Stan Lee—The Man, The Legend

We’ve been expecting this for some time now given his frail age, but today’s sad news that Stan Lee passed away still hurts. Why? Because Stan the Man is a comic book legend and his influence not just in comic books, but in our culture resonates so powerfully. That may be a bit hyperbolic, but appropriate given Lee’s penchant for promoting the Marvel Comics superheroes he co-created.

Most of us know his biography better than our own. Born Stanley Martin Lieber in 1922, Stan Lee was introduced to the world of comic books when he began working for Timely Comics in 1939 and soon started writing for the company. Before long, he became an editor and worked on numerous titles and was quite prolific. During his tenure he came up with the pseudonym “Stan Lee” (a playful jib of his first name) because he wanted to use his real name when he got around to writing his Great American Novel. Although that never happened, what he created would have more of an impact in American pop culture than any old Great American Novel.

Eventually, Timely Comics morphed into Marvel Comics and in the early 1960s, Lee wanted to help boost sales for his company’s books. Seeing that the best-selling title in rival DC Comics was the superhero team book Justice League of America, he decided to create Marvel’s own superhero team. He teamed with his longtime collaborator, artist Jack Kirby, to create the Fantastic Four, thus the Marvel Age of Comics was born.

Comes the Marvel Age

From there, Lee and Kirby quickly grew the Marvel Universe and introduced such iconic characters and teams like the Hulk, the Avengers, Black Panther, Thor, Silver Surfer, Iron Man and the X-Men. Lee also worked with other artists, which resulted in his greatest creation and contribution to pop culture. That being Spider-Man, who he co-created with Steve Ditko.

What set his creations apart from traditional, square-jawed superheroes was that the Marvel heroes were flawed and relatable. This was best seen with Spider-Man, who broke the mold of a superhero, and was Lee’s favorite character. His alter ego, Peter Parker, was an insecure everyman type who like us had to grapple with real-life, ordinary problems like paying the rent or trying to get a date. It seemed like the more Spider-Man won a battle, the more Peter would lose a war in his personal life. Other superheroes and even the supervillains were just as conflicted and dimensional.

Lee’s books introduced novel concepts and explored themes of bigotry and social strife and issues as seen with The X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. His works also ushered in more diverse characters such as Black Panther, the first black superhero, and Daredevil, a disabled superhero. Readers reacted positively to these innovative comic books and the result was that Marvel Comics exploded into the pop scene.

Lee’s bombastic personality and prolific writing helped promote the books. During his time as editor and editor-in-chief, Lee helped create the “Marvel Method” of creating comics that would become controversial when it came to designate whom was actually responsible for Marvel’s success. Being that he was writing so many titles and pressed for time, Lee would come up with a basic plot and pass it on to the artists. They in turn would flesh out the stories and when they were done, Lee would add the snazzy dialogue.

Over time, many artists were irked over the growing perception from the outside world that Lee was solely responsible for Marvel’s success. This would eventually cause Kirby and Ditko to leave Marvel. They went on to work on their own creations but looking at their post-Lee work it is easy to see how much of an impact Lee had in the Marvel works since the artists’ solo efforts lacked the pizzazz and sharpness that Lee’s dialogue added.

As the so-called Marvel Age of Comics began, the superheroes became a large part of popular culture when the heroes appeared in cartoons and were featured in merchandising. As this went on, Marvel’s biggest spokesperson and cheerleader continued to be Stan Lee himself. He always came off as energetic and jovial in interviews, appearances, and his column, which appeared in Marvel Comics. Often his posts were lettered with his memorable one-liners like “Face front, true believers!” “’Nuff said!”, and “Excelsior!”.

Marvel Mascot

Eventually, Lee stepped down from his day-to-day writing and editing duties at Marvel and took on the ambassadorial role for Marvel full time. During this period, the 1970s and 1980s, Lee worked to bring the Marvel heroes to live-action medium. The results were not great with many movie projects stalling out and TV efforts being sub-par, although The Incredible Hulk was well received. Regardless, his efforts paved the way for the later success of Marvel films years later.

Still, Lee would continue to write when time permitted and penned several comics for Marvel and even did a notable stint for DC Comics where he re-imagined heroes like Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman.

In recent years, Lee’s status and standing with fans grew and grew as he embraced his role as a mascot for all things Marvel. These were best seen with his numerous cameos in Marvel films like Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, the Spider-Man films, and the Captain America films. Many of these appearances were crowd-pleasing scene stealers.

By this time, Marvel and comic books grew out of their niche and became a prominent part of our culture. The phenomenal success of superhero films and the cultural presence of superheroes can be attributed to Lee’s efforts.

