Brainiac On Banjo #050: Comics and the Cost of Doing Business

Brainiac On Banjo #050: Comics and the Cost of Doing Business

The price of a comic book jumped 267% during the 1970s, from 15 cents to 40. The pace slowed down by half between 2009 and 2018, from $2.99 to $3.99. It’s that last number I am going to discuss, and I’ll start with Stan Lee.

(For the record, price points differ between publishers and, sometimes, titles so the above reflects the “typical” Marvel/DC title. Your statistical analysis may vary.)

Back in the 1970s, Stan was making a signing appearance at my buddy Larry Charet’s iconic comic book store on Devon Avenue in Chicago. It was cool, as seeing Stan at a store back then was rare – so rare that it was long before people started charging for autographs and selfies. One fan asked the question “Why are comic books so expensive all of a sudden?” Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #050: Comics and the Cost of Doing Business”

Steve Ditko: Inside His Studio Sanctum Sanctorum

I wrote my first letter to Steve Ditko in early 1973, while I was still in high school. It was the typical letter, the type a budding fan-artist back then might send to a seasoned professional comics artist — full of effusive praise, capped with a request for some secret kernel of artistic knowledge that would magically transform overnight a fan’s crude artistic efforts into professional-level artwork. Ditko did his best to answer, giving what was, in retrospect, a solid list of advice.

Two years later, I wrote Ditko again, and this time, I asked if I could stop by his studio for a visit when I was in New York City later that year. He politely declined, and I pushed that idea into the dustbin of history – not realizing that 28 years later my request would become a reality.

More than two decades passed before I wrote Ditko again in 1997. In the interim, I joined the Air Force, learned to be an aircraft avionics technician, got married, had kids, opted to be a career Airman, traveled and lived abroad for nearly a decade, earned a bachelor’s degree, retrained into public affairs during the early 1990s military drawdown, kept drawing, and kept publishing my fanzine, “Maelstrom.” In fact, my third letter to Ditko was a request for what I knew was an extreme long shot: An interview for an upcoming issue of my ‘zine. Again, he politely declined.

I wrote a few more letters during the next two years about nothing in particular – including a couple while I was stationed in the Republic of Korea in 1998. In one of them, I included some terrifically supple Korean-made brushes that were ridiculously cheap, but feathered ink like a Winsor & Newton brush costing 30 times as much.

I retired from the Air Force in 1999 and published “Maelstrom” #7, and dutifully sent Ditko a copy. Our correspondence continued off-and-on until 2002, when I started preparing a Steve Ditko article for “Maelstrom” #8 – along with a cover I drew featuring many of Ditko’s more notable characters. When the issue was published, I sent him a copy, and something about it obviously struck a chord as he sent me several letters of comment. Suddenly, the correspondence was a regular back-and-forth, and as my letters got longer, so did his. Some of Steve’s letters were 10, 12, or even 16 pages long.  Continue reading “Steve Ditko: Inside His Studio Sanctum Sanctorum”

With Further Ado #031: Kirby and Lee: Stuf’ Said  by John Morrow

With Further Ado #031: Kirby and Lee: Stuf’ Said by John Morrow

“It’s complicated” is a simple term that’s creeped into all facets of our lexicon. It’s now become something more than just a placeholder of a particular status category on social media. But let’s face it; whenever we deal with real people who live on planet Earth, things tend to get complicated. There are no simple answers.  Even the shades of gray have shades of gray.  And that’s the proper mindset for jumping into John Morrow’s phenomenal new book Kirby & Lee: Stuf’ Said.

This book is a fascinating deep dive into contentious relationships between the men, and women, who would shape what pop culture now regards as the Marvel Universe.   There are so many questions: Who contributed what? Did the writer actually write the stuff? Who came up with the ideas originally? Why didn’t everyone get along better? Marvel now generates billions of dollars in business, so we have to wonder if all involved had been compensated fairly? (Spoiler alert: “no”.)

There seems to be a lot of excitement for this book.  “John Morrow has done it again,” said Emil Novak, Sr, a pioneering comic book retailer since 1969.  Stuf’ Said chronicles the perplexing conversation of who fundamentally created most of Marvel’s comic book characters.  And the results will change your thoughts and history forever.”  Continue reading “With Further Ado #031: Kirby and Lee: Stuf’ Said by John Morrow”

Brainiac On Banjo #021: Raymond Loewy, Jony Ive, Bill Maher, and Stan Lee… by Mike Gold

Brainiac On Banjo #021: Raymond Loewy, Jony Ive, Bill Maher, and Stan Lee… by Mike Gold

Back when I was knee-high to a grasshopper, from time to time my friends and I would gather in the schoolyard and call out the makes, models and years of the cars driving by. You could do that back then, as damn near every car had its own identity, its own look and style. They were so distinctive that I think we could have ID’ed most of these cars by their silhouettes, as though we were World War II Civil Defense car spotters.

