Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Unappreciated Genius Of Stan Lee

In my experience, comic fans seem to fall into one of two camps on the subject of Stan Lee. They either fully believe all the hype and think he's the greatest thing to happen to comics, or they think he's a bastard hack writer who took advantage of truly talented people like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko building his entire career on their backs. Today saw the release of a comic that, I think, proves that the truth lies somewhere in between. (As if common sense didn't already suggest that.)

The issue I'm talking about is the long-awaited Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure. For those who don't know the story behind it, Stan and collaborator Jack Kirby had been creating the Fantastic Four comic for several years when Jack decided he wanted to quit. He turned in his pencil artwork for what would have been FF #103 and left. Stan, at that point, decided he didn't like the story as it was and did something else entirely. (After all, Jack had just quit -- Stan couldn't very well ask him to make changes.) But he did see a lot of potential in the story, so he had the original artwork chopped up and reorganized; he wrote a new story around that, and got John Romita and John Buscema to add some additional artwork to fill in some of the gaps created in the process. Joe Sinnott came through and inked the whole thing, to give it some semblance of uniformity. The results of that were published as FF #108.

But Jack had kept copies of his original art and, years later, Jack Kirby Collector publisher John Morrow was able to dig them out and print them in his magazine. (In fact, that particular issue was what drew my attention to the publication initially and eventually led to the creation of my column for it!) A few years later, and marvel editor Tom Brevoort led an effort to get Joe Sinnott to re-ink Jack's original pencils (with a few add-ins from Ron Frenz to cover some of pieces lost to the cutting room floor) and Stan Lee to re-script the dialogue based on Jack's margin notes.

The result is Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure which tells the story of two brothers, one of whom terrorizes New York City for his own selfish monetary gain with the help of a "mega-power control module."

Despite a few contemporary references in the script, it reads very much like a story created in 1969. Joe's inking is, as always, absolutely wonderful and Jack's page and panel layouts are, as always, powerful and striking. Stan's dialogue still maintains a classic mix of drama and humor, and isn't nearly as tongue-in-cheek as many of his stories have been in recent years.

The issue also reprints Jack's original pencil artwork with some liner notes courtesy of John Morrow, as well as the final published story seen in FF #108. This allows the reader to very directly make comparisons between what Jack intended and what it morphed into.

Jack's version of the story is, frankly, disappointing. Oh, it's not bad by any means, but it has none of the rampant creativity and originality that tend to be hallmarks of anything he works on. Jack really just phoned this one in. Of course, for Jack, that only means it's just better than everything else instead of his usual far-and-away-better-than-anything-you've-ever-seen.

Here's where Stan's unappreciated (or, at best, underappreciated) genius comes in.

The new story that was published in FF #108 is one that is decidedly more in line with the FF mythos. The stakes are much greater than a simple, unusually powerful thief; and the mythological Janus notion is played up by making the Nega-Man an extension of one man, instead of a brother of one. Furthermore, while both stories are created as flashbacks, Jack's has a more placid approach since the threat is over and the heroes have safely won; the revised version treats the flashback as an origin to an even-greater, looming threat. In many respects, it's a story much better suited to the comic.

That's not to say FF #108 is without its flaws. The story was essentially cobbled together from leftover art, and wavering in and out of flashbacks makes things a bit overly confusing in terms of story flow. (Indeed, Stan's caption notes allude to this.) While Joe's inking provides something of a smoothing effect throughout the story, the frequent changes in artistic styles from the multiple pencillers is still somewhat distracting.

But even with those issues, the story seems to work better. It's more interesting and more engaging, and leads to an extended adventure over the subsequent several issues. Stan was acting in one of his more talented capacities as a true editor.

In this particular case, the editing is very heavy-handed but, again, he was working without having access to the original writer/artist. But having studied Jack (and Stan) over the years, I think it's indicative of the working relationship they had in the 1960s. Jack's imagination was a little too wild and unrestrained to really make sense, and Stan was able to keep it in focus.

Jack's creativity was a soap-box derby car that was already careening down the hill at top speed. Jack's problem was that he never bothered to build in brakes or a steering wheel. Oh, he was clever enough to get the crate to swerve a bit by leaning from side to side, and he could slow down with Fred Flintstone style brakes, but it was Stan who actually provided a steering wheel and a brake lever that was connected directly to the wheels. Stan kept Jack from crashing into the telephone pole by Dead Man's Curve.

Like I said, I think that's pretty evidently on display in Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure. (Stan's editing, that is. Not Jack's creativity.) It's a nice package overall, and I get the distinct (and rare) impression that it was put together with more of a mind to doing something worthwhile, rather than finding another way to financially exploit Jack's creativity.

1 comment:

Jason Michelitch said...

While I too fall between the two extremes in opinion on Stan Lee, it would be worth pointing out that one of the probable reasons Jack's story for FF #108 is lackluster in comparison to his other work was the level of dissatisfaction and distrust he felt in delivering his full creative energy to Marvel in the time leading up to his departure. Remember, this was at a time when Jack was socking away new concepts and ideas by the bushel, not willing to give them over for Marvel's exploitation.

Still, I think Stan Lee is very responsible for a lot of the things that I like about the early Marvel comics, and if he wasn't a titan of innovation like Kirby, he was a very good editor who, for a while, seemed to know how to get great work out of good people.