As we look back fondly on Stan Lee, it is best to keep in mind that while we mourn him, it’s best that we continue to celebrate what he has created. For truly his works will endure for generations to come.

Thanks, Stan. Rest easy now.

Excelsior!

José Soto

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Spider-Man Co-Creator Steve Ditko (1927- 2018)

A short time ago, a comic book giant passed away. Not one of the MCU characters that got Thanos’s Death Snapture; this giant was a comic book artist. Not just any comic book artist. He was Steve Ditko.

Known to many as Spider-Man’s co-creator, Steve Ditko was also part of the first decade of the creation of Marvel Comics. His main character contributions and sequential issue work are Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, but during Marvel’s initial years, he also drew plenty of issues featuring Hulk, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Iron Man, along with issues of The Avengers, and all sorts of double feature issues.

Comic book creations and pop culture relevance is by now well ingrained in the minds of moviegoers and audiences worldwide. people now understand that many superheroes began as characters seen in published comic books. Newsprint paper, four-color separation and halftone color patterns were props behind the stage. Distributors and retail stores were their curtains and the hands and eyes of those who bought these issues were the audiences. Comic book fame spun off into animated and live-action TV shows, video games, movies and merchandise. The most profitable characters were the superheroes.

Among this web of inter-related media was the thread of the creator. Someone had to come up with the story Someone had to come up with the character design – the color and shape of the costume and character faces. Someone had to come up with their signature moves.

There has been much discussion in the past as to what degree of involvement Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko had in creating Spider-Man. How much of Spidey was adapted from Jack Kirby’s initial design? How much of Spidey was in Lee’s brief written synopsis? What was Ditko’s actual contribution in regard to the amount of content – character designs, costumes designs, characterizations, signature moves, etc. ? It’s a discussion that may never be resolved.

For a character who is arguably the world’s favorite Marvel Comic character, his origin is still unclear even though he was introduced in Amazing Fantasy #15. Back in 1961, Marvel Comics Publishing Group was such a loose and flowing House of Ideas, that any iteration which lead to the creation of the Spider-Man look we all know and was only loosely documented. Some of it was Kirby. Most of it was Ditko and approved by Lee. But there’s no doubt, the look that Ditko presented is a handmade costume, big eyes, a webbing motif on the red portions of the costume, and mechanical web shooters. Ditko had a penchant for quirky action poses and Spider-Man’s signature poses no doubt came from Ditko. None of Kirby’s characters moved like that. All of Ditko’s characters moved kind of quirky and not quite natural. His landscapes ranged from urbanely gritty to fantastical. The distinctive realms he drew for the Dr. Strange stories have been compared to Salvador Dali paintings. The characters’ look for both hero and villain were all Ditko. Even the “surfer dude hand sign” which is used by both Spidey and Dr. Strange is a signature Ditko design.

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Celebrating The MCU 10th Anniversary

marvel studios ten years

Marvel Studios is certainly on a roll. For the past couple of years their films have been well received by fans and critics and the success just keeps building. After delivering three epics last year, Marvel Studios expanded on that success with the unbelievable reception to this year’s Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War.

To think, it all began when a B-list Marvel Comics superhero made his big-screen debut ten years ago.

That character, of course, is Iron Man. Back in May 2008, the Golden Age of Superhero Films had arrived with the premiere of Iron Man. Superhero films had gained prominence in the first years of the 21st century with explosive adaptations of Marvel Comics characters like the X-Men and Spider-Man and DC properties like Superman and Batman. When Iron Man was announced, many thought it would be another fun and entertaining big-budget film. What few realized was that it would spark a phenomenal interconnected film universe that became known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). From that moment, the MCU exploded and captured our imaginations (and wallets). Which is why we are here celebrating the MCU 10th anniversary.

Many know by now the history of the MCU and how it came to be. Marvel Comics in the 1990s was bankrupt and sold the film rights of  many of its characters to various film studios. While this saved the comic book company in the short term, this act left Marvel’s beloved characters in the hands of others who made their own changes when it came to the films. When Marvel formed Marvel Studios to have creative control over its characters the company had a dilemma in that their A-list characters weren’t available. In fact, the initial characters in the MCU where in the hands of other film studios. However, Marvel Studios was able to regain the film rights for all except a few like the X-Men, the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. This forced the studio to rely on their less popular characters and this allowed them to fully realize their potential on film.

