Thursday, 23 August 2018

THE RISE AND RISE OF STAN LEE - GUEST POST BY BARRY PEARL...



Bashful BARRY PEARL has graciously deigned to write a guest post about STAN LEE for Crivens!  (In case you didn't know, that's Stan above, to the right [from our point of view] of that incredibly handsome and sophisticated individual whose name escapes me for the moment.  Oh, wait a sec - now I remember.  It's that suave, sexy, manly-man, Kid Robson.)  So without any further ado ('cos it's all done), let's read what Barry has to say about 'The Man'.

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Let's start with one important fact:  The decade of the 1960s was Marvel's most creative period, especially during the first five years.

I'm often puzzled by people who try to diminish the accomplishments of Stan Lee by asking "What did he do after Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby left?"  The question is ambiguous and suggests that they don't understand Stan's job at Marvel in those days.  Stan was not only a writer, but also editor and art director for much of the decade, and the reason the question is ambiguous is because Steve Ditko left in 1965, five years before Kirby did in 1970, and we need to count those years, though many detractors don't.

Of course, an equally valid question may well be "What did Kirby and Ditko do after they left Marvel?"

No matter what fans want to think, producing comics is a business - the art and story come second.  Stan's job was to make money for Marvel, produce comics on time, and increase sales, something which he did very well.  Even Jack Kirby said that his job was to "sell magazines" - not necessarily to create good ones, but to sell them.  In 1960 Marvel was selling 16,000,000 copies a year.  By 1966, Steve Ditko had left and, even though he was no longer on Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, Marvel was selling 35,000,000 comics a year.  Without missing a beat,  Stan assigned Spidey to John Romita and added many aspects to the character that Ditko had abandoned.  Aunt May looked younger, Peter Parker became handsome, and he got a girl-friend or two that he could actually keep.

The new team not only produced great stories (I loved numbers 39 and 40, Romita's first issues), but they'd soon also created a great villain - The Kingpin.  This version of Spider-Man garnered new readers and became a college sensation, drawing in older readers who'd abandoned comics a decade earlier.  Spidey became Marvel's biggest seller, and by 1970, Marvel's total annual circulation had increased to 60,000,000.  Five years after Ditko left,  circulation had doubled.  That was Stan's job.  If you're going to blame him later, than you have to credit him now.  With circulation up and more money coming in, publisher and owner Martin Goodman enabled Stan to recruit not just Romita, but also Gene Colan and John Buscema at higher page rates than Marvel had offered before.  Iron Man and Dare-devil were further developed and sold more comics with the team of Lee and Colan, while Buscema added not only to Spider-Man, but did well with everything he touched. 


Whereas, with DC, their wartime heroes existed on an alternate Earth to their modern counterparts (a necessary device for the sake of modern continuity), Timely's wartime heroes shared the same universe as the contemporary Marvel characters.  Marvel had it easier though, by virtue of their '60s heroes having no earlier doppelgangers.  The concept of a single, unified Marvel Universe was Stan's vision, and it allowed for cross-pollination in various mags.  While some artists, including Ditko, didn't appreciate putting in guest stars, Stan loved the idea and did it often;  with circulation increasing it would've been hard to quibble with this approach.  Stan's vision has been incorporated into the last ten years of Marvel movies with incredible success, and those movies have taken in over 17 billion dollars worldwide at the box office.

From the very beginning of the Marvel Age, Stan injected many adult themes into the stories, including the cold war, unemployment, handicapped people, and ageing, etc.  This was something that Marvel's main competitors didn't do.  He even retitled Amazing Adventures to Amazing Adult Fantasy, and advertised it as "The magazine that respects your intelligence".

Lee wanted to push the limits of creating comics so he and Romita produced the black and white Spectacular Spider-Man magazine, aimed at older readers and released without the Comic Code's seal of approval.  Marvel also published the first Savage Tales, another mag for adults that was also outstanding.  Sadly, Goodman cancelled them both, being fearful that he'd run into trouble with the Code.  It took courage then, in 1971, for Stan to publish a three-part anti-drug story in Amazing Spider-Man #s 96-98.  The issues were published without the Comics Code approval, which no other publisher or editor had done before, and there was a risk that dealers wouldn't put mags on the stands that didn't bear the Comics Code stamp.

