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.

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Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man is the only one that really matters

Steve Ditko’s death brought to focus the saying that his Spider-Man is the only true one and everyone after him is a bloke wearing a costume. That’s borne out by the fact that since the early 80’s every single writer who has taken over control of the character always mentions Ditko as an influence but the Peter Parker of today (a wealthy industrialist) is nothing like Ditko’s nebbish, freakish, sad little loser of a boy learning to interact with people and become a decent man who does the right thing.

Peter Parker isn’t a hero when Ditko and Stan Lee (I’ll leave how much involvement Lee had in Spider-Man to others but the title read more and more like Ditko as it progressed isn’t something that should be up for debate) start telling his story but he develops as the title moves on. Even so he’s always struggling with his heroism and the fact he’s a nobody; a loser.

Which brings me to Amazing Spider-Man #33.

Its here that Ditko’s Spider-Man becomes the hero he’s been building up to being, and yes, it’s that few pages of art (forget about the script, it only gets in the way) that over the decades has become so iconic that it can tell Spider-Man’s story in a few pages.Peter Parker is still disliked, even hated but he’s getting better by the end of Ditko’s run.

When Ditko left, Spider-Man carried on and although talents like John Romita and the great GIl Kane turned in some amazing work, they weren’t Ditko producing this odd wee title about a hero who doesn’t think he’s a hero, and in real life is hated by everyone but his aunt.

Other creators have tried; none succeeded. That’s Ditko’s legacy for Spider-Man.

 

Losing Steve Ditko

In one week we’ve lost Harlan Ellison and now, Steve Ditko. Both were uncompromising but whereas Ellison was vocal in defending his actions and work, Ditko was the exact opposite often to the detriment of his career.Ditko’s death hurts and I think the tributes pouring out for him are all so touching because although Jack Kirby was a genius who created a large part of the Marvel Universe, it was Ditko who created much of what Kirby didn’t.

Ditko was a reclusive to the point where the only pictures we have on him come mainly from one photo session in the early 1960’s. He spoke through his work and he did so in a way no creator working for Marvel or DC could today.

I wasn’t aware of Ditko as a kid. I was reading American imports of Spider-Man but this was the late John Romita, early Gil Kane run so it was through his DC work I was most familiar with him. Especially his creation, The Creeper who to this day I adore still.

It was though Marvel UK’s reprints I got to lap up Ditko’s Spider-Man and then his Hulk and Doctor Strange which blew my tiny little mind.

But it’ll be Spider-Man he’ll be remembered for and I’ll always remember his splash pages from Amazing Spider-Man annual #1.

It wasn’t til the 80’s that I became aware of how some fans as well as large chunks of the media were pushing the line that Stan Lee had created Spider-Man by himself, something Ditko addressed in his self-published comics.

Ditko never compromised. He could have but if you’ve read any of Ditko’s work you’d realise Ditko wasn’t about compromise. A is A. Ditko’s political beliefs would never let him sell out and it’s Ditko’s politics married with his visuals that made him unique. As a Guardian reading lefty, I should be repulsed by Ditko’s often hard right Ayn Randian philosophies but I’m fascinated by them, and in what it inspired Ditko to create.

Indeed, his politics was essential in creating the idea of his Peter Parker as an outsider, which set him aside from others in the era of Vietnam War protests.

When Ditko left Marvel it was here that things get interesting. His work for me at DC and Charlton is incredible with the aforementioned Creeper, plus the Blue Beetle and The Question standing out.

I’d come across Ditko’s work in the 70’s and loved the weird oddness of it all. I especially loved Killjoy which ran as a back-up in Charlton’s E-Man.

Although Ditko returned to Marvel in the 1980’s he left to work alone on his own comics published by Robin Snyder, and again, he’s still not compromising.

Ditko has been with us drawing comics for over 60 years and he never stopped creating, or doing what he wanted to do. Now he’s gone and we’ll never get Ditko’s worldview of right and wrong, good and evil or just what he thinks will thrill or astound us anymore.

He’ll be missed. The unique always should be.

What I thought of The Hawk and the Dove #1

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Steve Ditko remains a genius even though a lot of his personal politics are not things I agree with. In fact Ditko’s politics it can be safely said are waaaaaaaaaaaaaaayyyy over to the right of mine, but his voice remains a fascinating voice as mainstream American superhero comics since the 1960’s has been dominated by a leftish-liberal (as in the American version) voice which at times has resulted in a blandness. Having genuinely original thinkers like Ditko, Steve Gerber, Alan Moore, Howard Chaykin or Frank Miller provides a variation to the muchness of mainstream superhero comics.

The Hawk and the Dove was one of the titles Ditko worked on when he arrived at DC Comics after his time at Marvel and Charlton, and in many ways it is pure Ditko. There’s the Hawk (Hank Hall), a brutal young man who’ll solve problems with his fists, and the Dove ( Don Hall, a pacifist) which allows Ditko to present his right wing views.

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As seen in the panel above, Ditko is not fucking with us, or writer Steve Skeates who’d read the finest comic to see that Ditko had changed the entire script to make it fit his own philosophy so here’s the two heroes, one ready to kick arse, the other would rather not be there.

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Hank turns into the Hawk in order to fight the baddies who are robbing his dad, while pacifist leftie Don stands cowering in the corner at the violence being committed towards his dad. Seeing as this came out in the middle of the Vietnam War and at a time in the 1960’s where the anti-war movement was growing having a jingoistic, gung-ho, right wing reactionary superhero was challenging to say the least.