Birth Of A Film Universe

When Iron Man premiered, many saw how special it was since it focused on the flawed main character. Whereas, the main draw of the DC films at that time were the villains, such as in The Dark Knight, the first MCU film set a standard where the title character was the primary focus, not the foe. This led to a common problem with MCU films which had weak villains, but fortunately, the heroes were so endearing that audiences forgave the films.

Avengers

There was one thing that enabled Iron Man to stand out from the other blockbuster superhero films. Those who stuck around through the film’s ending credits found out what it was when they were tantalized with the idea of interconnected films. The hero Tony Stark was greeted by the mysterious Nick Fury who informed him he was not the only superhero around. Fury presented Stark with the idea of the Avengers Initiative, thus the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. This budding film universe was given a boost a month later when The Incredible Hulk premiered. While it is kind of dismissed these days, the second Hulk film was a vast improvement over Ang Lee’s pretentious and over-the-top Hulk, but it cemented the MCU. Aside from its many Marvel Easter eggs, at the end of The Incredible Hulk, Tony Stark appeared, which connected the two films. From there, the MCU continued growing. A few short years later, Iron Man had a sequel and two more MCU films came out (Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) that helped lay the groundwork for the culmination of the MCU at that time: The Avengers. Needless to say films were never the same.

Here we are at the MCU 10-year anniversary, celebrating it with their newest smash hit Avengers: Infinity War. Many film studios tried and failed to copy the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These include Warner Bros. and DC’s DCEU, Universal’s Dark Universe, and Sony’s Spider-Man film universe. 20th Century Fox came close with their X-Men films but their films were hit or miss.

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Runaways Emphasizes Characters At The Expense Of Superhero Antics

runaways poster

Marvel Studios’ first streaming TV show on Hulu, Runaways, has finished its first 10-episode season.  Now that the show has finished its run (don’t fret, Runaways has been renewed for a second season), it’s time to review the show. In a nutshell, Runaways is enjoyable if not especially outstanding.

Runaways is based on the recent Marvel Comics teenage “superhero” team created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona. Fans of the comic book characters know that the group of teenagers are not actually superheroes. They don’t use code names or wear goofy outfits and there are less fisticuffs in their adventures, which the show faithfully recreates. By the way, this adaptation is supposedly set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) though you would not know it. It has almost no reference to the MCU, not even vague mentions of “The Incident” as in the Netflix Marvel shows. However, how people react to the demonstration of superpowers and wild situations is not consistent in the MCU that has aliens, public superheroes and other fantastic people. It might as well not be set in the MCU. Instead, the emphasis is more on the characters and their immediate world of L.A. The basic story is that several well-off teenagers with wildly different personalities  discover that their parents are actually supervillains. Horrified, the teenagers band together, rebel against their elders and go on the run.

The TV adaptation more or less follows this premise though no one runs away until the final episode that just streamed (“Hostile”). This made the entire first season feel like a set up for the really interesting stuff. For example, “Hostile” featured the best moments between Gertrude Yorkes (Ariela Barer) and her pet raptor and the dinosaur finally had some screen presence. The raptor seemed more like a character than a CG/puppet creation. But putting aside the lack of thrills, Runaways is a different animal than the comic books in that by not having the kids run away until the final episode, it focuses on their relationships with each other and their parents. If that sounds like mopey teenage drama then you are correct. Although, it’s well done and holds your attention.

What helps are the writing and most of the acting. While the kids are newcomers they are surprisingly good in their roles such as Barer, Rhenzy Feliz (as Alex Wilder), Gregg Sulkan (as Chase Stein) and Lyrica Okano (as Nico Minoru), the parents steal the spotlight many times. Instead of presenting the parents as mustache-twirling villains like in the comics, they’re more dimensional and grounded here. You understand that they live in a grey world where they’re forced to make questionable decisions. These were done, for the most part, to provide a good future for everyone, but the consequences of their choices have come to haunt them and alienate their children. There is a mystery of what their true motives are, but that gets a bit muddled. The parents’ machinations and how the Runaways react to them sometimes slows the show’s pace. Adding to the drawbacks is the mid-season introduction of Jonah (Julian McMahon), a mysterious and super-powered person running things for his own purposes. If anyone screams “bad guy” it’s this character. Unlike Jonah, the parents are more nuanced and well acted. Standouts include Annie Wersching, Ryan Sands, Kevin Weisman, Bridgid Brannagh and James Marsters.

Strangely, for a show about teenage superhumans (for the most part), the weakest moments are when they actually go into action. This happens exactly two times in the first season, which will surely disappoint anyone expecting another Daredevil, but it’s for the best. When the Runaways used their superpowers against an opponent, their actions were quite dull and unrealistic. Basically, they would stand around and use their powers one at a time. Blame it on the budget, but this became a drawback. The other episodes are spent with the Runaways dealing with their hormones, parent issues, and your typical teenage angst.

