Wednesday February 24, 2021
Rascally Roy Defends Stan the Man
“That Stan Lee was the co-creator, and not the sole creator, of the key Marvel heroes from the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man through Daredevil and the Silver Surfer can hardly be in dispute at this late stage. I myself, back in the '80s when I wasn't working for him, had a friendly argument with him on that score over lunch. I soon realized that, as much as he respected the talents and contributions of artists ... such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to the characters introduced in the 1960s, he could never really bring himself, in his own mind, to think of them as 'co-creators.' The two of us had to agree to disagree, and I never saw any use in bringing it up again.
”If I can judge from Riesman's writings, and from other sources over the years, I'm sure I'd have encountered the same kind of blinders-on stubbornness in Jack Kirby (oft-quoted in this book), who saw Stan as little more than the guy who scribbled a few words of dialogue and rode to unearned glory on his back.
“Both men were, I think, wrong, and that's why Riesman is so ill-advised to use nearly every opportunity he gets to weight things in Jack's favor and against Stan.”
-- Rascally Roy Thomas, the first Marvel Comics editor-in-chief after Stan Lee, in a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter: “Roy Thomas, Former Marvel Editor, Pushes Back on New Stan Lee Biography.” The biography is “True Believer” by Abraham Reisman, and based on Roy's column I won't be reading it, but it's worth reading this. I particularly like the early draft Stan wrote for FF#1 and how it differed from what we finally read. (Sue couldn't turn visible again? Ben had a thing for her? No pun intended.) What always goes unmentioned in these Stan v. Jack arguments, too, is what amounted to the real Marvel Comics breakthrough: treating superheroes as normal people with problems. I don't think there's any dispute that the idea came from Stan. Plus the whole tongue-in-cheek braggadaccio thing that was part of Marvel's charm? That was Stan's charm. 'Nuff said.
Saturday February 20, 2021
Does Superhero Worship Lead to Fascism?
I'm reading “Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors,” by Peter Bogdanovich, and the Fritz Lang section is pretty fascinating. And this part made me do a double-take. Lang is talking about his first Hollywood movie, “Fury,” from 1936, and a lesson he learned about the difference between America and Germany:
In our original script, the character Spencer Tracy played was a lawyer. I felt that a lawyer could better express his feelings and thoughts than a working man, a laborer. ... We wrote the first 10 pages and gave them to a producer at MGM to read. And this producer said, “No, this is absolutely impossible.” I said, “Why?” And that was the first time I heard the words, Joe Doe, Jane Doe.
He explained to me something I should have known by then, because it's exactly what I forgot to tell you before about comic strips: everything there happens to Joe Doe—meaning to you and me—not to some upperclass man. And he explained to me that in an American picture one would have to have Joe Doe—a man of the people—as a hero. And I thought, “Here is a sign of a democracy.” In Germany, under the influence of military power—I'm not speaking of Hitler, but even before, under the military power of the emperor. There is a phrase you cannot translate, Kadaver gehorsam, which means “Even your cadaver must obey.” Absolute obedience. So because of that influence, and Nietzsche's, the hero in Germany was always a superman. For example, I had made a series about a criminal called Dr. Mabuse—he was a superman. Here in America, Al Capone was not a superman. In a totalitarian state, or in a state governed by a dictator, an emperor or a king, this leader himself is, in a way, a superman; he can't do wrong. At least he couldn't in those days. So over there the hero in a motion picture should be a superman, whereas in a democracy he had to be Joe Doe.
First, I love that Land keeps using Joe Doe for John Doe, and Bogdanovich never corrects him.
Second, Lang's thoughts on comic strips—the funny kind—being about the Joe Does of the world recalls something I've written many times: comedy is who we are, action-adventure is who we want to be. Superhero movies simply take the latter a step further—from John Wayne to Superman.
Third, and most important: Is there a connection between the worship of the superman/superhero and the rise of Fascism? And did all the superhero movies that permeated American culture in the first two decades of this century lead to the rise of Donald Trump? Asking not telling.
Tuesday November 19, 2019
Alan Moore on Our Superhero Fixation
What was the impact of popular heroes comic books in our culture? Why are people fascinated by alternative realities?
