Man or Superman?

It's a New World for Stan Lee's Superbeings in Long Underwear



True, they are tempestuous and violent--swift to anger and slow to reason! But still they have spirit! They have courage! They strive and aspire, and dare to reach for the stars! One day they will come of age! And then, think of the triumph, the glory, the wonders they will achieve!

The lurid themes of Batman get a hero with darker skin in Stan Lee's reinvention
Courtesy of DC Comics
The lurid themes of Batman get a hero with darker skin in Stan Lee's reinvention

--The Silver Surfer on humankind, 1978


In the universe Stan Lee made, it took an extraterrestrial on a longboard to teach earthlings about their humanity. Actually, we could use a little wisdom from the Silver Surfer about now. He saved Earth from destruction by the planet-eating Galactus--only to worry that we might finish the job ourselves. Created by artist Jack Kirby and writer Lee in 1965, the Surfer embodied the highest liberal ideals of Marvel Comics. Yet he soon found himself battling the least comprehending and most painfully prejudiced of the Lee-Kirby good guys, the Thing.

"The ways of earthmen are still far beyond my own comprehension," muses the gleaming Surfer after being knocked off his flying spaceboard in Fantastic Four #55. To which the orange rock monster replies, "Well here's where I finish yer edjication...I'll start by wrappin' this crummy board around that scrawny neck of yours!" Unable to bend the plank, the Thing proceeds to rip an apartment building in half and toss the upper floors at the invincible sky-flyer.

There are probably those who feel we could use a little wisdom from the Thing about now, too. But I suspect editors have taught him restraint lately. As surely as Lee introduced flawed, neurotic heroes speaking in the author's own New York vernacular, Kirby made exploding Manhattan buildings a Marvel staple since the 1960s. I have wondered recently whether there wouldn't be some official shift in policy now that the phrase able to leap tall buildings catches in the throat. (And, in fact, the Thing can now be seen aiding World Trade Center rescue workers in this month's black-covered The Amazing Spider-Man #36.) Company brass had already irked Wolverine fans by announcing on September 4 that the stogy-chomping mutant would be subject to a smoking ban within the Marvel Universe.

Still, that PR move might belie a freer era for the superbeings-in-long-underwear genre, the world Kirby and Lee reinvented in the Sixties. In May Marvel announced it would no longer require the services of the Comics Code Authority, which had policed content since 1954, when Dr. Frederic Wertham convinced Americans that reading comics inspired juvenile delinquency. And lately, perhaps for the first time since the Alan Moore/Frank Miller/John Byrne Eighties revival, comics geared toward teenagers are once again reinvigorating the form--and not a moment too soon. With sales dwindling from $1 billion a year in the early Nineties to some $375 million in 1999, comics are grappling with an irrelevance that not even the success of the X-Men film could offset. (The franchise did help Marvel rally from its 1996 bankruptcy woes.)

As recently as last year--when Marvel launched its own "mature" line, Epic Comics, to compete with DC's Vertigo--the future of comics looked to be adult and "edgy." Now Marvel's biggest new success is a series of titles that lets young readers define said edge. The "Ultimate" comics re-imagine various Stan Lee characters from scratch, rewriting old myths with enough current pop references and modern emotional substance to please discerning fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ultimate Spider-Man takes the radical tack of letting Peter Parker be a contemporary 15-year-old again, interning as a Web designer (get it?) at the Daily Bugle. In one issue, when Spidey is cornered and the Kingpin demands to know who sent him, our hero replies, "Uh...Carson Daly." (The villain later instructs his henchman, "Find this Carson Daly person and destroy him." Right on!)

What's liberating about the concept is precisely the absence of the Marvel Universe--the endless backstory, lore, and unfathomable character baggage that result from tracking the same heroes across thousands of comics. The new stories get at what made Stan Lee's characters appealing in the first place--the battle between the Thing and the Silver Surfer in all of us, made explicit by the presence of verbose thought balloons. They also capture that sense of beginning the house of cards over again, which was as much an essential pleasure of the Sixties Marvel as the mix of the wholesome and the lurid in Kirby's art.

Kirby is gone now, but Stan "the Man" Lee is still with us. He has even reentered the fray as a comics writer--for DC. Trapped in a world he never made, as it were, Lee has lately been re-imagining the great DC superheroes in a series of all-ages one-shot comics. The series began with the punchily titled Just Imagine Stan Lee With Joe Kubert Creating Batman and has since moved on to Superman (drawn by John Buscema), Wonder Woman (Jim Lee), and the Green Lantern (Dave Gibbons). Issues on the Flash and the Justice League of America are forthcoming, with six more planned next year.

It's a great gimmick, long in the hyping. Batman movie producer Michael Uslan has likened the concept to bringing Henry Ford to General Motors. And talk about a new freedom to start the universe over again: The series lets Lee tackle characters who were just being hatched by his competitors when he joined Marvel (then Timely Comics) as a 17-year-old gofer in 1939.

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