Between The Great War and The Great Vietnam Fiasco, the concept of “style” was critical to our culture. Movie theaters weren’t simply big rooms with white sparkly screens – many were cathedrals of film designed to inspire you to appreciate the entirely of the moviegoing experience. Drug stores had soda fountains that were overrun with chrome-plated art deco machinery. Designers unleashed mountains of energy defining the environment shared by four generations, led by the brilliant Raymond Loewy, who created the look of cars, refrigerators and other household appliances, furniture, corporate logos and packaging, and airplanes. In fact, he teamed-up with President John F. Kennedy in 1962 to design Air Force One.  Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #021: Raymond Loewy, Jony Ive, Bill Maher, and Stan Lee… by Mike Gold”

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

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.  Continue reading “Brainiac On Banjo #020: Lee and Ditko – Thank You”

Working Title #009: Dear Mr. Maher

Working Title #009: Dear Mr. Maher

Dear Bill Maher

Well, you’ve done it again. You’ve gotten a certain percentage of the population mad at you – which I suspect is exactly what you want. You’ve gotten people talking about you and your show, Real Time, and by your lights this is a good thing. That’s what you do; by inclination and occupation you’re a provocateur  — which is fine. Gadflys are useful if annoying.

However, your targets were things on which, by your own account, you know little or nothing. You took the occasion of Stan Lee’s death to belittle comics and comic readers. On your blog you wrote: “I have nothing against comic books – I read them now and then when I was a kid and I was all out of Hardy Boys. But the assumption everyone had back then, both the adults and the kids, was that comics were for kids, and when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures. “

You were born in 1953 so in 1963 you’d be about 10. Prime age to start reading comics. Your assessment of the medium might have been correct if you’re just talking about DC (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, et al) of that era but Marvel, under the guidance of Stan Lee, began what we now know as the Marvel superhero. In 1961 Stan debuted The Fantastic Four followed by Spider-Man in 1962. By design, these books were meant for an older reader. In 1965, both Spider-man and the Hulk were listed by Esquire as among 28 heroes on college campuses along with JFK and Bob Dylan. So the concept that comics were for the young uns only was not the assumption of every kid and adult; it was and is your assumption.

You later said, “. . .a culture that thinks that comic books and comic book movies are profound meditations on the human condition is a dumb (explicit) culture.” Really? The graphic novel Maus, by Art Spiegelman, won a Pulitizer in 1992 and a National Book Critics Circle Award. I think we can say it won because it is a profound meditation on the human condition.

You said that you weren’t saying the comics readers were stupid per se but, “The problem is, we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.“

Yes, it is a huge stretch of the imagination and you should know that. The polls have suggested that the typical Trump voter is an older white male without a college education. That’s not the typical comic book reader that I’ve met.

I’ve heard you fulminate about comics before. Your war with religion seems to color some of your perceptions. You complained that comics teaches people to wait for a hero to come down from on high and solve our problems for us instead of taking charge and doing it ourselves.

That’s not what comics are about. Superman is not from on high; Superman is within. Every time Clark Kent opens his shirt to reveal the big red S on his chest, he’s telling the reader or the viewer that they have Superman within them. They represent ideals to which we can aspire. Not of godhood but of being a hero. Of trying to be something greater than ourselves. Of doing and being our best.

Your problem is that you’re wrong and you will never admit it. In that, you’re very much like Donald Trump. You know nothing about the subject (comics) but that doesn’t stop you from putting forth your opinion about it. What, then, is that opinion worth?

Which raises a question – a problem – in my mind. If you’re this wrong on a subject about which I know a lot, how often are you equally wrong on subjects of which I know less?

It won’t matter to you, I think, but I’ve watched you for the last time.

Good-bye.

John Ostrander

With Further Ado #016: De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum

With Further Ado #016: De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum

After the death of Stan Lee last week, hard-core fans joined the world at large to celebrate the accomplishments and mourn the passing of the charismatic, larger-than-life figure. More than any other creator, Stan Lee embodied the fun of comics, and specifically Marvel comics.