I think the impact of superheroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying. While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their twelve or thirteen year-old audience, today’s franchised übermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs. Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with an numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum. The superheroes themselves – largely written and drawn by creators who have never stood up for their own rights against the companies that employ them, much less the rights of a Jack Kirby or Jerry Siegel or Joe Schuster – would seem to be largely employed as cowardice compensators, perhaps a bit like the handgun on the nightstand. I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.
interview between “Watchmen” creator Alan Moore and Brazilian writer/editor Raphael Sassaki, which took place in 2016, and was translated and published in January 2017. Full interview here.
Tuesday November 20, 2018
My Father's 1975 Stan Lee Article
Here's my father's 1975 article on Stan Lee that I alluded to last week. My earlier blog post on Stan was basically the story behind the story. This is the story. For Nov. 15, 1975 anyway.
(Click here for the bigger, more legible version.)
Ever the critic (apple/tree), I remember complaining about Dad's third-paragraph: “Daredevil versus the Hulk? Dad, that's not even a contest. You should‘ve said the Thing versus the Hulk.”
I also thought he got the ending wrong. From my perception of Stan’s talk during the interview—half of which I missed, admittedly—I thought Stan was saying that in the past, as in the Frederic Wertham 1950s, he would go to parties and tell people he was a writer, rather than a comic book writer, because he was embarrassed to be known as a comic book writer; because it was totally looked down upon. But after he ushered in the mighty Marvel age, this changed, and he'd just say it outright: I write comic books.
I like Stan's comment about not writing down to the audience—about writing “as if they were college professors. ... I figured if some kid didn't understand a word, he'd get it by osmosis. After a while, mothers would write us and say, ‘My Johnny’s beginning to talk like a genius. God bless Marvel Comics.'”
This was true even during the interview. As stated, he gave me a bullpen nickname: Erudite Erik. I went home and looked it up. I was probably one of the few 12-year-olds who knew what it meant. God bless Marvel Comics.
Monday November 12, 2018
Stan Lee (1922-2018)
Stan at the Avengers premiere in 2012. His tongue was in his cheek when he called it “The Marvel Age of Comics,” but that's what it's become.
I got to meet Stan Lee in November 1975 when I was 12. I‘ve written about it before. Here’s the longer version.
I'd been collecting comics for about two and a half years and Stan was legendary to me. He was “Stan the Man,” credited as “Editor in Chief” in the front of every issue, with “Stan's Soapbox” in the back of every issue. Plus his outsized personality permeated the Marvel world. It was a kind of tongue-in-cheek braggadaccio, chest-thumping but with a wink. He'd say “ish” for “issue,” “Excelsior!” as a sign-off. I loved it all. I was a “true believer” who was ready to “face front” in the “Mighty Marvel Age of Comics.” ‘Nuff said!
One Sunday night, my father, a reporter for The Minneapolis Tribune, called my brother and I into his bedroom. I think I went grumpily—or warily. Was I in trouble? There was memorabilia—books and calendars and things—on the bedspread, and I didn’t think much about it until I noticed they were all Marvel comics characters.
It was like Christmas in November. We jumped onto the bed with him. I grabbed a calendar, “The Mighty Marvel Bicentennial Calendar,” and began flipping through it. January was “The Invaders,” an attempt to reboot ‘40s-era superheroes like the original Human Torch and Toro, Captain America and Bucky, and the Sub-Mariner. They were all standing on the deck of a Revolutionary-era clipper ship. I groaned: “Frank Robbins,” I said.
“Which one is Frank Robbins?” Dad asked.
“No no. The artist.”
“You can tell who drew it?”
I shrugged. “Looks like Frank Robbins.”
Dad had been going through “Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics,” Stan Lee’s much-anticipated (by me) follow-up to “Origins of Marvel Comics,” a trade paperback which had featured reprints of the debut issues of characters like the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Thor, along with Lee’s memories of their creation. The sequel would focus on Captain America, Iron Man and X-Men.
“I’m interviewing this guy tomorrow,” Dad said.
“Stan Lee. You know him?”
It was like asking if we knew Jesus. Chris and I actually shouted with joy. We couldn't believe it.
“So do you want to meet him?” Dad asked.
And that's when I suddenly felt nervous. Meet Stan Lee? What would I say to him? What if he turned out to be an asshole? What if he didn't like me? What if Dad embarrassed me? Oh god, Dad was going to embarrass me.
Their interview took place during a late lunch at a swanky downtown restaurant. I got out of school early and took the unfamiliar bus to the unfamiliar location. A maitre d’ led me to a dark back table where my older brother already sat next to my father, both listening to an older guy with graying hair, sunglasses, and a moustache. I think I was initially disappointed. I don't know what I thought Stan Lee looked like (Reed Richards?) but I didn't imagine a hood from “Baretta.”
