Poplife: Issue #40

Thu, November 14th, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

JACK LOOKED DOWN AND SMILED

POPLIFE is a collection of excerpts from my work journal. There is no specific form or function the column serves other than to allow the reader to see what my experience in my first year as a comics-writer is like. Some weeks I get work done, so I talk about work. Some weeks I don't get any work done, so I ramble incoherently. POPLIFE's purpose is to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of my specific process.

A friend of mine tells a story about meeting Stan Lee: he had found some ancient funny animal book that Stan wrote when he was still Stanley Lieber, before the Ray-Bans and rhetoric, before the Pop Art P.T. Barnum shtick. My friend gets through the line and presents this funny animal book to Stan, who lowers the glasses. May I look at this book, Stan asks as though he may break it. Sure, says my friend, and they flip through it together. Stan could still pick out who drew what, and what he remembered about those men and the time they spent together. Fifteen, twenty minutes maybe of going through the book like that, one page and one panel at a time. They finish, and Stan says Thank you for sharing this with me. My friend gives him the book and leaves the signing area. Like a switch, the moment my pal's back was turned the glasses were back on and Stan was S! T! A! N! again.

I like that story because it's kind of strange. Sort of a look at the guy behind the glasses, you know? Like showing Charles Foster Kane his own sled. Like there's a line between Lieber and Lee somewhere. He is, after all, PUBLISHER EMERITUS. He's as much of a fiction as what he so famously created.

As per Stan's deal as Publisher Emeritus of Marvel Comics, he gets a 10% vig on the Marvel take, in addition to a fat million a year for the use of his image. And if you've ever seen him in person, you know that Marvel has gotten every penny's worth of that-Lee is a showman, huckster, and charmer that could sell ice-spots to Eskimo-Dalmatians.

So last week, Stan Lee goes on 60 MINUTES and says with a deafening and murderous silence that he feels, yeah, Marvel Comics fucked him in the wallet over the biggest book of his life, which became the biggest movie of last summer, and the biggest DVD of all time. A few days later comes a lawsuit against this company-this company that he himself was fundamental in creating. Stan Lee, who is a corporate flag-bearer, a figurehead, and before now was certainly Marvel Comics' biggest fan, is suing because he feels he's been robbed.

The symbolic resonance of which is rather like Bill Gates suing Microsoft for anti-trust violations (while retaining all the absurdity of a millionaire complaining that instead of hundreds of millions of dollars, he only made tens of millions). Attendant irony aside, the public face of the Mighty Marvel Media Megalith is scrunched up in a lemon-suck.

So, hold that thought. Better yet, hold that image.

I've been having some conversations lately about this strange trend in equating advocating diversity in comics to being a snob; there's an ugly zeitgeist going on right now that says if you're not doing time either physically or spiritually in the corporate comics salt mines then you're against comics, you're against market growth. Somehow lamenting the sure-to-be momentary success of retro-toy and animation books makes one an elitist. If you don't want to eat at McDonald's, then you're just not American.

In the never-ending search for comics' very own Magic Bullet, anyone who may propose a diversity of market as something that would have great value to comics and comics' future will usually and unfairly get slapped with that label, and usually, in the next breath, be labeled as Warren Ellis' Catamite. And the best I can figure is that beneath it all is a miserable desire to justify the most cretinous of tastes-something, anything to help one from feeling that they're not intellectually slumming it. And, I'm sorry, if you're thirty years old and reading HE-MAN, that's exactly what you're doing.

But this is an entertainment medium, an escapist medium. By its own origins and definitions, this kind of interaction is permitted. This is not a character assault or condemnation of you or your tastes. I'll read ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY as soon as HARPERS; I'll go see JACKASS and PUNCH DRUNK LOVE. I am large, and I contain many crappy multitudes. Comics are a pop art form; there's a certain amount of intellectual disengagement from critical thought that's expected to occur when one engages it. Hell, I think we need MORE crap, as long as it's different crap than what we have now. Give me something more than fights in tights and toys reborn, give me diversity or give me death.

Diversity, there's your Magic Bullet. More creators doing the work they want to do and growing the medium in the process. Instead of carving up the same small piece of pie, make a bigger pie. There's been great progress there, and great progress in creator owning or profit sharing-incentives, you hear 'em get called sometimes-and the more good news that comes down the pipe means the more creators are going to get into it.

Because, hey, it's great when you can feed yourself. Creator-owned or creator-participation deals behind the scenes mean more vigorous and robust stuff happening on-stage. More choices, more readers, more sales. Creators make livings telling the stories that they want to tell, publishers make money selling those stories, and people line up to read 'em. Imagine a film industry that produced and showed nothing but STAR WARS films-movies would die pretty fast. Servicing pre-existing trademarks are good only for encouraging the perpetuity of those trademarks and the publishers that hold them. It grows nothing, it evolves nothing. At it's best, it replicates an ever-diminishing cycle; at it's worst the Work For Hire practice only makes publishers rich while the creators die blind and broke in the ghettos of Cleveland.

And now Stan Lee is getting a taste of that kind of treatment.

So please, tell me again in small and simple words so that I may understand, how Work For Hire is a good deal. Tell me again why having no interest in servicing trademarks makes me an anti-comics snob elitist. Tell me again how Work For Hire doesn't in fact fly in the faces of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon and Segal and Shuster and anyone else that's had the balls to stand up for themselves after having their creative lives exploited, tell me again that Creator Owned is somehow anti-Comics.

Because, um, MISTER Work For Hire himself has gotten the screws put to him and wants the whole world to know. Can you imagine how hard that must've been for him to do, to take those Ray-Bans off and look at himself in the mirror one morning only to see Jack Kirby staring back at him?

Fire one up for Jack tonight, ladies and gentlemen. And let's raise a glass to karma.

And speaking of karma, THE ANNOTATED MANTOOTH! was solicited in last month's PREVIEWS. It's 96 pages of Rex Mantooth Awesomenicity, available for advanced reorder now with the following magic number: OCT022287. It's $12.95, and smells terrific.

SPECIAL BONUS FOR ANTI-GLOBALIZATIONERISTAS LOOKING TO STICK IT TO BIG BUSINESS: Order fifty under the guise of being a college professor or leader of a local book group interested in holding a session based on TAM! and stiff your local book megachain with the copies when they arrive.

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