The Basement Tapes: Issue #26

Tue, February 8th, 2005 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

Sometimes, this is what happens when two writers e-mail each other:

An ongoing conversation behind closed doors, equal parts experience, opinion, critique, and outright rambling, THE BASEMENT TAPES are an attempt to present somewhat serious discussion about the somewhat serious business of comicbooks between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

Step right up, True Believers! Could any news report on an otherwise boring news magazine cause so much discussion? If it involves Stan Lee, you betcha, Frantic Ones! And how can we - as "respectable" comicbook culture columnists - not add to the discourse? Time to drag the Man into the Basementā€¦ down into the darknessā€¦

CASEY: Well, we all saw Stan Lee's interview on "60 Minutes II" last week, we know about the lawsuit with Marvel and Stan's victory. Certainly a deserved victory (at least on some levels), but seeing this kind of... public antagonism between two parties that seemed so inseparable has been kind of unsettling, for all kinds of reasons.

The first one is, for me, a simple one. Stan Lee vs. Marvel. Just think about that for a minute. For decades, Stan Lee was Marvel. As Marvel's figurehead, he was the greatest advocate for comicbooks to the world that we'll probably ever see. He was neither boring or creepy, two unfortunate traits that I'd probably assign to just about any current comicbook folk who would put themselves forward as a modern advocate of the medium. Stan could sell our beloved art form as something that was actually pretty cool. His persona included the fantasy that Marvel really was the "House of Ideas"... that the Bullpen was a magical place where talented men and women got together and had too much fun creating the adventures of our favorite superheroes.

And now, this lawsuit. Stan wants what he's owed for the characters he helped create and their adaptations into multi-million dollar film franchises. The perceived mistreatment. The obvious lack of fairness. But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to money, doesn't it? In the interview, Stan speaks of "vindication," but the asshole interviewer seems fixated on the millions that may come to Stan. I remember when Stan's Soapbox used to promote a higher purpose, a sense of fun for fun's sake and creativity for creativity's sake. The fantasy is pretty much ruined.

Or is it...?

FRACTION: First off, let's both simply acknowledge what a shoddy piece of reporting that was on the part of 60 Minutes II. Hard to believe that that bastion of American journalism that revealed the existence of the Bush National Guard Forgery template in Microsoft Word would stoop to such shady practices like the anachronistic usage of the Avi Arad footage that demonized the guy (if they spoke to Arad on the set of "Spider-Man," the first one, then the interview predates any mistreatment-- as no revenue had been generated by the film yet... ), to actually showing a man's hand ink a drawing of Spider-Man but not actually acknowledging that there was ever someone other than Stan attached to it ever, to the reporter trying to trivialize the suit as one rich guy being pissed off because he's not richer. It was a shitty piece of journalism, a shit job of reporting, and a shit job of broadcasting.

Okay, so: yes. Here's a guy with a million dollar a year stipend suing for more money than he could ever possibly need, and blah blah. He's not Siegel or Schuster, or-- dare I say it-- Joe Simon or Jack Kirby. Stan isn't going to starve. And while his Humble Freelancer shtick may have fooled the hayseeds, I didn't buy it-- yes, this is the story of a millionaire suing a billionaire-- but to what end?

As simple as it is to demonize Marvel for their relationships with freelancers-- from Stan and Jack on down. That doesn't mean Marvel's treatment of their freelancers, especially they who built the company itself, was "right" or "good" or "kind" in the past, but it doesn't make it illegal either. Stan's point is quite clear-- pay what you said you'd pay. It's one thing for Marvel to sign a thank you contract that says he's the father of the company, but it's entirely another to write a check to back that up.

As much as Stan played up the "I thought we were the good guys" crap in that interview, it belies that he, too, thinks of Marvel as that mythical, apocryphal House of Ideas that he himself created-- but he knows better.

CASEY: Well, it certainly helps his argument, both in a moral and legal sense. But, yeah, it doesn't make it right.

To be uncharacteristically fair for a moment, I have seen Stan -- in longer interviews -- acknowledge Kirby and Ditko's (and other artists') heavy involvement in early Marvel. But these were generally interviews that either Stan or his people had more control over, or more comic-minded folk who know the truth had some control over. So, yeah, fuckin' CBS News and "60 Minutes" had their agenda in how they were presenting this story, and it had nothing to do with presenting the real truth.

Then again, when Stan said in the interview from two years previous, "I've told this story so often... and it may even be true." I tend to shudder a bit at moments like that.

Here's an innocent, philosophical question... let's say Stan gets his ten million dollars (or however many millions he's contractually owed). You're right, he wasn't hurting for money before. So does he slip a million to the Kirby Estate? Does he hand over another million to Steve Ditko?

FRACTION: The degree to which Stan himself has been blamed for the poor quality of that piece would suggest that he's a "60 Minutes II" producer and allowed it to happen. No, even in the A&E biography of they guy, not only did he mention his collaborators as being as important as he was, but even suggested that maybe they hadn't been treated in the best of ways.

And-- no, Stan shouldn't hand over a goddamn penny to the Kirby Estate or to Messrs Ditko, Romita, or Buscema for the same reason that Ronald McDonald shouldn't give you your money back when you find a human toe in your cheeseburger. Neither one of them are really running the show, you know?

It's hard to be 100% sympathetic or 100% unsympathetic to Stan-- yes, he's a millionaire suing a billionaire, but at the same time he is irrefutably responsible for much of Marvel's DNA. That his co-creators didn't get a piece like he did isn't for you or for me to judge, condone, or condemn-- it's a matter of murky personal histories and corporate ethics, both of which are a far fucking blacker realm than I care to tread.

Honestly, how great a start would universal creator credits be?