My father asked him how old he was and he said 52, then added, “Does that sound too old? How old would you like? Make it 50.” He gave great quote. He talked up the secret to his success. “We took the one-dimensional cardboard figures that had inhabited comic books until then and breathed life into them. The good guys weren’t all good and the bad guys weren’t all bad.” When the interview was over, staff photographer Mike Zerby asked me to stand on a chair and hold a light for him. Stan posed. He did the classic strong-man pose. Zerby loved it. The next day when the article appeared, the photo looked dark and I thought I'd screwed up in some way. “No,” Dad told me. “That's the way it's supposed to look.”
As for meeting Stan? It was amazing and incredible and fantastic and uncanny. After the interview, he didn’t turn off. I don’t know if he had an “off.” He invited Chris and I over and drew us out. He drew a cartoonish Captain America holding a banner up to his nose—like Kilroy. Beneath, he added the usual semi-ironic Marvel braggadaccio: “Another practically priceless Stan Lee original!” He signed our books and gave us bullpen nicknames in the Mighty Marvel Manner. “To Charismatic Chris,” he wrote in Chris’ “Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics.” “To Erudite Erik” he wrote in my copy of “Origins of Marvel Comics.” He may have been the nicest famous person I ever met.
It's interesting contemplating what it would‘ve been like for him then. A dozen years earlier he was a middle-aged dude working for a dying company in a disprespected industry. Then his boss, Martin Goodman, told him to create a team of superheroes like DC did with “Justice League of America.” Apparently it was Lee’s wife who suggested he do with the characters what he'd long said he wanted to do:
The characters would be the kind of characters I could personally relate to; they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty and—most important of all—inside their colorful, costumed booties they'd still have feet of clay.
The team turned out to be the Fantastic Four, of course, and they were followed by Hulk and Spider-Man and Thor and Iron Man and X-Men, and the rest is both history and not history, since it's ongoing; since the biggest movies in the world are based on those characters that Stan and Jack and others created for a dying company in a disrespected field more than 50 years ago.
Thanks, Stan. Excelsior.
Saturday July 07, 2018
Steve Ditko (1927-2018)
The man who first made Spider-Man swing (all gangly-like) died yesterday at the age of 90. In a way—to me anyway—the real news was that Steve Ditko had been living all this time. He was so long out of the limelight. He coveted none of it: no premieres, no cameos. I'd like to say he was noble in this but he was a bit of an odd duck.
The Steve Ditko-penned Spideys were always my favorites. When I was collecting in the ‘70s, and “The Amazing Spider-Man” hadn’t even reached #150, his were the ones I coveted, in cheap plastic bags at Schinder's in downtown Minneapolis, or in sleeker plastic bags at Comic City in Uptown. I got a lot of them. I think at one point I had like Amazing Spider-Man #8 all the way to the present. Not bad for a teenage wallflower.
I liked how unheroic Ditko made everyone look—particularly Spidey—at a time when I felt decidedly so. Spidey looked like the least likely superhero. His feet were often so twisted in midair, he looked like he'd trip himself.
Back then, I'd assumed it was Ditko's geekiness, his nerdiness, that eventually got him booted off of Spidey. I assumed they wanted Spidey handsomer and more heroic. Not so, according to Douglas Wolk's review of Blake Bell's 2008 biography of Ditko:
He split with Lee and Marvel in 1966. By then, he’d fallen under the spell of Ayn Rand and Objectivism, and started producing an endless string of ham-fisted comics about how A is A and there is no gray area between good and evil and so on. “The Hawk and the Dove,” for instance, concerns two superhero brothers who … oh, you’ve already figured it out.
And in case you haven‘t, mouse over the above image.
A few years back, my colleague, Ross Pfund, said, RE: Ditko’s Objectivism, “How much must he hate it that his most famous creation's most famous quote is ‘With great power comes great responsibility’?”
This morning, my friend Jason Lamb wrote the following: “I've read thousands upon thousands of comics books over the course of nearly 50 years, but nothing has impacted me more than the images here. Thank you and R.I.P., Steve Ditko.”
Then he posted this. I know it well: Spider-Man #33:
That last panel is actually a partial of a full page. And the whole scene was re-done on the big screen in “Spider-Man: Homecoming”—more than 50 years after he drew it.
What a moment in time.
Thursday June 07, 2018
‘Not a Recipe for Artistic Renewal’: The IP taking over Hollywood
“People who are nothing like us rescuing a world that is nothing like ours...”