Stan was the editor of at least 16 comics a month during the 1960s, and writer for about half the stories.  At DC, several editors produced only five or so comics a month, and of them, only Robert Kanigher wrote.  So, beginning in 1965, Stan hired Roy Thomas.  Roy worked his way up to The Avengers, partnered with Buscema, Sgt. Fury with Dick Ayers, and The X-Men with Neal Adams.  Roy and his various partners produced great comics that sold well.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. was at first handled by Jack Kirby, but assigning it to Jim Steranko was an inspired move.  The mag didn't have the highest circulation in the Marvel stable, but readers were extremely loyal and kept buying the book.  Over at DC, reprints were often from a generation earlier, whereas Lee, in 1965, started reprinting tales of relatively recent stories.  This catered to new readers and brought them up to date with what had gone before.  Oh, and I loved Not Brand Echh, which at first was a funny, satirical look at Marvel comics, and, as time went by, the entire comics industry.  It's worth reiterating that by the end of the '60s, circulation had reached 60,000,000.


In 1968 Marvel was bought by Perfect Film and Chemical and Goodman was no longer the owner.  Jack Kirby left in 1970, and although his last year at Marvel was hardly inspired, it was still Kirby.  According to Mark Evanier's biography of Kirby, the new owners wouldn't negotiate with Jack, nor did they try hard to keep him, which was foolish on their part of course.  After Jack departed, Stan took an extended vacation and didn't write.

The new owners had a new direction for the company:

1)  Initially, no more continued stories,  disrupting what had been established over the last decade.

2)  They wanted, instantly, a huge amount of new titles, to compete one-on-one with DC.

3)  Whereas comics initially had 24 pages of art, then 20, eventually it went down to 19 with two half pages numbered separately, keeping the count at 20.  DC had used half pages before, but it was a first for Marvel.

4)  The prices on comics almost tripled, going from 12 cents to 35 cents in just a few years.

5)  The black and white line was started.

6)  They wanted to expand into the international market.

7)  Under Stan, characters (except for Captain America and Nick Fury) appeared in only one comic, enabling their authors to control their continuity.  Soon, most title characters had to appear in two books, with different authors, thereby complicating continuity.  (Spider-Man eventually appeared in three titles.)

Stan had to adapt to changes of this kind, so how did he cope with this burden?  Stan worked with Roy Thomas and created a big hit with Conan The Barbarian and later Kull The Conqueror.  Marvel returned to horror with great talent in Chamber Of Darkness and Tower Of Shadows, and launched The Silver Surfer to new heights with John Buscema.


But here's the BIG thing:  In 1973 Stan Lee became publisher, a fact ignored by his detractors.  This was a big step up in his career, as it meant more money and prestige, with no writing or deadline pressure.  He increased Marvel's overall circulation to 70,000,000.  This is what businessman are paid to do, and Stan did it admirably.

By the early '70s the industry wasn't attracting many new readers and total sales were in general decline.  This means that Marvel's new readers came at the expense of DC.  Under Stan, Marvel's sales exceeded DC for the first time, and have remained that way ever since.

There were successes in the mid-'70s, with Stan introducing many noteworthy new comics.  In 1972's America it took courage to produce Luke Cage, the first African-American hero to have his own national title.  Of course, by having to produce so many new titles in so many genres, there were, inevitably, also many failures.  Unlike Goodman, Stan was not the owner and had to follow instructions.  With so many new titles there was no time to develop new talent, and the bookkeepers often decided which titles had to be cancelled.  However, often within a failure there is success.  The magazines of the mid-'70s mostly failed, but Conan, Deadly Hands Of Kung Fu and a few others were successful, though Marvel did lose most of its female readers.

Roy Thomas, in Comic Book Artist #2, 1998, talking to Stan Lee, said  "There was a great drop-off in female readers in the early '70s.  We came up with three strips for which you made up the names and concepts:  Shanna The She-Devil, Night Nurse and The Claws Of The Cat.  (We were) trying to woo the female readers back."  Stan Lee said "The failure of The Cat was my biggest disappointment."

But Stan did give it the old college try.

There's no question that Lee, Kirby, and Ditko did outstanding work and nothing like that has happened since at any company.  While Ditko and Kirby continued drawing and writing, Stan's career took a successful turn up the company ladder.  Stan's later trajectory didn't parallel the other two - it was more perpendicular.


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And many thanks to Barry for taking the time to write this guest post specially for this blog.  You can find the link to Barry's own site in my blog list on the right-hand side of the page. 

