Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book

With Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, coauthors Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon provide a balanced biography — thorough, yet a concise 300 pages; sympathetic yet markedly non-hagiographic — of not only the titular comics stalwart, shown punching through the comics page like one of his larger-than-life creations in the playful cover illustration; not even just of Marvel Comics, all of whose major events are covered; but of the entirety of the 20th century American comics industry.

The book’s structure tracks the rise and influence of the iconic Stan the Man by chronologically following the life of his real identity Stanley Martin Leiber. From his origin all the way to the then-present of 2003, the ups and downs famous and obscure are all there (including his work in non-superhero genres), interweaved with surrounding industry events. The balance is so even that not a single word of the entire chapter devoted solely to a synopsis of Fantastic Four #1 feels redundant.

Stan Lee’s background is that of many other 20th-century American reshapers of their fields, from Carl Sagan to Howard Zinn to Milton Friedman: the child of a recent-immigrant Jewish family that despite steadily assimilating into mainstream American society left ingrained in them a stubborn, maverick streak. Like Zinn’s, Lee’s Jewish observance was perfunctory and ignored after the obligatory bar mitzvah:

I never believed in religion. I don’t mean the Jewish religion—I mean in religion. To me, faith is the opposite of intelligence, because faith means believing something blindly. I don’t know why God—if there is a God—gave us these brains if we’re going to believe things blindly. (5)

While no rabble-rouser — with seeming risk-taking cannily executed in a “politically safe” (144) manner — Lee’s formative outsider perspective provided him the ability to shift the tone of the superhero genre from the straitlaced earnestness of its original wave of popularity in the 1930s and 1940s to give it a lasting appeal to the more cynical audiences of the 1960s and beyond that eluded most of its contemporaries. For instance, the Hulk inadvertently “became popular on college campuses for its focus on military excesses and inner demons” (photo insert caption). Lee’s adult life admittedly follows a relatively undramatic upwardly mobile professional career, albeit one enlivened by his relentless publicity antics.

Raphael and Spurgeon steer a careful course between the various controversies surrounding one of comics’ most polarizing figures. Their scrupulous charity in balancing criticism with credit for Lee’s substantial contributions is quaint by the standards of today’s era of fan venting. On the other hand, there’s plenty of frank discussion of Lee’s flaws that for his detractors would provide ample confirmation. The first paragraph of the front cover blurb calls him “a relentless self-promoter, a credit hog, and a huckster”, and there’s plenty more inside.

In the touchy matter of credit disputes, the coauthors are generous to both Lee and his collaborators. Their careful assessment of Lee’s true creative role cuts the popular perception of Lee as Marvel’s general prime mover down to size — not only in binary collaborations like the Lee-Steve Ditko Spider-Man and the roster of Lee-Jack Kirby characters, but for versions of his cocreations like the X-Men that hit their stride with developments brought after Lee’s authorial or editorial involvement and even “characters he had absolutely no part in creating” (265) — while giving him his due as a collaborator who was able to elicit others’ best work, shining attention on areas in which he had been underrated, such as his “vastly underappreciated editorial career” (263).

The decade that has elapsed since the book’s publication has made it a benchmark for how far the cultural landscape has changed since. As the “fall” in the subtitle indicates, the tone is surprisingly pessimistic about the future of comics as a medium — “a venerable if now marginal art form” (back cover flap) — which is not necessarily contradicted by the snowballing cultural influence of comics falling mostly outside the medium proper itself. This was a reasonable prognosis, given how it was clear that comics would never recover the mass audience and 600-million-copy annual circulations of their mid-20th century heyday, without anticipating the shift away from a mass-market culture that meant they would not need to.

With the Internet still in its awkward, spottily-adopted early stages of “E-mail, on-line bulletin boards, and the World Wide Web” (xiii), it was easy to miss the imminence of middlemen-bypassing distribution media and the power of small fandoms to drive mainstream culture. With a single passing mention of J.K. Rowling, the ascendance of the similarly passionate-fanbase-driven young-adult field and the mainstream acceptance of adult fandoms for “childish things” which were then still disreputable is not perceived. It seems jarring in retrospect that the popular identification of collaborative media with a singular creative mover was still ensconced enough that it needed so much pushing against. Despite the mention of Spider-Man becoming more popular in its summer season than the latest prequel from what was “once the Tiffany standard of popular imagination” (xv), the George Lucas backlash still not yet crested.

Superhero movies, while gaining steam, were still far from the juggernaut of today. Marvel-based movies were getting their act together, with X-Men a solid hit and the first Spider-Man an established megablockbuster, but hadn’t fully shaken off the taint of the B-movie schlock to which even top characters were relegated and Howard the Duck. It is amusing to read elementary explanations of the various then-minor superheroes who are now among pop culture’s most famous characters, such as the “slightly less inspired” (102) Iron Man, or that “none of the [Marvel] characters seemed to have the built-in recognition level that made for successful film franchises like those featuring DC’s Batman and Superman” (240). If anything, the era’s spate of serious film adaptations of comics with decidedly non-superhero subject matter, like the Jack the Ripper mystery From Hell or the period mob drama Road to Perdition, made it look like the comics medium was heading towards shaking off its cultural identification with spandex.

