Expressions, Ideas, & Stan Lee
Stan’s Ideas; Steve’s Expression (Even Sans Stan)
This continues a serialized essay I launched last week. If you’re new to the blog, or just tuning in today, here you go:
They were a little daunting, a few (and they were only a few) of the reactions I read (on Facebook) and/or received (via email) when I first posted on Facebook my glee with Sean Howe‘s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story.
“Nothing new here,” I got from a handful of trusted folks, and the insistent query “what about Kirby and Dikto?,” via FB comments and emails.
Well, as to the latter, Sean Howe has gone above and beyond in presenting and contrasting, via their own words, both Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s accounts of “what happened” as Marvel—and I’ll get into the Ditko chronology in this and my next post.
As to the former, my argument—which was accepted by damn near everyone I conversed with—is that what diehard comics scholars/academics/fans consider “nothing new” after a lifetime of reading Comics Feature, Comics Interview, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Journal, TCJ special issues, etc. is bullshit.
Again, I go back to Richard Schickel’s The Disney Version (1968) for a similar single-tome event in the pop culture’s perception of a real-life creative pop icon (while Gerard Jones’s excellent, comprehensive Men of Tomorrow arguably did much the same for DC Comics history, it must be noted that Jerry Robinson, Neal Adams, and all who worked to get Siegel and Schuster’s story into the mainstream starting in the 1970s had done a pretty effective job of making the public at large aware of a gross injustice done to those creators, if not their entire generation).
Mind you, I don’t intend to present my discussion of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story as a defense of a book that has somehow been dismissed before it’s even seen publication—or, by doing so, inadvertently shape perceptions of the book before it’s available. It hasn’t been dismissed, and has in fact prompted some lively online discussions already.
I am, however, using Sean Howe‘s excellent book to articulate some of the points it raised for me, digging into an advance reading copy. The emails I’ve received to date (prompting my jumping on an offer to read your book from an advanced copy) have been occasionally ludicrous in their claims about the book (sight unseen, in some cases). Nor did I intend to disparage, in the context of the wider discussion, the Jordan Raphael/Tom Spurgeon biography of Stan Lee as just being a hagiography (though it is, in part, that; more on that another time).
To my mind (and no personal offense intended to anyone), the initial comments my FB enthusiasm for Sean Howe’s book prompted were rather myopic and reflect the stake we all (rightly or wrongly) bring to any discussion of Marvel Comics, specifically Kirby, Lee, and Ditko. Most folks I’ve called on their initial comments immediately about-faced and realized yes, it’s true: this is new information for the world at large. Most human beings haven’t read any, much less every, interview with Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Marv Wolfman, Jim Starlin, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, or Len Wein and others over the past four decades or more—and I also hasten to point out the vast amount of fresh interview and first-hand accounts Sean has woven beautifully into the tapestry of the whole book. From cover to cover, Sean folds fresh interview material in with carefully annotated, previously published sources (interviews, editorials, articles, press releases, radio and TV material, etc. from the mainstream and comics press). This was and is a daunting task, to say the least, and Sean has done an admirable job, casting a wide net while maintaining a tight focus on what Marvel was, step by step, in those New York City office spaces, boardrooms, and studios (and, later, in Los Angeles, as Stan decamped West to cultivate Hollywood connections), in every stage of its corporate career.
We’ve arrived, with the publication of Sean‘s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, at a turning point in the public published mainstream accounts of Marvel‘s history. In conjunction with the Raphael/Spurgeon biography of Stan Lee, and the revised (sadly out-of-print) Gerard Jones/Will Jacobs The Comic Book Heroes: The First History of Modern Comic Books – From the Silver Age to the Present (1996 edition), we now have (or will, in October, once Marvel Comics: The Untold Story hits bookstores and online venues) at least three comprehensive, publicly accessible accounts of Marvel‘s interior creative, corporate, and legal life. These three books are complimenting one another, and in many ways, Sean Howe‘s book is trumping and completing the Raphael/Spurgeon and Jones/Jacobs books.
That’s high praise from me, but a case I hope to build (before I get to sharing/posting the full Gene Colan/Joe Sinnott legal depositions to move into fuller analysis of the current status of Kirby v Marvel) is that Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is also a key corrective to Marvel‘s and Stan Lee‘s media domination and procession of tomes.
In that arena, it’s more than a start, and as such, quite essential.
Yes, there’s a lot here that’s familiar to diehard readers (like me), but much new here, too (i.e., Sean quotes a 1969 recording of Stan Lee telling Alain Resnais that he wanted to leave comics for good—and take Kirby to Hollywood, fresh material complimenting a New York Times entertainment section story I still have in my clipping files). In fact, it was a shock to find reading Sean‘s book in fact brought into sharp focus (and finally made sense for me) moments in my own career when I worked with (and was offered work by) Marvel—providing the broader context I previously lacked of what was going on at Marvel, behind closed doors, which was by and large kept from lowly freelancers like me—and that’s pretty astonishing, in and of itself. Kudos to Sean!
Look, let me put it this way: I am planning on assigning Sean‘s book as an essential text for the 2nd semester of my “Survey of the Drawn Story” class at the Center for Cartoon Studies, starting this January. My assigned reading for first semester every year is Gerard Jones‘s Men of Tomorrow. You don’t get much better company than that!
Let me also note that what’s seen publication in The Untold Story had to pass publisher Harper Collins‘s legal department’s scrutiny, and that also must have determined passages of Sean‘s text. I vividly recall my own legal process with St. Martin’s Press, their legal department, and the Todd McFarlane section of the book I co-authored with Christopher Golden and Hank Wagner on Neil Gaiman (Prince of Stories, 2009)—a process Chris Golden pulled me in to, and I’m proud to say my full text and references stood up to St. Martin‘s legal department’s scrutiny.
I have no idea what kind of legal restraints existed for the Marvel book Sean has written, but especially given the fact that Disney now owns Marvel, I suspect it might not have been that different from those Richard Schickel faced with The Disney Version back in 1967 and 1968.
(By the way, Sean has shared a considerable body of artwork and artifacts on the Facebook page for Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,
It’s a worthy compliment to the book itself.)
On the other hand, my gradual posting of this review/discussion—especially in the context of discussing Steve Ditko‘s work, The Creativity of Ditko book, and more—also has certain liabilities. This serialization process, dealing with bite-sized chunks of a discussion rather than the whole, is painful, and my apologies on that. It’s a necessarily fragmenting and fragmentary process. I write/post all I can in digestible installments, but it frustrates me, too.
That said, let me proceed.
Sean Howe lays out the primary thematic and creative issues with remarkable economy in his prologue. In terms of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby accounts of how they, together, rescued a faltering comicbook company with the creation of The Fantastic Four, Sean opens the book with their contradictory accounts (pp. 1-2), and that is in many ways the primary narrative thread to the very end of the book. It’s a narrative Sean cannot really conclude, as the Kirby v Marvel lawsuit continues (now in appeals), but he finds appropriate, if non-conclusive, grace notes (i.e., Stan‘s memory of Jack‘s last words to him; etc.); in that, I think Sean has done a magnificent job telling the story.
Steve Ditko and Spider-Man are introduced almost as promptly (pp. 2-3).
The so-called “Marvel Method”—Stan Lee’s methodology of leaving much (arguably all) of the visual narrative storytelling to the artists, and arguably then much (in some cases, all) of the plotting to them, too—is also placed under instant scrutiny in the prologue. Sean writes,
“… ‘It seems to work out well,’ Stan Lee once wrote in a letter describing Marvel’s working methods, “although it’s not a system I’d advise anyone else to try.’ The arrangement did have its drawbacks, especially as Lee ceded more and more of the plot development to the artists, some of whom began to feel they were doing the heavy lifting for less credit than they deserved. Steve Ditko, who’d imbued Spider-Man with melancholy soul and Doctor Strange with hallucinatory verve, left the company; Spider-Man and Doctor Strange stayed behind.” (pg. 5).
As Sean notes (on pg. 46), adhering to Stan Lee’s own initial account of events, “Steve Ditko single-handedly developed the arrogant-surgeon-turned-benevolent-magician Doctor Strange for a backup feature in Strange Tales,” and—well-grounded in not just Marvel history, but all mainstream American comicbook history, as the entire book is—thoughtfully adds the footnote, “Stephen Strange was part of a Ditko tradition that carried back to the 1950s: the glory-craving bastard whose journeys in a snowcapped East lead him to a comeuppance from a wise and ancient mystic.”
To my two full readings of the book, Sean does a fine job acknowledging, and articulating for the casual (and attentive) reader, all that Ditko brought to the table in every stage of Marvel’s history, and of Ditko’s history with Stan Lee. Again, no mean feat, this.
Cutting to the chase, let’s jump right into the biggest elephant in the room: the creation of Spider-Man.
I go back to my last installment of this essay, in that the biggest complaint I have with Sean’s book, and every Ditko book to date, is that everyone seems intent upon essentially ignoring Ditko’s own lengthy, in-depth account of his relations with Marvel Comics and Stan Lee in the 1960s. As previously cited, Sean does footnote a single statement from Ditko‘s lengthy, 15-chapter serialized book-length account (which is more than others have done).
That (major) caveat aside, let’s also consider what is in Sean’s book.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s all there in Sean’s account of events in 1998, as work in earnest began on what became Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movie. Note, too, Stan Lee‘s statement:
“…After Stan Lee reminisced in Comic Book Marketplace about his inspirations for writing an acclaimed late 1965 issue of Amazing Spider-Man, Steve Ditko broke his long silence. ‘Stan never knew what was in my plotted stories,’ the artist wrote to the magazine’s editors, ‘until I took the penciled story, the cover, my script and Sol Brodsky took the material from me and took it all into Stan’s office, so I had to leave without seeing or talking to Stan.’ [this letter was published in Comic Book Marketplace #63, October 1998] A few months later, after Lee was identified in Time as the creator of Spider-Man, Ditko popped up on that magazine’s letters page, too: ‘Spider-Man’s existence needed a visual concrete entity,’ Ditko wrote. ‘It was a collaboration of writer-editor Stan Lee and Steve Ditko as co-creators.’ [this letter appeared in Time, December 7, 1998] This time Lee picked up the phone and called Ditko, for the first time in more than thirty years.
‘Steve said, ‘Having an idea is nothing, because until it becomes a physical thing, it’s just an idea’,’ Lee recalled. ‘And he said it took him to draw the strip, and to give it life, so to speak, or make it actually something tangible. Otherwise, all I had was an idea. So I said to him, ‘Well, I think the person who has the idea is the person who creates it. And he said, ‘No, because I drew it.’ Anyway, Steve definitely felt that he was the co-creator of Spider-Man. And that was really, after he said it, I saw it meant a lot to him that was fine with me. So I said fine, I’ll tell everybody you’re the co-creator. That didn’t quite satisfy him. So I sent him a letter.’
But wording of the open letter that Lee sent out in August 1999 was a stumbling block. ‘I have always considered Steve Ditko to be Spider-Man’s co-creator,’ it read, and Ditko quickly pointed out that ‘ ‘Considered’ means to ponder, look at closely, examine, etc. and does not admit, or claim, or state that Steve Ditko is Spider-Man’s co-creator.’
‘At that point,’ Lee said, ‘I gave up.’…” (Howe, pp. 400-401; the Lee quote is from the 2007 Jonathan Ross TV special—and remember that I posted this passage last week—In Search of Steve Ditko.)
Now, many say Ditko (like Dave Sim, another articulate, idiosyncratic, ethics-intent creator who comes to mind) is difficult reading, particularly when he writes in essay form. I believe that is in part because Ditko is very precise in his dealing with words—as precise as he is, arguably, dealing with lines.
Ditko is correct, and it’s Stan Lee, not Steve Ditko, who is playing word games and with semantics here.
Stan, clearly, wishes his “considering” Steve Ditko to be the “co-creator of Spider-Man” as a gesture, specifically a kind, conciliatory gesture: Stan giving up something that was and is his to give up. Deeding something to Ditko, as it were.
Steve Ditko is pretty damned clear, from 1998 to the present, that he wants a simple admission of FACT. Steve Ditko co-created Spider-Man, period.
“Otherwise, all I had was an idea”—the great unspoken truth is legally, as well as morally and ethically, DITKO IS DEAD RIGHT.
Above: Steve Ditko’s own editorial cartoon from Ditko Package #5 (1999, Robin Snyder, publisher, cover below); ©1999, 2000, 2012 Steve Ditko
What is lacking in all mainstream published discussions of this matter is twofold:
1. The legal definition of copyright, and what it protects;
2. Any discussion of “idea” vs. “expression,” the lack of which continues to lend an illusory credence and weight to Stan Lee’s (and, hence, Marvel’s) framing of the discussion.
Articulation of point #1 is essential if we, or a reader, is to make any sense of point #2.
Alas, to date, no comics historical tome available in the mainstream book market has tackled point #1—leaving it to the legal textbooks, unfortunately—which ipso facto allows point #2 to dangle in the breeze, unchallenged except in the vaguest terms, leaving Stan’s arguments seeming sensible in and of themselves. It creates and extends the illusion that there are “two sides” to the legal argument: that, somehow, Stan Lee is “correct,” and Steve Ditko is “correct,” and that can be sustained as a simple difference of opinion.
Thus, every mainstream published comics history plays into Marvel’s, Disney’s, and Stan’s hands, banking on the public’s feeble grasp of “idea” vs. “expression”—which I tackled in another context altogether in another pair of essays here back in 2011,
Look, I fully understand the challenge for a writer like Sean Howe. He’s written a populist mass-market history of Marvel Comics, not a copyright treatise. Where, and how, to frame such a legal pretext? I’ve no doubt most mainstream book editors would shun the notion, and actively campaign to remove it from the text.
Such discussion, however succinct, would prompt glazed eyes and skipping pages for most casual readers: discussing points of law, however relevant to what follows, is rare (essentially non-existent) in most mainstream pop cultural texts, including historical texts.
Just as Sean doesn’t go into the nature of “junk bonds” to frame his passage on Ron Perlman acquisition—and Carl Icahn’s battle with Perlman over the ownership—of Marvel Comics in the late 1980s and the 1990s, or Ron Perlman’s application of “junk bond” principles to the entire management of Marvel (and fleecing of its customer base) in the 1990s, Sean doesn’t go into the particulars of copyright law. The presumption, in a populist book like The Untold Story, is that the reader will bring something to (or look up) “junk bonds.”
That is the eternal presumption about copyright, which most creators don’t even understand. Howe doesn’t get into copyright law at all, even when he gets into how the 1976 Copyright Act upended and revised Marvel’s ways of doing business (a period I experienced first-hand, as a Kubert School student and as a freelancer). Sean sensibly addresses the issues in the context of a history of Marvel Comics, and how the disruption was dealt with by management and freelancers, and leaves it to the reader to sort out further interest or comprehension of the legal issues involved.
And few mainstream book publishers are going to handily take on the Disney empire, which Marvel is now part and parcel of.
So, that’s what blogs are for. If your eyes glaze over, hey, your loss.
I’ll make this as direct and “entertaining” as I can, but the law is the law, and we’ve got to get into it a bit.
* What’s missing, in Sean’s book and all comics historical texts, is even the most basic articulation of what makes an idea something that can be published and owned as a copyright.
What follows was articulated in the 1976-1977 Copyright Act and thereafter, but it is absolutely applicable to the entire 20th Century of US Copyright Law (I’m happy to be corrected on this point, true legal professionals and/or scholars, but I’m on pretty firm ground here).
From the US gov’t's own copyright office description of copyright:
“Copyright is a form of protection grounded in the U.S. Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. …Copyright does not protect facts, ideas, systems, or methods of operation, although it may protect the way these things are expressed…Ideas and discoveries are not protected by the copyright law, although the way in which they are expressed may be.”
“Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work….Publication is not necessary for copyright protection.”
And—this is the last citation, bear with me, now:
“Copyright protects “original works of authorship” that are fixed in a tangible form of expression. The fixation need not be directly perceptible so long as it may be communicated with the aid of a machine or device….
What Is Not Protected by Copyright?
Several categories of material are generally not eligible for federal copyright protection. These include among others:
• works that have not been fixed in a tangible form of expression (for example, choreographic works that have not been notated or recorded, or improvisational speeches or performances that have not been written or recorded)
• titles, names, short phrases, and slogans; familiar symbols or designs; mere variations of typographic ornamentation, lettering, or coloring; mere listings of ingredients or contents
• ideas, procedures, methods, systems, processes, concepts, principles, discoveries, or devices, as distinguished from a description, explanation, or illustration…”
I think that covers it.
Idea sans “tangible expression” is meaningless and cannot be published, licensed, or trafficked.
An idea without expression is NOT anything that can be copyrighted; hence, not an IP a corporation or publisher can do ANYTHING with.
A stated, or written, idea conceived for a visual media (comics, in this case) only gains tangible expression once it is drawn.
With the notable exception of text stories and text editorial pages, Martin Goodman, and all incarnations of Timely/Atlas/Marvel comics, never published an editor or writer’s notes or scripts in lieu of a comicbook cover or a comicbook story, fully-illustrated.
Sans Steve Ditko, there would be no Spider-Man as we’ve known Spider-Man since 1962.
Steve Ditko has, quite eloquently and repeatedly over the past decade+, demonstrated that Spider-Man, as Spider-Man was manifest in his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15, and is manifest today, only is Spider-Man because Steve Ditko drew, and defended (against Stan Lee, editor and dialogue-writer) Ditko‘s method of drawing (again, see last post), that particular expression of that particular idea of Spider-Man.
To me, this is pretty cut and dry, especially since Stan Lee and Marvel has never, in over a half-century of publishing and legal activity, produced a single “expression” of Stan’s “idea” of what Spider-Man was or is that shows a costumed character.
In fact, this may be the only Stan Lee drawing of anything I recall seeing in print (from “Notebook: Hands Off!,” Time, November 27, 2000, Vol. 156, No. 22, pg. 25):
Legal authorities may still adhere to outmoded and completely inaccurate misperceptions of how writers and artists work in the comics medium, and Marvel and Disney attorneys may forever bank on that inherently skewed (to favor, historically, writers) misperception and misunderstanding of how the comics medium works.
But I know otherwise, having worked in comics professionally since 1977, including working “the Marvel Method,” including published work for Marvel Comics (from 1978-1983).
I state the following with absolutely no bias towards writers, being a writer myself and having worked on characters in which the writer—Alan Moore—left it to me to design the characters, visually (The Fury, Sky Solo, N-Man), and which in other cases Alan Moore (who is a much, much more accomplished and skilled cartoonist than he pretends to be) fully visually designed (The Hypernaut), with the sketches FAXed to me to work from.
- (I discussed some of this, in considerable detail, in this August 2011 “More on Jack Kirby/Marvel Comics: What is Co-Creation? Honoring a Fallen King, Part 3” Myrant post.)
So I’ll just come right out and say what no mainstream book publisher’s legal department would let any author say, given the might of Disney and Marvel hanging over their legal department’s head.
What I’ll say is based entirely on Stan’s own repeated accounts of what happened in 1962, and the published Spider-Man stories and comicbooks, and nothing else save a fundamental grasp of North American Copyright Law:
DITKO IS RIGHT.
LEE IS WRONG.
Above: Back cover of the 1963 ashcan for The Fury, which included the original Alan Moore character design sketch of The Hypernaut (bottom, right). Now, this is an example of a comicbook writer fully designing a character. As the artist, I worked from Alan’s sketch (you can see my slight revision of the basic design, above, left). I hasten to add that, despite the existence and publication of Alan Moore sketches of N-Man and The Fury, those were created after my own designs of both those characters were submitted and accepted by Alan, so he was drawing from my designs at that point. Of the four super-hero characters Alan and I co-created for “1963,” only The Hypernaut was fully designed visually by Alan (and the main reason, when we divided up the legal 1963 properties in 1998, I didn’t want to accept The Hypernaut; Alan insisted, and so that’s how it is). Click the link, above, to see the process on N-Man and The Fury.
To Be Continued…
All images are ©original year of publication, and 2012 their respective creators; all book images ©their respective years of publication, including 1962, 1963, 1996, 2000, 2006, 2009, 2012, their respective publishers; all images are posted for archival, educational, and review purposes only.