the game is an open world game that allows you to just swing around New York in the sort of detail that’s astonishing to watch is another added attraction as you could spend hours swinging around and not even playing the story.

So I’ve got quite literally loads of blogs that are half finished, and I’ll endeavour to put the game down long enough to actually finish some over the next week which will be easier said than done!