Or, “Of such gossamer things are legends created.”
So, I’m an idiot and I’m not ashamed to admit my ignorance on the internet (that seems to be the national past-time of many a celebrity). I’m also doubly ashamed because I wrote a whole screed on not doing research and yet here I am, hanging my head. For some reason, I thought Iron Man’s origin was that Tony Stark was in an iron lung and turned it into an awesome suit. About three seconds of Google-fu would have set me straight, but I couldn’t be bothered. Then a co-worker lent me two books, Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics and Bring on the Bad Guys. And there, in reprinted color glory, was Iron Man’s true origin, which was pretty much re-created for the movie (different bad guys). And so I was brought low by my own hubris, and lower when I realized this was on display for the whole virtual world to see.
In a comic book, this would be the beginning of my own origin story, the tale of how I became “Captain Otaku” and took to the internets to rectify all errors concerning comic books so that none would ever feel the shame I do in boldly displaying such easily avoided ignorance. But this isn’t a comic book, and I am not insane (not superhero insane anyway).
So, then, what is this about? These two wonderful books (the first was Origins of Marvel Comics, which my co-worker did not have). The first one came out probably in 1973 or 74 (there I go, not checking the Google), and the second (“Sons”) in 1975 and the third (“Bad Guys”) in 1976. I have no idea if there are more (again, ignoring my own advice). But these are just fantastic. I obviously spend a great deal of time pondering how writers think and where they get their ideas and how stories come together (or completely fail). These provide exactly that insight. In case you haven’t heard of them, I think this was a quick way for Marvel to make a buck on re-selling the origins of popular characters before tradebacks were a thing. Stan Lee wrote all the introductions to all the chapters, which were reprints of the origin comics and occasionally a bonus comic.
These are absolutely eye-opening. First of all, I really get a kick out of Stan’s writing. He is over the top and grandiose, and it is totally entertaining. He even gives some of the credit to the various artists who helped define Marvel’s iconic characters; actually, he praises them pretty highly, but I know by that time Jack Kirby had already left Marvel and there was some bad blood. Still, he’s got a sense of humor – “…so I could add the little dialogue balloons and captions with which I’ve spent a lifetime cluttering up the illustrations of countless long-suffering artists.” It’s obvious to me even in the mid-70s as Marvel was continuing to rise that Stan was something of a legend in his own mind (or at least wanted to appear that way). He also takes a pretty cheap shot at DC when describing the thought process behind Iron Man – “As far as I knew, there had never been a costumed comicbook character who was a wealthy and successful businessman.” Really, Stan? Somehow you’ve never heard of Batman? Or maybe Green Arrow?
Granted, some parts of this writing are painful – concerning the naming of the X-men, “…women’s lib wasn’t an issue in those days, and nobody would fault us for the fact that we were callously ignoring the female member of the team – unintentionally to be sure.” Um, I am fairly certain in 1963 women’s liberation was in fact an issue, and a growing one, even if it didn’t reach the hallowed halls of Marvel’s boys’ club Bullpen. I should mention though that Marvel Girl was strong enough to show the boys of the manor what was what in her first appearance. Still, ouch… Some parts are tongue-in-cheek honest – “Touched by your entreaties, warmed by your enthusiasm, and spurred on by our own gnawing greed…” And some parts are really enlightening. For example, the Silver Surfer was apparently an afterthought by Jack Kirby as he and Stan worked on developing Galactus as a Fantastic Four villain. Kirby just thought Galactus would have a herald, and Stan ran with it. Concerning Dr. Doom – “Sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes you hit a homer first time at bat.” Can’t argue with that.
These books also highlight Stan’s alliteration fetish and why so many of his heroes/villains have such obvious names. He says it’s because he likes a name that instantly conjures up a mental image. Green Goblin, Silver Surfer, Red Skull… he’s got a point. People who know nothing about those characters can make a guess. “Seeking a name that suggested lethal menace, I latched onto the word ‘doom…’ Doom Man didn’t seem to do the trick, and Mister Doom didn’t quite have it. Professor Doom just left me cold, while even the alliterative Donald Doom fell a little short. But then, scant seconds before I’d be forced to resort to Doom the Dentist, I had it! Doctor Doom!” By the by, this means that in my “Conversations that May Have Happened,” I wasn’t actually too far off of the creative process. I am both elated and somewhat disturbed by this.
The books also give insight on Marvel’s continuity snarls. Most of the heroes were introduced in origin story comics, but not so much the villains. Marvel was churning out comics, so villains were introduced to give the hero something to do, but each appearance of the villain made an origin story more difficult to produce because of further constraints. On the Green Goblin – “Hence, a new character will suddenly pop up in any given story, all set to challenge a hero, fullblown and itching for a fight, with none of us realizing that we’ll be wishing, in years to come, that we had provided an origin tale at the start, which would make life a zillion times easier for me at a time like this.” Here Stan means trying to recount origin stories, which in the book results in a first appearance comic followed by the actual origin comic which was written sometime later. Of course, in the case of Dormamuu, they painted themselves into that corner knowingly.
I also have a new appreciation for the artwork. It is amazing to me in some of the comics presented the difference just a few years (like four or five) can make. I like Kirby and Ditko’s work, I do, but Gene Colan’s thinner pencil lines look so much more modern, and the difference between Iron Man’s first appearance and his appearance merely four years later is just astounding. I also appreciate the difficulty of drawing an abstract idea. Poor Ditko drew the short straw on how the heck to draw the Dark Dimension, but he produced something quite otherworldly. No one can draw tech like Kirby could. His SHIELD helicarrier puts a Protoss carrier to shame.
But mostly I like how Stan thinks about his creation. He says more than a few times that sometimes his creations got away from him (and his co-creators). He says they set out to write one story and ended up with something else because it felt right. Now, I’m not sure I agree that my characters ever get out of hand like that and take a life of their own, but I do agree that sometimes the character does dictate the story. And I totally agree with his view on villainy – “You’ve probably noticed that we always try to motivate our miscreant as much as we do our hero. We hate to have a varlet doing evil just for the sake of being naughty. We try to indicate why he does the things he does, what made him the way he is. And, wherever possible, we may even let him exhibit some decent, likable traits. In the magic world of Marvel, not even supervillains need be all bad, just as our superheroes are rarely all good; they usually display some natural human failings.”
Of course, I’m not such a raging fan as to think Stan/Marvel got these lofty goals right all the time. And these were written a mere fifteen years after Marvel really started, which is enough time for perspective, but hardly to be taken as the definitive history. The times they are still a’ changing and what was revolutionary back in the ’60s is trite and naïve now. This, however, explains the foundation of fallible superheroes. I’m not sure how the Man feels about anti-heroes; I’m not sure where his creative control ended although it’s obvious to me he really loves his cameos in the Marvel movies (my vote for best Stan Lee cameo is in FF2). I still believe heroes should have human failings (but still be heroes) and villains shouldn’t be evil for the sake of being evil.
Indeed, I am a True Believer, and if you can locate these tomes of timeless wisdom, I can’t recommend enough that you do so. Excelsior!