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

Stan was awesome but the timeline in this article jumps all over the place. For two examples, Marvel didn't go to 19 pages in 1968. That was 1970. Spider-Man didn't star in three books until the mid seventies. You need to keep your history straight. It's important.

Kid said...

I agree, but I don't think Barry was suggesting that these changes all took place in 1968, but rather that they happened over the course of time AFTER Perfect Film and Chemical bought Marvel - which was, of course, in 1968. Probably could be a tad clearer though, but we intelligent readers knew what he meant.

Barry Pearl said...

Actually, if you include Spidey Super Stories, Spider-Man was in four comics. And Kid you are right, I was referring not to 1968 but later on when Perfect Film's business plan was going into effect.

Kid said...

Just as I thought, Barry. I'm a great believer in joined-up thinking.

Phil S said...

Stan was not a very good creator. He was however very good at providing the words to the song. Thor without Stan was the New Gods and be honest the writing in it was many things and it was not English. As for the rest I have no arguments.

Kid said...

I think you do him an injustice, PS. Stan was involved in creating the finished product (at the very least - and in some cases initiating the start of the product), so in that sense he was a very good creator indeed. He certainly created the mood, the madness, and the magic that was early Marvel in my view.

Barry Pearl said...

I always like to say what is the most important leg of a three Legged chair. Ditko, Kirby and Lee, together in the 1960s produce some of the best comics I have ever read. And I still read them. Sometimes people, and this includes me, get involved in the periphery of things and don’t discuss the actual comics cow. They were drawn well, they read well and their stories were priceless.

Kid said...

Amen, Barry!

Anonymous said...

It's a stool, Barry. Not a chair.

A stool has three legs. A chair has four.

Kid said...

You're a bit late with that observation, I'd already pointed it out to Barry on my own post about Stan Lee. However, as the words are often viewed synonymously these days, he's not exactly wrong, just non-specific.

Colin Jones said...

Stan Lee is God.

Kid said...

'A' god, maybe. Let's not be too fulsome in our praise, CJ.

Colin Jones said...

OK, Stan Lee is 'a' god. Apparently the Hindu religion has over 300 million gods (!!) so Stan must be one of those :D

By the way, Kid, you look genuinely handsome in that photo alongside Stan The Man. I assume your Alan Moore look-alike period was history? And I notice that your big-beard avatar photo has been replaced by a sweet blond cherub (albeit one who looks rather serious).

Kid said...

Alan Moore was (and still is) going through a Kid Robson lookalike period, CJ, as I first started growing a beard (though not like the one in the photo) around the age of 15 or 16. No need to be so surprised at me being genuinely handsome - that's why I'm called 'Handsome Gordie'. (Well, I am in MY house - even if it is only by me.) Yes, I was cherubic as a boy - with blond hair too. It's not that colour now, but at least I still have hair - full and luxuriant to match my handsome fizzog. Why, I'm so handsome that I think only my modesty and humility surpass my mighty handsomeness.

Christopher Nevell said...

If we turn the stool into a chair, who should that 4th leg be?

Kid said...

In the early days, Don Heck or Larry Lieber I'd say, CN. Later on, Roy Thomas. Which of them would you pick?

Christopher Nevell said...

It’s difficult not to be clouded by favourites (John Buscema) isn’t it but Roy Thomas is an absolute pillar and so worthy.

Kid said...

It's a tough call. I'm still undecided who my choice would be. Maybe we should make it an eight-legged chair?

Graham said...

Nice article. Lee/Kirby always equaled Lennon/McCartney for me. All very talented individually, but even more so when combining efforts. Each brought a lot to the table.

Kid said...

Good comparison, G, as sometimes one of them contributed more to a song than the other, but the credit was still always Lennon and McCartney.

Christopher Nevell said...

.... or McCartney and Lennon

Kid said...

Was it? Wasn't it always L & M? I think McCartney tried to get the sequence changed on some songs a few years ago, but wasn't successful.

Christopher Nevell said...

It’s McCartney’s reordering that I’m referring to, Kid.

Kid said...

I reckon that'll be the Kirby Estate's next demand: 'Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee' on all Marvel mags the pair started. Or perhaps 'Created by Jack Kirby with Stan Lee'.

Lionel Hancock said...

I like the tie your wearing.

Kid said...

Which sounds like 'shame about the rest of you'. (Sob!) You sure know how to hurt a guy, LH.

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