Make no mistake, Runaways is  pretty interesting and put together well, even if it’s not groundbreaking. As these season finales go, this one raised more questions than gave answers. All of it just to set up a second season, though it could leave you feeling frustrated because just as things pick up significantly, the episode ends. Hopefully the second season will be here before we know it and provide satisfying answers while ramping up the dilemmas of the Runaways…and their parents.

Waldermann Rivera

 

Favorite Comic Book Movie Adaptations

These days, a lot of the hype is about movies being developed based on comic books. No need to mention them, just see what’s playing theaters.

Well, back in the day there were many comic books based on movies. The best examples were the Star Wars adaptations when the first Star Wars film came out that led to continuing stories past the movies.

Before our mobile devices could stream/download through Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, etc. growing up back in the 70 to the 80s- the only way you can hold a hit movie in your hands were either photonovels or hand-drawn comic book adaptations, based on the movies.

Part of my collection growing up then included one-shot comic book adaptation of movies. For some movies- the comic books were part of the tie-in merchandise. Some comic book adaptations were great, others not too great. If the art the subject were good, I purchased it. I’m a big fan of these well-drawn adaptations of films – even if the movie was not the best.

There were many, but here are my favorites in no particular order:

2001: A Space Odyssey- by Jack Kirby. Printed in oversized tabloid form, it was pure Kirby epic as he saw it.  This movie was meant for Kirby

 

2010: The Year We Make Contact– the sequel to the 2001 movie, was drawn by Tom Palmer, whom I like to think of as a really good understudy of John Buscema. Palmer took advantage of dozens of photographic references supplied to him by MGM.

Raiders of the Lost Ark– art by John Buscema, inked by Klaus Janson. Buscema was one of the founding Marvel Comics 1960s artists who took over many books after Kirby left. Janson, for those who may not know, was the inker of The Dark Knight Returns. The Raiders comic book did not have many photographic references, but it was still masterfully executed.

The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi– art by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon. Williamson, the long time #1 Flash Gordon artist had a good partner with Garzon- tons of photo references and great storytelling that set the standard for Star Wars comics.

Blade Runner– art again by Al Williamson and Carlos Garzon. Their art was so stunning that even in black and white it stands above their competition. They also drew scenes that were in the script, but didn’t make it into the movie.

Flash Gordon (1980)– art by Al Williamson, naturally.

* Batman (1989)– art by Jerry Ordway. He had tons of photo reference and has solid storytelling skills, which helped make this adaptation stand out from the rest.

The Wizard of Oz– Marvel Comics and DC Comics with art by John Buscema- I haven’t seen the movie in ages, but Busema’s art is always good and this was the first collaboration between the giant comic book companies.

Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer– Marvel Comics- art by Buscema. John Buscema was one of the greatest superhero artists, but he liked Conan more than superheroes- he did really great work on Conan comics for years, so for who would pencil the movie adaptation- Buscema was an obvious choice.

Meteor– bad movie, even if it starred Sean Connery, but great artwork for the adaptation. Artist Gene Colan, another important Marvel 60s founding artist, had no photographic reference for the movie, but the story he was given had extra scenes that were not in the movie.

Creature from the Black Lagoon– artwork by Art Adams- the hyper detailed animated style is something you gotta see.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula– art by Mike Mignola- I’ve seen many of the Dracula movies-Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Luke Evans- and although I am personally partial to Frank Langela’s 1979 Dracula with John Williams (brilliant as usual) theme song, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula seems more authentic to the book and Mignola was given a lot of photo references and mixed the references with his dark style to create a unique work of art. The adaptation was published by Topps usually known for trading cards and was Mignola at the top of his game.

Logan’s Run-artwork by George Perez. A few years before he became famous for his run on Teen Titans and 10 years before Crisis of Infinite Earths, you could tell George Perez was a superstar artist. This was a really good adaptation done in the Marvel Comics style.

Duneart by Bill Sienkiewicz. If there ever was a marriage between a movie and an artist, this would be it (along with Mignola’s Dracula). The Dune movie was really weird and  director David Lynch butchered the source. It was kind of hard to adapt Dune from book to movie to comic book, but Bill and his eclectic style was perfect for the comic book adaptation.

Well, there it is. That’s my list and though I do enjoy iTunes and Netflix, I still enjoy traditional hand-drawn, hard copy adaptations of movies.

Steven L. Walterson