Eulogies and retrospectives were everywhere you turned.  Stan Lee was featured on TV, Radio and social media outlets. Those big things that marketing people call “outdoor media” but that the rest of the world calls “billboards” featured Stan Lee.  Even the local video store (yes, some video stores still operate in Central New York State)  got into the act with a tribute.

The Romans had a saying: De mortuis nil nisi bonum, that’s still use today, adapted as the admonishment: “Don’t speak ill of the dead.”  As a society we generally adhere to this axiom in polite circles.

That’s why I was especially surprised last week when Joshua Johnson, the radio/podcast host of NPR’s 1A, asked his guests about a controversial part of Stan Lee’s story.  Many fans feel that Lee self-aggrandized himself to the detriment of his co-creators.   Such fans categorize Lee’s actions as shameful, especially considering the riches he earned while so many of his Marvel collaborators struggled financially. 

Many comic lovers felt left out of last week’s celebrations, buttoning their lips and resisting their urges to speak ill of Lee, despite their intense frustrations and inner need to set the record straight.  Continue reading “With Further Ado #016: De Mortuis Nil Nisi Bonum”

Working Title #008: The Man

Working Title #008: The Man

So there I was, working on finishing up this week’s column, when I heard the news. Stan Lee had died.

I can’t say it was unexpected. The Man was 95, his health wasn’t great, but still – Stan the Man.

I never actually met him to say hello or shake his hand. The closest I came was at a convention; Kim and I were having dinner in the hotel restaurant and it turned out Stan was having dinner at a table near us. I could’ve said hello but he was eating and talking with someone. I got the shys and didn’t feel I could break in on his dinner.

However, in a way I did know him in a manner that all of us could and still can. Through his work.

It was in high school, my sophomore or junior year, when I first met him. I was idly looking at a comic book spinner rack in a train station. (Note to younger readers: there was no comic book stores in those days. It was spinner racks or nothing and you couldn’t always be sure that the next issue was going to show up or when.)  I was already a comic book fan. I came across a comic I had never seen before from a company I didn’t know. It was Spiderman 49; on the cover, Spiderman was being towed through the air, arms bound and mask ripped off by his enemy, a grotesque character I would come to know as the Green Goblin.

This was serious. I could tell. Nothing like that ever happened to Batman or any of the other DC stalwarts. The image grabbed me and I grabbed the comic. I knew nothing about Spiderman and yet I had no trouble keying into the story and the breathless climax where the real identity of the Green Goblin was revealed. That didn’t really mean much to me although I would later learn it had been a secret for years. Still I was hooked and haunted that spinner rack until Spiderman 50 came out.

Marvel comics used to have “house ads” on the interior of the books, pointing the reader to other characters and other books that the company sold. I sought them out on spinner racks and newsstands. Almost all of them were written by Stan (the Man) Lee. Look, I know that Stan would give a few sentences of plot to the artist assigned to the book who then worked it out and drew it. Stan would then dialogue it. How else was he going to write all those books in the time he had? It still makes my head spin.

I learned things from Stan. One issue started with Spidey in the middle of a pitched battle with a brand new character called the Rhino. In a caption, Stan told the reader not to worry, effendi, and that he would catch us up as the fight went on. He did, too. That taught me you could do exposition without boring the crap out of everyone.

In the same issue, Rhino tries to stomp Spiderman who is on the ground, rolling out of the way. As Spidey went, he admonished Rhino, “Uh uh! Kickies no fair!” I laughed out loud. You know how everyone loves how Deadshot motormouths his way through battles? Started here, folks.

In an issue of Fantastic Four, the team was trapped in the Negative Zone, heading to the exploding center of that dimension. Three of them got out safe but their leader, Reed Richards, was sacrificing himself so the other three could make it. They can’t reach him and that issue ended with Reed heading towards certain death with no way the others can save him.

I wanted that next issue RIGHT THEN and it taught me how you want the reader to feel when you did a cliffhanger.

His characters were more complex than DC’s, having real life problems and neuroses. There were themes and a greater depth to the stories. And, of course, there’s that single sentence that has transcended comics and has become pop culture wisdom: “With great power comes great responsibility.” It has been quoted and used by many folks outside of our comic book realm.

That’s how I know Stan Lee and that is why I think of him as still living. His work, the characters that he created, still speaks to people. There are living people in your everyday life who don’t do that. So long as his words are read and his characters survive, Stan lives on.

Excelsior.

I had to do that.