Something Good #8: So Speaks Galactus
I tore through Abraham Josie Riesman’s True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee in a nonstop marathon weekend reading session. At 400-some-odd pages, the biography of the Marvel comics impresario is a real doorstopper, but it’s also a compulsively readable portrait of a fascinating life.
I’ve had an ambient awareness of Stan Lee most of my life, but I had never really thought too hard about the man himself. I’d seen him in a million movie cameos, with his trademark tinted sunglasses, moustache and fast-talking style; I knew something of the “Marvel method,” the unique practice of creating comics in the ‘60s where artists like Jack Kirby would illustrate a story and Lee would come in and write the dialogue, creating an interesting creative gestalt between Kirby’s blocky, cosmic illustrations and Lee’s zippy wordplay. (I also knew about the decades-long controversy over who deserved credit for these stories and characters—a frustrating mystery that Riesman admirably tries to untangle before concluding that we will never really know who came up with the original idea for characters like the Fantastic Four, The Avengers, Spider-Man and many more.)
So, now that I think about it, I guess I did know a thing or two about Stan Lee. But Riesman’s book drew me in with its fascinating details and insight on a terrifically complicated character, a writer who laboured for decades in obscurity before being launched into a cultural superstardom that bridged the high and the low (Fellini visited his office, Alain Resnais became his pal) in a way that was genuinely unusual for the time. A writer whose pithy, punchy wordplay, a mash-up of Shakespeare, military lingo and New York street slang (“Excelsior!” “Face front!” “True believers!” etc.) made his comics’ narration boxes and letters sections as compelling as the stories themselves, creating a deep parasocial bond with his readership four decades before Charlie Kaufman, reality TV and social media shattered the fourth wall forever.
Lee was a deeply conflicted and complicated person, who seemed to resent the comics that made his name as much as he basked in their glory. His staff universally seemed to like him, except for when they despised him. (Kirby stormed off to another publisher and created a ridiculous character named “Funky Flashman” meant to viciously satirize Lee.) He was an artist who, post-Marvel, could never seem to get anything of substance off the ground, until the unstoppable juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe basically bulldozed Hollywood and elevated him to god-level status.
In preparing to talk to Josie about Stan the Man, I asked her to recommend a work by Stan Lee (and his collaborators) to Something Good readers. She picked one of my favourites, a three-issue run of the Fantastic Four (issues 48-50) known by fans as the “Galactus Trilogy.” Created by Lee and Jack Kirby, it’s a truly far-out saga featuring the introduction of the insatiable, world-consuming deity Galactus and his herald, the Silver Surfer, who show up to basically eat the Earth. Only our squabbling heroes—stretchy Reed Richards, Invisible Woman Sue Storm, the cocky Human Torch and the grumpy, self-loathing The Thing—stand in their way. It is a truly strange mixture of the most psychedelic cosmic adventure and the grounded, down-to-earth interpersonal drama that makes Marvel comics of the era so interesting.
Mark: What I really love about your book is how it captured the evolution of Stan Lee’s image, which, in my head, had always been fully-formed—that he’d always been Stan the Man. But even at the height of the Marvel era, he really hadn’t developed that persona yet offstage.
Josie: You go to the archive and look at old footage of him, and it’s totally jarring. He’s completely different from the character in person. But textually, the character is much further along. You’re looking at the letters pages and the narration boxes where he’s directly addressing the reader, and he’s very much writing in that voice—the hey-how-you-doin’-I’m-Stan-Lee thing, but in person and in broadcast and radio, he had not adopted it at all. The personal existed only in text form. And eventually, as the decades went on, it took over his whole demeanour.
M: Who was it who said “Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face”? [ed’s note: it was John Updike]
J: There are so many aspects of this story that if you were a screenwriter and came up with, you might be a little too on the nose, but there it is.
M: So my first question, and this is my way to get around to a big topic, but: who is the author of these comics?
J: (laughs) Yes, a small question. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby both claimed credit for coming up with Galactus. They did not both claim credit for the Silver Surfer, which by Stan’s own admission was all Jack, except for the name. But Galactus, both of them said it was their own idea. Stan and Jack both emphasized this was supposed to be like a fight with God.
M: What’s so striking about reading these books now is that you have these unbelievably portentous dialogue and these crazy, cosmic visuals. And they’re matched with, like, the internecine bickering of the Fantastic Four. Sue Storm’s mad at Reed Richards for not paying enough attention to her, The Thing’s feeling sorry for himself… It’s such a crazy contrast.
J: It’s brilliant! The Galactus Trilogy is so emblematic of what made the Fantastic Four so revolutionary in so many ways. And one of them is: familial bickering waits for no god. They’re constantly in some mishegas, both cosmic and also interpersonal. Despite the fact that Galactus is in the middle of Manhattan building his machine to drain the Earth’s energy, there’s still time for Reed to run off to his lab and work too hard and for Sue to get mad at him. And then they go off and Reed has to get a shave because his beard grew out somehow. It’s a very strange story!
