Man or Superman?

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


The man born Stanley Martin Leiber could probably use some reinvention himself. His Stan Lee Media online-animation empire filed for bankruptcy in February, two years after he left Marvel for good. Dissatisfied with being a figurehead, he had been lured away in 1999 by Peter F. Paul, a Hollywood businessman who had otherwise distinguished himself by launching Fabio's career in letters. By August of 2000, their company was valued at $300 million--$100 million more than Marvel--and there was even talk of Lee buying out his old employer.

But in late November of last year, Stan Lee Media's stock inexplicably plummeted. By Christmas, investors had seen their $25 million evaporate, and the company was de-listed from the NASDAQ. Lee nearly collapsed, according to The Comics Journal, when his staff of 130 had to be let go. And by early this year, the FBI was investigating Paul for alleged stock fraud. The man had skipped to Brazil, where he was arrested for extradition. Apparently Lee, who hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing, didn't know about his partner's shady past: Paul did a three-year stint in federal prison for masterminding a scheme to launch a coffee company, then sink an empty ship supposedly filled with coffee for the insurance cash-in. (Paul later claimed he was working for the C.I.A.)

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

All this might make its own gripping spy-crime comics series if the True Believer himself weren't so crushed by the events. A close friend quoted anonymously in a September 7 article in The Scotsman claims Lee told him, "Now the only people I know I can trust are my wife and my daughter." Perhaps not surprisingly, then, a theme of revenge pervades the first three Just Imagine Stan Lee... comics--and Lee's old hyperbolic humanism seems sublimated, at best. Where the Depression-era Superman was an untroubled soul confronted by an imperfect Earth, today Clark Kent is an intergalactic Dirty Harry, an anti-terrorist cop crossing the universe to avenge a murdered wife. "How about I do what all the prisons and lockups couldn't do?" he spits at his archenemy. "How about I rid the universe of you once and for all, you slimy, stinkin', murderin' maggot?" The notion of payback probably never crossed the mind of the classic Man of Steel. Now he sounds a lot like the Thing.

Batman, of course, was always motivated by revenge. But DC's millionaire orphan has now been reincarnated as a slum-reared, and apparently African-American, grocery clerk named Wayne Washington. Framed for robbery by a neighborhood gangster, Washington gazes out through his prison bars and into a night sky filled with bats. "Just a buncha ugly night-flyers," he broods. "Everyone hates 'em. Reminds me of me." Or, again, of the Thing.

Even Wonder Woman--who was created by William Moulton Marston in 1941 as an Amazon antidote to male brutishness, and who often sought to rehabilitate her enemies rather than annihilate them--has been turned by Lee into an Inca warrior who exacts revenge for her slain father. At least she doesn't sound like the Thing: Though Peruvian, she speaks with a formal propriety that would do her ESL teacher proud. But perhaps Lee's conception will guide producer Joel "Die Harder" Silver's rumored production of a Wonder Woman movie. It would be nice to see Lee's Wonder Woman remain among the living, since reading these one-off stories can be frustrating--all origin, no superdevelopment.

Of the books so far, Batman's pulpy revision is the juiciest, letting the fearsome dude in a furry bat costume team up with a jailed inventor to create the same old gizmos and enter professional wrestling to hone his chops (a plot device also used in The Ultimate Spider-Man). But the fun here, as with all the Just Imagine books, is less in the mythmaking and more in enjoying Lee's Lee-isms in fresh ink. The scriptor's idea of a modern touch is having a couple of punk-looking girls ogle Superman. "Hey glop onto that far-out hunk!" says one. "Wow! He could frazzle my fantasies any time," chirps the other.

Lee's greatest co-creation, Spider-Man, will be hitting theaters next year (perhaps you heard about the pulled trailer of Spidey spinning his web between the Twin Towers). The writer's X-Men are already immortal. Yet, somehow, it's reassuring to know that the actual slang of teenagers is still just as far beyond Lee's comprehension as the evil that real men do.

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