MARVEL'S "ULTIMATE" SERIES
'JUST IMAGINE STAN LEE...' COMICS
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 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.
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.)
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.