Monday, December 3, 2018

The politics of that pile of old comics -- repost

The response to the death of Stan Lee has been truly remarkable, particularly when compared to his collaborators Steve Ditko and even more notably Jack Kirby, who had a longer and more influential career as a creator. Though we should not entirely discount Lee's carefully crafted persona as the longstanding face of Marvel, his notable work as a writer and editor was largely limited to the Silver Age of comics.

Lee's cultural and commercial impact has been immense, but many of the tributes have still managed to praise him for things he didn't actually do. Part of this has to do with our increasingly dysfunctional attitudes toward fame and success that, among other things, tends to concentrate all of the credit for a collaborative accomplishment on to whoever has the best name recognition.

The bigger part, however, is probably due to the extremely personal relationship that many of the eulogizers have with the medium. Given the impact that comics, particularly the superheroes of Marvel and DC, have had, the genre would seem to be an ideal starting point for a discussion of politics and culture, but it is extraordinarily difficult to maintain critical detachment when discussing a work that means a great deal to you. It requires serious and sustained effort to keep yourself from seeing significance and profundity that aren't really there. This by no means is limited to comics; it may well be worse with popular music.

A lot of this comes down to the tendency to confuse what Pauline Kael might call good trash with great art. This is not to say that comic books and other media and genres such as audience pleasing comedies, spy novels, TV shows, top 40 songs, etc. can't aspire to something higher. Not being a self-loathing middlebrow, I have never bought into the mid-cult bullshit and I will go to the mat for the artistic quality of popular creators such as Buster Keaton, Will Eisner, John LeCarre, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, not to mention TV shows like the Twilight Zone, NYPD Blue, Doctor Who, the Americans, etc. but (once again channeling Kael) we shouldn't try to convince ourselves that everything we like is a work of artistic importance.

Along similar lines, when a work means a great deal to us, there is a natural desire to see its creators as kindred spirits, sharing our worldview and championing our deeply held beliefs. While Stan Lee is in many ways a tremendously admirable figure, the attempt to reinvent him as a progressive icon has always been an embarrassing retcon, even by comic book standards.

The politics of that pile of old comics

As mentioned before, writer and historian Mark Evanier is arguably the go-to guy for pop culture when it comes to both comics and television. One of his areas of particular expertise is the career of his friend, Jack Kirby.

The following excerpt confirms some assumptions I've had about the politics of Silver Age Marvel.
So when someone asks what Captain America would have felt about some topic, the first question is, "Which Captain America?" If the character's been written by fifty writers, that makes fifty Captain Americas, more or less…some closely in sync with some others, some not. And even a given run of issues by one creator or team is not without its conflicts. When Jack was plotting and pencilling the comic and Stan Lee was scripting it, Stan would sometimes write dialogue that did not reflect what Jack had in mind. The two men occasionally had arguments so vehement that Jack's wife made him promise to refrain. As she told me, "For a long time, whenever he was about to take the train into town and go to Marvel, I told him, 'Remember…don't talk politics with Stan.' Neither one was about to change the other's mind, and Jack would just come home exasperated." (One of Stan's associates made the comment that he was stuck in the middle, vis-a-vis his two main collaborators. He was too liberal for Steve Ditko and too conservative for Kirby.)

Jack's own politics were, like most Jewish men of his age who didn't own a big company, pretty much Liberal Democrat. He didn't like Richard Nixon and he really didn't like the rumblings in the early seventies of what would later be called "The Religious Right." At the same time, he thought Captain America represented a greater good than the advancement of Jack Kirby's worldview.

During the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings, Jack was outraged when Ollie North appeared before Congress and it wasn't just because North lied repeatedly or tried to justify illegal actions. Jack thought it was disgraceful that North wore his military uniform while testifying. The uniform, Jack said, belonged to every man and woman who had every worn it (including former Private First Class Jack Kirby) and North had no right to exploit it the way he did. I always thought that comment explained something about the way Kirby saw Captain America. Cap, obviously, should stand for the flag and the republic for which it stands but — like the flag — for all Americans, not merely those who wish to take the nation in some exclusionary direction.
We've already been over Ditko's Randian views.

I also knew that Lee, who is a bit of a revisionist, had overstated some of the progressive positions he had taken on issues like racism while downplaying the red-baiting and sexism. Marvel apologists have also tried to explain away the more reactionary aspects of these stories but they are pretty difficult to ignore and it appears that most of them can be credited to Lee. (Kirby never had Lee's gift for self-promotion or reinvention and he preferred to let his work speak for itself -- always a risky approach in a collaborative medium.)

For more thoughts on the subject, check out this piece by one of my favorite critics/pop historians, Bob Chipman (more from Chipman later).

 You should note that the red-baiting version of the character was done by Lee with no involvement from Kirby.


  1. Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy is a brilliant book, but Le Carre can really pour out passages of bad writing. And it's not like the bad writing can cleanly be separated from the good stuff. It all seems to be part of the package.

    1. Yes, I included him based on the smiley books and a perfect spy. Lots of lesser works there, but that's why we read Huckleberry Finn and not tom sawyer detective