Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Tales from the Green Scrapbook #2: Stan Lee - Man Behind a Marvel

Hi, Heroes! Hang on to your hats - this episode of Tales from the Green Scrapbook spotlights the first newspaper article about Stan Lee I ever read. Sure, I'd read his essays in Origins of Marvel Comics, and I'd devoured all the comics reference books in my local library; but here was actual attention to my favorite comics writer in the daily newspaper. I couldn't grab the paper from my Dad's hands fast enough.

What a disappointment. It's here I learned an important lesson: Never believe everything you read. Even at age eleven or so, I knew enough to recognize that the article was full of mistakes, from simple typos to downright errors of fact. And the accompanying illustration was wildly, laughably, and infuriatingly inaccurate. As a true-blue Marvelite, I was incensed!

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I imagine that whoever had to write this (unsigned) piece knew next to nothing about the topic, if not less. I can't really fault the reporter: It's impossible for newspaper writers to be experts on everything they write, especially feature writers. How could they be? And there's only so much time for research, especially on deadline. But isn't an editor's job to make sure that the reporter gets the facts right? Or at least find a proofreader?

Maybe it's asking too much for complete accuracy in what was obviously considered a fluff piece. Thirty-some years ago (the approximate date of this article) the mainstream media's awareness of all matters comics was significantly lower than it is today. Furthermore, Lee's own public profile as the face and founding father of Marvel Comics (some would call that "inaccurate self-mythologizing") was still developing.

Still, my disappointment was palpable. I must have archived this article as a reminder that even I, at age eleven, was smart enough to recognize ignorance when I saw it.

So here we go: A picky, petty, unabashedly fanboy-ish deconstruction of the article's most glaring failings. For the maximum impact, imagine a serious young fan yelling out loud when he originally ran across each of the following passages.
This is The Geek Stuff.

1: And artist, plotter, and arguably co-writer Jack Kirby was who? (In all fairness to Stan, the reporter doesn't give this as a quotation. He's long said that he'd always talked about the artists with reporters, but that they often left that part out. I believe Lee, especially given that he does gush about artists like Kirby and Steve Ditko throughout Origins of Marvel Comics.)

2: Who? OK, They mean Marvel's Captain Marvel (actually Mar-vell, a Kree-born warrior - don't ask), not the Big Red Cheese who shouts "SHAZAM!" The character allowed Marvel to claim and trademark the character-name, a decade after Fawcett Comics lost a lawsuit to DC and had to cease publication of the original Captain Marvel. Stan did write the first appearance of Marvel's Marvel, but Roy Thomas took over the scripting duties with the next issue. I wouldn't be surprised if it was all Thomas' idea, with Lee there just to lend the first appearance more "authenticity." So: "The Second"? Not only did Stan probably not create the character, as the article implies, but that nomenclature is just wrong, wrong, wrong! (Remember, you were warned that there would be some picky fanboy stuff...)

3: Captain America: Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. In 1940. Can you "beget" something that was already begat nearly a quarter-century beforehand? No.

4: No, Xom was "The Menace from Outer Space!" We have archaeological evidence to confirm this:
Thank you thank you thank you, Monsterblog!
5: Thomgarr did not exist, as far as my research has been able to determine, and therefore was not an alien, anti-social or otherwise.

(I imagine that either Lee or the reporter weren't striving for accuracy here; they most likely just dreamed up these titles because they sounded right enough. But still.)

6: Reed was the only scientist. Ben was a test pilot, Sue was "the girlfriend," and Johnny was "the girlfriend's little brother." (Really, Ben should have been the only one qualified to fly in that rocket. Maybe Reed as well, since he designed it, but it's doubtful that his scrawny frame would have survived training. But Sue? Johnny? Really? Although I hardly gave questions like those more than a passing consideration back then...)

7: His whole body, dangit!

8: Who?

9: It's not The Thing who's the stupid one here. (He's not always the smartest tool in the shed, granted, but an "incredibly stupid" test-pilot wouldn't last long, would he?)

10: I suppose we can give this one a pass. I'm not sure if he's actually the first of these characters, but Prince Namor, the Sub Mariner, who first appeared in Marvel Comics #1 (Nov. 1939), does fit the description. Although Stan had nothing do to with creating the character.

And "anti-hero" would have saved a whole line of type.

11. Not by anyone involved with this article...

12. Not-exactly.

13. Is he not... Galactus?!!
I thought so.

14: Marvelite. Or True Believer. Or Marvel Zombie. Marvelophile just sounds stupid.