I'm going to miss the print New Yorker when it goes. This is the online hed/sub for Stephen Metcalf's piece on what has happened to Hollywood and the movie-star system in the age of the superhero film. It's straightforward. It's a straight arrow:
How Superheroes Made Movie Stars Expendable
The Hollywood overhauls that got us from Bogart to Batman.
Here it is in print:
How superheroes killed the movie star.
How perfect is that? Succinct, clever, resonant. It's both The Thing's longtime catchphrase and what superheroes—though not the Fantastic Four, interestingly—have made of traditional movie stars. Because it's open-ended, it also makes you wonder what else is getting clobbered? What other parts of our lives? The online headline is specific and designed to get clicks. It's actually part of the problem the article is delineating.
I was actually dismissive of the piece before I read it. I was like “No shit, Sherlock, we were all writing about this 10 years ago.” The early going didn't help much. Metcalf calls it a “startling fact” that the biggest movie in China in 2005, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” pulled in just $12 mil vs. nearly $400 million for last year's “Fast and Furious” sequel. Startling ... unless you read me. More, “Fast & Furious” was only the second-biggest hit in China last year. The biggest, “Wolf Warrior II,” grossed half a billion dollars more.
But then, in reviewing four books (The Big Picture“ by Ben Fritz; You‘re Only as Good as Your Next One” by Mike Medavoy; “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency” by James Andrew Miller; and “Representing Talent” by Violaine Roussel), Metcalf gives a great overview of the various stages of the star system, and who held power in Hollywood during those stages: from Thalberg to U.S. v. Paramount to the rise of the super-agent. Who could force the cut-rate on whom? It used to be studios on the theaters: If you want this A picture you need to pick up these three B pictures. Then it became the agencies over the studios: If you want this A star, you need to hire these three B- or C-list clients.
Now the hot hand is the intellectual property—divorced from the star. The power is in the copyright. And the powerless? Those without IP, as “The Big Picture” makes apparent. Also maybe us. “Today,” Metcalf writes, “the major franchises are commercially invulnerable because they offer up proprietary universes that their legions of fans are desperate to reënter on almost any terms.” This, too, will fade, though, because everything does. We can't be desperate forever.
Metcalf closes well.
The quality of film acting has never been higher, and there is still a craft in scriptwriting and directing that makes one regularly bow in awe. But a minimal standard of human relatability is not being met, on a routine basis, in the medium's most dominant genre. People who are nothing like us rescuing a world that is nothing like ours is not a recipe for artistic renewal. ...
The benchmark for a good movie was once coherence, and this meant more than a competently executed three-act script. It meant the unity of story with character, of character with star persona. The whole shebang was given life by a highly improbable marriage between our narcissism and our idealism. In this model, the movie theatre was a special kind of institution, where a primitive instinct for action and drama came together with a desire to banish our residual cruelty, if for no other reason than that it wouldn't play.
Hollywood was always called a dream factory. One wonders what kind of world we might create if we all woke up.
Sunday July 23, 2017
Feel-Good Photo of the Day
Gal Gadot at the San Diego Comic-Con with a young fan:
These movies matter pic.twitter.com/V5Sz7lFwiE— Scott Derrickson (@scottderrickson) July 22, 2017
Remember the 1970s “Wonder Woman” theme song? “All of the world is waiting for you.” Certainly half of it.
Related: This weekend, Gadot's “Wonder Woman” passed “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” to become the highest-grossing movie of the summer.
Saturday September 24, 2016
From the DVD of the 1941 movie serial “The Green Hornet Strikes Again!” The reference is to the radio serial of 1936 to 1950:
Clint Eastwood should have done more with this aspect of Hoover in his biopic. Or maybe it could be its own movie? “J. Edgar in Hollywood.” OK, HBO movie.
Thursday August 04, 2016
Rotten Tomatoes Ranks the DC Superhero Movies
“Ranks” is key there, since only two movies (“The Dark Knight,” “Superman”) are above 90% and half of them are rotten, and that's a generous reading by RT and critics. I mean, “Swamp Thing” is fresh? Because of Adrienne Barbeau? C'mon, boys, grow up.
Here's their list with RT numbers and any thoughts I might have. (Links go to my reviews.)
- The Dark Knight (94%): My No. 2.
- Superman (93%): My number one. With a faster-than-a-speeding bullet
- Superman II (89%): Way too high. Please see the Donner cut.