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Ditko can never be accused of subtlety. Don is a cowering spineless coward even when his brother is taking an absolute beating which isn’t hard to extrapolate that this is Ditko commenting on pacifism as a moral philosophy which is akin to selfish cowardice. This is brutal stuff, it’s wrong,  I hugely disagree but seeing Ditko’s views writ large in this story is challenging even 40 or so years later.

So, after taking a kicking from the Drop-Outs, Hank changes from the Hawk, when his father makes it clear he feels the Hawk is as bad as the robbers, something Don gloats about.

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After setting this up Ditko then goes in for the kill.

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Here Ditko presents Objectivism for the reader, the philosophy championed by Ayn Rand. This isn’t a case of moral grey, but black and white, A is A. Ditko then engages the reader in a debate as to whether vigilantism is right, or whether it’s the duty of any of us to step in when they see laws being broken. Effectively he’s questioning the entire reasoning of the superhero, as after all Batman and Spider-Man are essentially unelected,undemocratic forces of chaos unlike Don and Hank’s dad who is an elected force for order. There’s a hell of a lot Ditko’s forcing the reader to deal with here. Some of it is libertarian bollocks, but there are points which the right and the left have to deal with.

Eventually after several pages of moral angst from Don especially, Hank ends up going after the Drop-Outs himself, risking his life in the process. Thankfully though Don has see Ditko’s moral light via a little help with his powers.

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Don won’t fight, he does however find ways to turn defensive moves into attack without throwing a punch.

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After a fight where The Hawk and the Dove defeat the Drop-Outs, the revert back to being Don and Hank, and yes, here’s Ditko again making the debate perfectly clear.

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This is brilliantly demented stuff. You will simply not find this level of politics in mainstream superhero comics today, and when liberalism is veered away from it’s either insane right wing polemics, or some leftish mush that slides back into liberalism. There’s a simplistic political nature of more writers today in superhero comics, so they may be of the left or at least, near where my own personal politics are but they’re not saying anything interesting. Ditko did, I don’t agree with some of it but looking back at this with 40 years worth of hindsight it’s a more sophisticated story that I thought it was when I read it a wee boy wanting to see big fights.

Ditko is one of the last figures from the classic American era of the comics medium, he’s pretty much the only one still self-publishing via Kick-Starter projects. Go search his stuff out, it is, interesting…

What I thought of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1

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I keep get drawn towards Marvel’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl because it’s the sort of superhero comic I’d have utterly adored if I was 13, and I’m a lot older than that now and I still find it adorable. After all this is the second number one they’ve had this year, and they make a joke of this ludicrous marketing ploy on the cover which is fantastic.

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This issue starts with Squirrel Girl as an Avenger saving people from a fire using her powers of a squirrel and her squirrel friends, including Tippy-Toe. But the things that make this comics by Erica Henderson and Ryan North is the light joyful nature of the entire thing while at the same time keeping a feeling of the Steve Ditko weirdness of the character’s first appearances.

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This is a tiny little joy of a comic and probably the best thing Marvel Comics is doing right now because it’s not being too serious, neither is it trying to give the reader so many nods and winks that you can’t take it seriously as a solid superhero title with a sense of fun.

Pick this number one up, it’s great and it’ll make a matching pair with the other number one this year.

What I thought of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #2

Thoughts about #1.

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In this second issue of Marvel’s surprisingly fun new series the eponymous Squirrel Girl teams up with Iron Man (after a fashion) and gets ready to fight the most powerful being in the Marvel Universe, Galactus. It is extraordinarily silly and all the better for it.

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So why is Squirrel Girl the only person that can stop Galactus? Well, I said this is a silly comic…

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So they decide to go to the Moon to fight Galactus, but first they need to get to the Moon, which means stealing a load of Tony Stark’s Iron Man armor to make a pair of new suits for Squirrel Girl and Tippy Toe, her pet squirrel.

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This is all light fun superheroics where nobody stands around brooding or situations are treated seriously but instead the creators realise that not only is the character of Squirrel Girl silly, but treating superheroes as some sort of serious broody literature is just bloody daft, so we get a girl and her pet squirrel jetting off to the Moon to fight Galactus.

This is by no means a perfect comic, but it stand s out from the reams of utter dross published by Marvel and DC that doesn’t inspire and unlike most of these comics, it’s not just inspired by modern genre fiction, but there’s bits of inspiration from the history of comics here with Harvey Kurtzman’s Mad being the most obvious, not to mention DC’s Ambush Bug. It’s the sort of superhero comic the Big Two should look at and consider doing more titles that reach to a larger audience not just the core of middle aged men Marvel and DC seem happy to sell crap to.

What I thought of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1

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Squirrel Girl is a throwaway character Will Murray and the great Steve Ditko came up with in 1992 as a reaction against the endless reams of grim, dark, violent comics that were 99% of the time no bloody fun at all. Over the years Squirrel Girl has picked up a serious cult following (thanks to her ability to beat major Marvel villains like Doctor Doom and Thanos very, very easily using the power of squirrels) and now Marvel Comics have given her a solo title and it’s very, very silly but it’s also very, very fun and in a week that’s been pretty bloody horrible, this comic is the perfect antidote to it all. From the off writer Ryan North and artist Erica Henderson makes it clear this is silly.

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When a comic features a talking squirrel called Tippy Toe then it’s got to be better than yet another spandex clad gorefest where the ‘hero’ is morally ambiguous and the villain is yet another Saw inspired nutter.

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This is just big daft fun as Squirrel Girl experiences her first day at college and has a big superhero fight with Kraven the Hunter and generally gets a bit silly. It’s a lovely little example of old Marvel humour filtered into the current era and although it’s not exactly cutting new comedic ground, it’s still fresh and most of all, fun and that ultimately is good enough for me to the extent I may even buy the second issue I enjoyed this one so much.