CASEY: No doubt. But let's be realistic here. Marvel doesn't even give that kind of creator credit in the actual comicbooks themselves. In every issue of "Adventures of Superman" I wrote, I was somewhat reassured in some inexplicable way that they would include "created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster" in the credit box. But there's certainly no "created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko" in every issue of "Spider-Man." Hell, they've pretty much done away with the once obligatory "Stan Lee Presents." I wonder if it became a legal thing, where even the token appearance of Stan's stewardship of the Marvel Universe could somehow be used against the company in court...

But all this gets back to my original point. I think it's safe to say that, for a lot of us who were young enough to experience a Marvel Comics that reveled in its Stan Lee-created mythology of Bullpen Bulletins and wacky creator nicknames, the dream has died. And, what's worse, Stan has become a figure of convenience, trotted out as an example of whatever purpose the evocation of his name might happen to support at the moment.

I don't want this to start sounding like some sort of obituary, because the old guy is certainly still alive and kicking with a massive court victory under his toupee. But it'll never be the same again. We may have NuMarvel and it may be exactly what it should be for the times, but I do lament the final passing of Marvel Comics... which I can never bring myself to call "Old Marvel" in deference to the Nu. It was never old. That was the point.

FRACTION: Oh, I don't think that's inexplicable at all-- and I think it's a fine example that Marvel could easily follow. I hadn't thought that there could be a legal back-end to removing Stan's ubercredit, I gotta confess...

I was trying to explain to someone the other day how and why one drew allegiances to either Marvel or DC-- and realized that it all came down to the Marvel brand that made it all feel so divisive. You found your tastes reflected in the visual and substantive style of either company, you found whatever character you dug, you found whatever it was that floated your boat and that was that... unless you were a Marvel kid, in which case there was an underbelly to the brand-- an overbelly to the brand?-- that existed solely to whip you up into a jingoistic ra-ra-Marvel frenzy, you know? Like, the editorial voice behind the scenes on Marvel books was this crazed, inclusive, and quite frankly superior tone to DC-- who has always seemed to me to be the Polite Young Man of comics.

If this is what killed the dream, it started wheezing badly for me back when I heard the first rumbles of the creator's rights movement back in the day -- I remember not understanding why they'd take care of Stan but not Jack or Steve (or John or John or Sal or Gene or Don or...), you know? Like-- like, it was just crummy. I don't know if that word was more universal that my town or not, but that's what I remember thinking about Marvel back then. It was just crummy. A shabby rip-off.

CASEY: I mean, we're talking about Stan Lee here and the image of Marvel Comics to general fandom, but as a professional writer -- certainly a "behind the curtain"-perspective that most fans don't ever have -- I just had the fucking time of my life writing "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" for Marvel and I'm in the middle of doing more work for them. My personal relationship with the company is with the editors I work with and the characters I loved as a kid. And, I should add, no one ever dissuaded me from prominently featuring the credit, "Stan Lee Presents" at the top of every issue of EMH.

My point is really that a non-Stan Marvel is... different. They've inadvertently re-branded themselves in a very subliminal way. For me, anyway. And this lawsuit kind of drove that home, I guess.

DC as the "Polite Young Man?" I agree with everything except the "Young" part...

FRACTION: The real issue is how by having that "Stan Lee Presents" box there for so long, and by so intrinsically twisting his identity into the brand, that, like, what happened to Jack was Stan's fault. And not, uh, Martin Goodman or whomever else, you know? He's a figurehead that we refuse to dismiss. We believe that credit box more than we believe the actual; we believe Stan's myth more than we believe what's real. Stan is Marvel, you know? We can't distinguish the creator from his creation. We may as well demonize the Green Goblin for destroying Jack's artwork. We can't see the situation as anything other than just desserts, which is wildly unfair to all involved, past and present.

CASEY: That's absolutely true. And, y'know... not to get all sappy about things, but there's something kinda nice about getting the crutch kicked out from under you every once in a while. After all, if my fan perception of Marvel has really been so intrinsically tied up with Stan's persona, then maybe it's time for a new perception to take over. A more measured, realistic perception of the company that was founded basically on one man's creativity... and another man's personality.

Only, in America, personality is rewarded over creativity every time.

FRACTION: Do you they're maybe inching towards some sort of personality reinvention now?

Quesada's got his "Cup 'o Joe" advertorial deal running; they've started in-house imprints where creators are tied into the brand inexorably-- Young Guns, Marvel Age; and they're... I dunno, I get the feeling like maybe they're trying to reinvent the clubhouse. For the first time in forever it feels like there's a lot of friends working together over there now. And, too, the farther away that side of the empire they can get from this mess with Stan the better. You're in the trenches over there-- what do you think?

CASEY: Well, part of my new perception of Marvel is such that I don't even need to pay attention to that side of it anymore. If there is some movement toward a new kind of "clubhouse" mentality, it hasn't affected me one way or the other. I already know Joe Quesada as a person, so there's no need to read -- or read into -- his editorials (just like I'd imagine those who knew Stan personally never bothered to read the "Soapbox" column).

But for the fans and the readers out there? I can't imagine what they think. There's probably a lot of mixed messages being sent, due mainly to the information overload environment we live in. That kind of united front that Stan could put across so effortlessly was easier to maintain back in the day. Creators never talked out of turn, fan press wasn't doggedly on their ass about every little thing, there was no Rich Johnston to leak out skewed versions of the possible truths...

What do I think? I still love the characters. I love getting the chance to write stories about them. That's as much of a testament to... something... as I can manage at this point. But maybe that's enough. Maybe that's the healthiest way to look at it. The company isn't mythical anymore. Only the characters are.

FRACTION: And creator's rights, apparently. That's pretty goddamn mythical.

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