- The Dark Knight Rises (87%): Too high.
- Batman Begins (84%): About right. Has problems, but it's not bloated the way “Rises” is bloated.
- Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (82%): Haven't seen it.
- Batman (1966) (80%): I'm so glad this is way up here. I'd probably have it higher but I'm shocked critics/fanboys love it as much as I do.
- Batman Returns (80%): Really? Have people seen this recently? It's absurd. You hardly see the title character for the first 45 minutes. It's all Penguin/Catwoman origin. Per Tim Burton, it's a movie of misfit toys.
- Superman Returns (76%): Has its faults but has charms, too. It's not made by louts, for one.
- Batman (1989) (72%): Higher. I know post-Nolan it looks chincey, but it remade supehero movies for a decade. Respect your elders, kids.
- Watchmen (65%): Blech. Dock it even more for abusing Leonard Cohen.
- Swamp Thing (64%): Adrienne Barbeau's cleavage ain't all that.
- Man of Steel (55%): I'm not exactly a Zack Snyder fan, but I'd have it higher for: 1) the reimagined origin; 2) the fear a superpowered alien would inspire; 3) Henry Cavill.
- Constantine (46%): Never seen it.
- Batman Forever (40%): About right.
- The Return of the Swamp Thing (33%): DC should be embarrassed that this is even on the list.
- Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (27%): Below both Swamp Things!! Take that, Zack.
- Green Lantern (26%): There are six DC movies worse than “Green Lantern”: ouch.
- Superman III (26%): This sucks but it's better than “Green Lantern.”
- Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (12%): This should be lower. Possibly basement. Look what they did to my boy. More than the “Death Wish” movies, Golan and Globus have this to answer at the pearly gates.
- Steel (12%): Never seen.
- Batman & Robin (11%): Ice to see you.
- Catwoman (9%): Never seen. Should I?
- Supergirl (7%): The list ends with the two girl/woman movies, and I'd like to think that's sexism, but... no.
RT put the list together because a new DC movie, “Suicide Squad,” DC's attempt to do a kind of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” is opening tonight. Even the early August release date is the same as “Guardians,” but (unlike “Guardians”) it's getting slaughtered by the critics. I'm no fan of the Post's Kyle Smith but he has a good line in his review:
The question isn't whether “Suicide Squad” is as good as “The Avengers,” but whether it's as bad as “Green Lantern.”
According to the consensus, nearly. It's at 29%, which puts it between “The Return of the Swamp Thing” and “Batman v Superman.” But that's bad enough for fanboys who are circulating an online petition urging that RT be shut down because it's mean to bad movies like “Suicide Squad.” Talk about shooting the messenger.
Tuesday August 02, 2016
Moments v Scenes: Dusk of Zack
My nephew Jordy sent me this, and I think it's about the best critique of Zack Snyder's “Batman v. Superman,” not to mention Zack Snyder's entire career, that I've seen. Evan Puschak, the nerdwriter, gets at why Snyder's movies are so monumentally, fundamentally stupid: “his preoccupation, his obsession, with moments at the expense of scenes”:
Even better—and I was so caught up in all the other idiocies of BVS I didn't think to mention this in my review—Snyder has zero sense of place. The Daily Planet is meaningless. Ditto the Batcave. The Batcave! C'mon. Metropolis and Gotham City are interchangeable. I think it goes back to Snyder's love of green screens. There's literally no there there in his movies. Cf. my 2012 review of “The Spirit”:
Does anyone else get claustrophobic in these digital-background movies? “Sin City,” “300,” this? The world isn't the world. It's reduced to this small, awful space where these small, awful things happen, which the filmmakers pump full of their hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual hyper-meaning. The men beat each other to pulps, the women, smart and sexy, watch and calculate, and everyone thinks themselves the center of the world. Because they are. Because the world has been reduced to this.
Directors with a great sense of place? Think the Coens or John Sayles. Check out “A Serious Man.” For good or ill, we are products of place and upbringing. The character of the place leads to the character of the individual leads to the character of the story. Sndyer's movies die on the vine because green screen is not a place. “'Batman v Superman' runs for two and a half hours,” Puschak says, “with a heaping helping of big moments; and yet I don't quite feel like I've been ... anywhere.”
Sunday April 03, 2016
I Told You, 'He Doesn't Get Superman At All!'
Hate to agree with Hitler, and these have been done to death, but yeah. All of it.
(Except for the “Mad Max” love, of course.)