But what does any of this have to do with economics and politics? From a market anarchist perspective, everything.

Certainly, the book is no tract on the economic aspect of the industry. As when noting Steve Ditko’s “rigid moral code that would later find full bloom under the objectivist teaching of Ayn Rand” (71), what ideology that does seep in to the narrative tends to be viewed indirectly.

But the lack of emphasis and ax-grinding only makes it all the more clear that perpetually looming behind all of the creative and artistic work in the medium are the ineluctable requirements of an economy at the peak of its dominance by ogliopolies of large organizations, with the mass-market comic book epitomizing the mid-20th century industrial product where “the lion’s share of the money goes to the corporations who distribute and market what you buy” instead of the workers who produce it. Such inequality is often taken for granted to be the consequence of “market competition“, but left-libertarian analysis makes it clear how far what is more clearly understood as a corporate state is from a competitive market.

Like theatrical cel animation, the comic book was distributed on a mass-market basis while being produced on a craft basis, with the finished product showing the personal touch of the handiwork of key individual creative talents. Yet while the production process of animation was inherently complex, depending on an intricate division of labor between many different kinds of creative work and a plethora of “skilled noncreative jobs“, a comic book issue was capable of visual complexity produced in its entirety by small, tightly-knit groups, exemplified by Marvel’s famous bullpen. It was the “army of middlemen” who published and distributed the issues on a mass scale to a mass consumer audience that overshadowed the original creation, multiplied its marginal cost, and drove up its capital intensiveness.

It was an economy in which political favoritism artificially tilted the field towards such capital-intensive enterprises — thus properly described, in the market anarchist sense, as capitalist — and built the road for cost-efficient mass distribution (with comics initially piggybacking on the existing distribution infrastructure of the pulp magazines) that allowed them to predominate as cultural gatekeepers.

Similarly, the legendary inequalities between comics artists and their publishers can be most clearly understood as the result of an economy that denied workers, in Benjamin Tucker’s phrase, “a free market in which to sell” their labor.

Before the creator-driven establishment of a viable independent distribution infrastructure, comics artists trying to reach an audience had to be dedicated enough to put up with alternatives as marginal as the “sketchy network of bong dealers and record peddlers” (143) that distributed underground comix. Artists employed by the big studios were locked in to a “page-rate serfdom” (146) with no ownership or share of other forms of publisher revenue. The comic book format itself in fact originated as the result of it being more profitable to pay artists cheaply to write new material than to negotiate with the powerful newspaper syndicates for reprint rights to their strips. Jack Kirby required a protracted legal battle to gain ownership even of the literal, physical product of his labor: the original hand-drawn pages.

Unlike Walt Disney, another iconic individual popular symbol in a collaborative medium, Lee was an employee, not an owner; that he became as well-compensated and well-treated as it was possible to for an employee to get drives home how even he was denied ownership and creative control of his work. His antipathy for even the more flexible freelance arrangements, a product of his formative Depression-era childhood in a family often without a steady income due to his father’s inability to find regular work, was also a pragmatic choice in an economy where self-employment opportunities were cut off.

The shift of power back towards artists paralleled the shift towards viable post-mass-market economic alternatives. When in the 1980s the main point of sale of comics moved from newsstands to specialty stores, the decreasing capital-intensiveness of distribution opened the field for creator-controlled independents, many formed by Marvel walkouts who took their experience with them. Spectacular technological leaps played little role. The success of the creator-ownership movement predated the Internet, which at the time of the book’s writing was still reeling from the chaos of the dot-com bust. Stan Lee Media was as spectacular a dot-bomb as any, exemplifying the squandering of the potential of the new medium by the predominance of the speculative values of the old economy. (And maybe today’s remaining mass-marketing methods haven’t changed as much as we like to think. What is Netflix’s modus operandi of tailoring its original content to what statistics show to be its demographic’s existing tastes but a more sophisticated version of Marvel’s strategy in its early years of focusing new material to ride the waves of current trends, unabashedly expressed by founder Martin Goodman: “If you get a title that catches on, then add a few more, you’re in for a nice profit”?)

The reverberations from Lee’s quickly-forgotten Comix Book, a fleeting effort treating underground comix just like any other fad to be co-opted, shows the disruptive power of alternatives. The contributing underground artists demanded and got rights to their work as a condition of their participation, leading artists at Marvel to agitate for creator rights as well. An opportunistic “cross between the vitality and freedom of underground comix… and the distribution and experience of an established company” (as Denis Kitchen’s “sort-of introduction” put it, photo insert) had inadvertently punctured the barrier between two heretofore separate cultures.

Market anarchists have no more idea than anyone else of what the future of the medium will hold. But the shift away from the industrial-age mass-market economy will only accelerate, and produce ever-more-unpredictable cultural aftereffects. ‘Nuff said.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory