Brainiac On Banjo #020: Lee and Ditko – Thank You

It appears today is the last day of the year. That’s just a construct, but it does support the weight of tradition. There’s a lot of Top 10 lists during this terminal week – they’re easy to write, evidently popular, and pretty much bullshit. Yes, I’ve written a few but, really, if you start your list with, say, April and end with the following March and you’ll have a different list. If you disagree with me – and how dare you! – think of all the movies that didn’t win Oscars that probably would have had they been released the preceding or succeeding year.

Yeah, I’m still pissed Bill Murray didn’t win for Lost In Translation.

Another tradition is to list the top stories of the year. This has a bit more value, although I prefer the “top underreported stories of the year” features because I might learn something. I suspect that, when it comes to the amazing world of everybody’s comics, two of the stories that made a whole lot of lists (aside from Bill Maher’s) are the deaths of Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. So I’m going to conflate them.

Together, if not for Stan and Steve I’d be writing about Trump again and a lot of stunt people would be on welfare. Let me explain. 

American comic books started out as reprints of newspaper comic strips. Then some people, most notably pulp writer Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, said “screw this, there’s nothing more to reprint. Let’s try new stuff.” It took a few years for the comics medium to stumble across the whole superhero thing. Of course, the medium had a lot of help from Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo, that other guy with a mustache.

Once we won World War II, our attention drifted away from superheroes. Crime and horror stories kept a lot of publishers solvent for a while, but the book-burning goons from The Saturday Evening Post, Reader’s Digest, and the United States Senate brought that to an end. Westerns didn’t help much; the most popular involved license personalities and thus were more expensive to produce. Funny animal and funny human comics (Archie and his many doppelgangers) kept the medium on the racks as they were beneath Freddy Wertham’s notice. And Disney kept Dell in the good comics business.

But publishers longed for those sing-along days of capes and cowls, so they kept on trying to bring them back. Spurred on by the success of the Supermanteevee show, Atlas Comics – p.k.a.Timely, n.k.a.Marvel) tried to relaunch The Human Torch, The Sub-Mariner, and Captain America and they lasted for a while, but ultimately didn’t stick.

DC stumbled into the Martian Manhunter as a back-up feature and that gained enough traction for editorial director Irwin Donenfeld to greenlight a recreated version of The Flash for a single issue of Showcase. However, it took four years before DC could claim to have successfully relaunched the genre when The Justice League of America survived its own try-out. Even so, the following two superhero revivals – The Atom and Hawkman – did not achieve the same level of success. Archie Comics tried their hand at it, clicking with The Adventures of The Fly and flopping with a revision of The Shield, and other, smaller publishers fooled around a bit without notable victories.

In other words, bringing the superhero back to the comics racks was a real struggle.

As the story goes, Marvel/Atlas/Timely publisher Martin Goodman heard about the success of the Justice League of America, ostensibly from a DC honcho, and directed his editor Stan Lee to imitate that by resurrecting, once again, those old Timely heroes. Stan said something to the effect of “been there, done that; screw it” and gave Jack Kirby the outline of a “new” team called The Fantastic Four.

I put new in quotes because the FF were new only if you didn’t ask Carl Burgos, H.G. Wells, Jack Cole, Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks. But it worked and Marvel Comics was born. Or reborn. That part gets confusing.

I loved the FF from the very first issue, but it wasn’t until the following year that Marvel had their true breakout hero, a totally original character deploying several totally original concepts that were every bit a breath of fresh air as Superman had been two dozen years earlier.

The Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t a knockout success from Day One, but it certainly did well enough to hold its own until its overall amazingness could be fully appreciated. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko attracted a college audience, in no small part due to Stan’s gift for promotion. Within a few years, he was on teevee selling comic books to the likes of late-night host Dick Cavett (something Steve always was too shy to do) and Spidey was being merchandised up the ying-yang and stories were excerpted in non-comics magazines.

Yes, the success of the Batman teevee show helped. It helped a lot. Ignore the concept of multiple causation at your own peril. But Spider-Man stood on his own, and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko made that happen.

Both men died this past year, within six months of each other. I knew both, I dined and chatted with Steve fairly frequently for about a decade, and we always enjoyed being with each other (we didn’t talk politics). I can’t replicate that experience, but their work – individually, together and with others – will continue to bring us great enjoyment for a long, long time.

One thought on “Brainiac On Banjo #020: Lee and Ditko – Thank You

  1. Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Norm Breyfogle; it has been a tough year for me regarding comics pros.

    I was heartened to see that CBS Sunday Morning included Ditko in their end-of-year Hail and Farewell segment.

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