OK, that's the worst of the text. Now let's check out the accompanying illustration. It's a collage purporting to represent "Some of Stan Lee's comic characters." There's no wonder why the illustrator didn't take any credit, or that there are no copyrights listed.

Hommina hommina hommina WHA?

I didn't get it then, and I don't get it now. The only thing I can imagine is a scenario involving dialog like this:
"We've got space to fill on that funnybook article. I think it's about superheroes or something? Hey, you! Designated office flunky! Head to the comic book clip-art file and throw something together. With your eyes closed. And be sure to use at least one image from the 'Amateur Renderings' box. STAT!"
What else could result in a collage where arguably 70% of the content should not be there? Let's break it down, with visual emphasis or de-emphasis as necessary:

A) Spider-Man: Check. Co-created with Steve Ditko. (Yes, there are arguments that Kirby should receive credit. And Jonathan Ross got Stan to admit that, deep down, he feels that Spider-Man is his creation alone.) Even given those controversies, I'll say "full credit"; at least Lee wrote the character from the very beginning: 20%

B) Captain America: See #3 above. However, Stan did write the character for quite a long time, and along with Kirby he re-introduced Cap in Avengers #4. So half-credit: 10%

C) Green Lantern:
Published by DC Comics, not Marvel. Stan had absolutely nothing to do with this character. At all. Ever. (This book does not count, fanboys.) 0%

D) Green Arrow:
Published by DC Comics, not Marvel. Stan had absolutely nothing to do with this character. At all. Ever. 0%

E) The SHAZAM! Captain Marvel:
By this time, SHAZAM! was owned and published by DC. Stan had absolutely nothing to do with this character. At all. Ever. (This book does not count, fanboys.) I'd almost be tempted to give this one 5%, just because of the possible confusion noted in #2 above. But not with a horrendous drawing like that; no freakin' way. 0%
And now, the whole thing:

OK, that's far more than enough on this one. But thanks for indulging me; my inner eleven-year-old has been waiting 30 years to get this off his chest.

There. Now I feel cleansed.

Be sure to join us next time on Tales from the Green Scrapbook, when we spotlight America's war on terrorists - thirty years ago...

More from The Green Scrapbook: Part 0: Intro || Part 1: Howard the Duck

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This Saturday is Free Comic Book Day!

Don't forget: This Saturday, May 3rd, is Free Comic Book Day. Yes, it's exactly what it sounds like: Go to your local comics shop and pick up one (or more) of dozens of free comic books. Your retailers had to pay for the books beforehand, though; so thank them by purchasing some other books or merchandise, too.

There's practically any kind of comic book you could imagine: all-ages humor, superheroes, manga, adventure, media tie-ins, alternative comics, and more. This is a great way to discover comics for the first time, to try a title you've never read before, or to introduce comics to someone who's never read them before - take a child!

More information at the Free Comic Book Day website.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bard College's "3rd Annual Symposium on the Comic Book": Saturday, April 26, 2008

Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY will be hosting this event on Saturday:
Third Annual Symposium on the Comic Book
Saturday, April 26, 2008

Presentation of undergraduate research on graphic literature, exhibition of student comic art, and screening of important comic book film.

Time: 5:30 pm
Location: Olin Building, Room 102
Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504-5000
Contact: bstevens [at], 845-758-7283
[Bard's calendar posting here]
The conference is free and open to the public. Directions to and maps of the campus may be found here. To locate the Franklin W. Olin Humanities Building and Auditorium, visit Bard's Campus Map and Tour page. You even can take a virtual tour: Olin is the third building down in the second column on the left-hand side of the page.

I'd like to thank the conference's student organizers, Jon Gorga and Arla Berman, as well as Dr. Benjamin Stevens of the Classical Studies Program, for inviting me to be a speaker. My presentation, "Comics Scholarship is Not an Oxymoron," will discuss the state of comics scholarship in the U.S., focusing on the wealth of resources for research and study we now have available. I attended the symposium last year, and I'm honored to be a guest this year.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Tales from the Green Scrapbook: Howard the Duck

Let's begin our tour of The Green Scrapbook with its very first entry:

Please, please, PLEASE forget the monstrosity that was the 1986 "film"; the original Howard the Duck comics were little gems of science fiction, social satire, and sincerely twisted humor. In other words, they made perfect sense in the cultural mindscape of the latter 1970s.

I didn't record the date of this article from The Milwaukee Journal; but it must have appeared sometime after June 6, 1977. That's the start date for Howard's short-lived newspaper comic strip (based on the comic book), which, as the story noted then, "is syndicated in close to 70 daily newspapers." The article covers ground now familiar to Howardians, from rumors surrounding the spotty availability of the book's first issue to Howard's 1976 presidential campaign (see a "TV news report" here).

