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What We Have Learned: The 'And' In 'Stan And Jack'

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For the past six and a half years - ever since I signed up to do a PhD and then deferred it for a year - I've been reading people's ideas about what made Marvel comics work so well in the 1960s, and for almost as much time I've been getting annoyed with the sort of analysis that insists one person alone must always be responsible for creative work.

I'd encountered this before when reading abuot The Beatles (which I've been doing for a lot longer!) where you'd constantly come across daft ideas that either John Lennon or Paul McCartney was the one and only true genius of the band. When I first started reading such books it was usually John Lennon who was the genius, but these days you're as likely to see Macca called the guiding force, with George and Ringo generally left on the sidelines. The truth of the matter, as anybody who's ever genuinely collaborated on anything will know, is that it was all of them, all four, together, who made The Beatles work, even when the songs were written or performed alone. When a group of people work together creatively somehting different and strange happens quite apart from what each individual can do on their own, to create something entirely new that wouldn't have happened any other way.

This was especially true of the first decade of Marvel comics, when Stan Lee worked with Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko (and the various inkers, letterers, colourists and editorial staff) to create the amazing characters and stories that we're still reading today. There's a very strong inclination at the moment towards dismissing Stan Lee's contribution almost entirely - I recently read a (sligtly deranged) book which claimed to have extracted the "original" stories that Jack Kirby created, before it was messed around with and ruined by Stan Lee. It's actually a collection of pub rants written down, where the author has wild guesses about ways in which the panels could be completely rearranged into a different story, but the oddest part is that throughout the entire book he only mentions Stan Lee by name once, insisting on calling him "the editor" afterwards!

It's an extreme example of an opinion that has become prevalent, that Kirby (or Ditko for is characters) did all of the real creative work, then Stab Lee came along afterwards and "just" added the dialogue. Quite apart from anything else, the idea that this was a minor contribution seems absolutely potty to me. You only have to read Kirby or Ditko's later work without Lee to see what an enormous part of early Marvel Lee's dialogue was - and not just the dialogue either, but the sassy, sarcastic, often hilarious way he wrote footnotes, or conducted letter columns, or wrote his editorials. All of that stuff was, and is, an intrinsic part of what made Marvel comics so exciting and different. Without them they would still have looked amazing, but wouldn't have been anywhere near as much fun.

Rather than accept this, however, there still seems to be a need to pin it all down to one person, and the cause of this is the same cause of all that is bad and wrong in the world of the arts and indeed the world of the world: Class! Comics are an inherently working class art from, created by and for working class people, and so are looked down upon by the traditional art world. There's an assumption that anything created as part of someone's job can't be considered as art, because of course art can only truly be created by people unconcerned with such matters i.e. those who are rich enough not to have to worry about where the rent's coming from. Similarly, art created by a group working together is considered inferior to that created by by a single individual, because again it's the privileged individual who has always been prized by the posh nits in charge.

All of which is rather a long-winded way of saying that I think people try to prise apart Stan and Jack, or Stan and Steve, or John and Paul, as a way of hammering popular working class art forms into a shape that would make them acceptable to the gatekeepers of Proper Art. This seems to me to be an utterly stupid thing to do. All comics work is the work of a group of creators, even when one person writes, draws, letters and colours their work there are still editors, printers, distributors and so on involved, but usually there are many more, all pouring their own ideas into the mix. Throughout the corpus of comics I've looked out there are examples of teams of creators doing work that they could not have done before. A great example of this is the way that pencillers and inkers work together, creating very different looks than either of them do with other people, or the way that you can see writers writing different kinds of plots to suit the artists they work with.

What I've learned then, throughout all of this, is that comics (and especially superhero comics) are a collaborative medium, and we should celebrate them because of that, rather than trying to deny it!

Rant over! Next time - a summing up of the whole lot!

posted 30/10/2021 by Mark Hibbett

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I agree totally about the collaborative process, very well written, but my main reason for commenting for the first time was to say just how much I've enjoyed reading your blog. It's been very funny, entertaining, and informative. Thank you very much.
posted 6/11/2021 by Andrew

", then Stab Lee came along afterwards" -- Stab? Stan?
posted 25/11/2021 by reader

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