M: One of the craziest moments is after they meet Galactus for the first time, it’s like God descends from the heavens and tells them he’s going to destroy the Earth, and then they all, like… go take a bath.
J: That’s what I’m saying! The shaving! I remember the first time I read it, as an adult, I got to that panel and I was just like… bullshit. There’s no way this is actually in this comic. Somebody swapped it in as a gag. It’s so strange, Thing is sitting in a little hot tub with his legs all propped up so you can’t see his little stalactite and boulders, as a friend of mine put it.
M: They basically hit the spa.
J: Yeah, it's so strange. And the same with the end of the story: the Fantastic Four save the world from certain destruction. And what's the first thing that happens to The Thing? He sees Alicia, his girlfriend, talking to the Silver Surfer and through a bit of comical, almost Shakespearean, ships-passing-in-the night dialogue, he assumes that the Silver Surfer and Alicia are becoming an item. So he stomps off.
He may have just saved the Earth, but all that matters in that moment is like, “Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me. I’m going to go eat worms.” One of the reasons it’s an iconic Fantastic Four story is because it does have those interpersonal dynamics that made people really fall in love with the core characters.
M: Re-reading it this week, I was thinking about Jack Kirby and Stan Lee the creators, and I came up with a sort of half-baked theory. Your book talks about how Kirby grew up as this tough street-gang kid in the New York tenements, and it started to feel to me that the two of them both sort of represented these mid-20th Century archetypes of Jewish masculinity: the working-class brawler and the hustler. And you’ve got these characters of the Thing and Reed Richards, who sort of represent these opposite poles as well…
J: I like that theory. Stan was kind of a cerebral, outwitting-his-enemies type of guy, versus somebody like Kirby who came from the school of hard knocks. I don’t know if any of that was conscious, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of that came from their experiences.
That gets into the complicated question of, again, who the author of these characters was. Although, I should hasten to add that Kirby, although he was a pugilistic type growing up, he was also very eloquent. So, you know, he could sound like Reed Richards just as easily as Stan could, but in terms of character construction, I totally get what you're saying.
M: What’s also interesting is that for all the controversies, nobody disputes that Stan Lee wrote the dialogue. And the dialogue is incredible. I don’t think it takes anything away from his contribution to say that Kirby came up with original character ideas, because it wouldn’t work without the wordplay.
J: Oh, completely. I mean, that's, that's the thing I, I try to convey to people who think that this book is about denying Stan's creative influence. I will be the first to say Stan was a hugely important force when it came to his dialogue and narration.
He’d honed that ability over the course of decades and really brought it into play when he was writing for these characters. Even just in this story, you see just how much the dialogue and narration really distinguished these characters from one another, how they made the voice sort of ring in your ear.
But the character with the most defined voices in any of the characters on the page, it’s Stan Lee, in the form of the narration. This is me, Stan Lee, your god, explaining what's happening in this story. And that voice is so important.
I lost count of the number of people who I interviewed who grew up reading this stuff and loving it and who, when I asked them, “What was the thing that kept you coming back?”, their response was the letters pages and the narration. The voice of Stan Lee made them want to come back even more.
Nobody quite solved last week’s crossword challenge, which was to complete the puzzle and identify both the theme and every themed answer (though reader Calum Marsh came close!) The theme, as some of you did deduce, was Vladimir Nabokov, and here are the nine answers in question:
5d: The poem in Pale Fire begins with the couplet “I was the shadow of the WAXWING slain / by the false azure of the window pane.”
6d: Nabokov sometimes used the pen name Vladimir SIRIN.
10a: VERA Nabokov was the writer’s wife.
14a: Nabokov translated Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin into English; the title character derived his name from the ONEGA river.
43d: Olympia Press, famous for its highbrow SMUT, was also Lolita’s first publisher, in France.
47a: Nabokov was obsessed with chess problems (which generally end with a checkMATE).
56a: A lepidopterist, Nabokov would have made frequent use of BUTTERFLYNETS.
58d: Aunt ROSA is a character in the heartbreaking short story “Signs and Symbols.”
64a: The title character of Lolita was named Dolores “Dolly” HAZE.
And then there’s the title of the puzzle, DARK BLOOMS: “Vivian Darkbloom” was an anagram of the writer’s name, and a character of that name figures in Lolita.
My journey has ended. This newsletter will sustain me until it has been drained of all elemental life. Therefore, every Wednesday I’ll send you Something Good.
Next issue: prepare for wonderment without end—marvels without measure—scenes of mind-staggering fantasy—super-galactic grandeur—soul-searing spectacle. So speaks Mark! ‘Nuff said!