It takes but a click to embiggen the image...

I vividly recall buying one issue in particular: Number 16 (September 1977), "Zen and the Art of Comic Book Writing." It's quite possible that the newspaper article might have piqued my interest. But more than that: How could an already-enthralled eleven-year-old comics collector resist the cover-blurb "Special Once in a Lifetime Album Issue!"?

I hadn't read any Howard comics until that time, and this one definitely wasn't the best introduction one might hope for. The book's story content wasn't available at press time, so writer Steve Gerber substituted a lengthy, head-trippy meta-essay in which he and Howard discuss storytelling in general, comic books in particular, and pretty much everything else during a cross-country trip. (Readers are reassured on page 1, though, that the previous issue's story -- featuring a last-page appearance by the villainous Dr. Bong -- would resume in the next issue.)

The book is laid out in two-page spreads, each with a "chapter" of text and an illustration by one of a number of artists. Example the first -- a meditation on the Grand Canyon:

And example the second -- The "obligatory comic book fight scene":

I had no idea what to make of all this.

But I held onto the book -- somehow I knew that there was more there than I was able to grok at the time.

Sadly, Steve Gerber passed away only a couple of months ago. (For a sense of how valued Gerber's work has become, see Tom Spurgeon's overwhelming list of tributes.) News of his death prompted me to re-read his run on the Duck as collected in The Essential Howard the Duck. Holy cow, this stuff was fantastic! Fun, bizarre, messed-up, ridiculous, and, yeah, thoughtful, at least in funny animal genre-busting, assembly-line, mainstream comic book kind of way. Are there embarrassments along the way? Of course. But overall the satire bites more often than it merely gums. And issue 16? By far, the best "full-in" issue of any comic book, ever. Hardly filler, it's chock-full of intellectual vitamins, emotional minerals, and all-natural visual flavorings.

There's so much more to say -- I haven't even begun to explore the bravura artwork by stalwarts like Gene Colan, Val Mayerik, Frank Brunner, and even Carmine Infantino. Or the non-Gerber revivals. Or the lawsuits. Or Gerber's return to Howard. Perhaps another time...


I hope you enjoyed this first installment of Tales from the Green Scrapbook. Next time: A prose portrait of The Man, with an illustration that angered me so much I threw the newspaper across the room before I ran to grab the scissors...

Cover images from the Grand Comics Database.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Tales from the Green Scrapbook #0: Here Beginneth the Chronicle... began simply, a decade or so ago: it was a web page listing the comics reference books I owned at the time. It included a few dozen titles, maybe more. I'd hoped eventually to track down all such books published in America, a goal which at that point wasn't entirely out of reach.

Ahh, how times change.

But some things don't change, like my passion for amassing everything about comics I can find. While I'm not sure when I first started reading comic books, I can't remember ever not reading comic strips. The words-and-pictures format fascinated me; and comic books, once I discovered them, held me in a grip that only true junkies can understand. The research / hoarding bug bit me around age ten, when I first discovered that there were occasional stories about comic books published in The Milwaukee Journal, our local afternoon newspaper. Soon thereafter, live-action super hero TV shows began appearing, so TV Guide became another source for my collection. Even Weekly Reader Senior cover-featured Spider-Man in 1977.

I'd dutifully clip out whatever I found and tape these treasures into a well-used green notebook. There weren't many pages left, so I economized on space, often to ridiculous measures. I'd cut out stories as carefully as possible, usually reducing the margins around text to practically nil. I'd also trim columns of newspaper text to exactly the length of the notebook pages, and assemble smaller bits into longer columns. In this way I usually could fit complete stories onto a single page. It wasn't until years later that I realized (1) margins help readability; (2) recording the dates of publication would have been a nice idea; and (3) clippings that stretch to the very edges of the page usually get crinkled, ragged, or just plain ol' destroyed.

Sadly for adult me, this particular bout of collecting mania was short-lived, lasting only a couple of years or so. I've got no idea why, apart perhaps from sloth; after all, I'd only filled half of the notebook's pages.

But I did manage to keep the notebook -- and more amazingly, I've recently found it. It now occupies a place of honor on one of my research bookshelves. For whatever reason, I've decided to archive the contents here, in a series of posts entitled Tales from the Green Scrapbook. Consider it a quaint and curious archaeological exhibit.

So watch this space, beginning later today, for our first thrilling installment. Here's a clue: Much like its subject, the article is now trapped in a world it never made...

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