BLOG

Sea of Tapioca

Austin English is here with the latest installment of his column, in which he wrestles with the difficult-to-explain legacy of Stan Lee.

When Lee passed away last week, non-comics world friends reached out to me to express condolences. They knew I loved comics and that I'm interested in the history of the medium... Clearly, this was a loss, right? A melancholy day? When I responded by trying to explain what a strange and confounding figure Lee was, and that he didn't exactly create the characters the media was saying he did, I found myself at a loss to explain why. Lee wasn't standard, he didn't just take credit for something that he had nothing to do with, so it couldn't be explained in a black and white way. He did have a large role in what Marvel was (and is), much of it positive. Why was he not what he claimed to be? It wasn’t easy to summarize and it felt exhausting, even ridiculous, to try.

My genuine love for people like Kirby and Ditko made that confusion seem cruel, intentional, a lasting way to obscure the work of actual creativity in the collective consciousness—a comic-book-villain type of crime. To get at the subversion, one had to bring up the 'Marvel Method,' which no one with a passing interest in these things should be expected to understand (although journalists covering Lee's passing could certainly do a little research). The Method is an odd system to base a major media company on, and yet the strangeness of it, the counter-intuitiveness involved, served Lee well in regards to his legacy. I’m sure, at the outset, it was simply a way to produce comics faster and cheaper by letting the artists be cartoonists. But no one really understands what cartooning is, and so Lee becomes a figure in people’s minds, the idea of the absolute heights a comic book can contain. True embodiments of the forms potential, Wood or Everett, exist as cultural foot notes in comparison, as if André Derain is the first name and Matisse the second.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—Interviews & Profiles. Françoise Mouly talks briefly to Roz Chast about her recent Thanksgiving cover for The New Yorker.

I grew up in an apartment in Brooklyn. My mental image bank is basically lamps, sofas, wallpaper, dishware, TVs and accessories, an infinite number of tchotchkes, books, household appliances. My nightmare is having to draw something like “the woods” from memory. Not enough tchotchkes.

At Civlized, Ben Hicks profiles the infamous Air Pirates.

...this certainly wasn’t the Mickey Mouse club. This was the 'Air Pirates'—the notorious group of underground cartoonists who took on one of the largest media corporations in history…and lost. Kind of.

It begins with a boy—Dan O’Neill, who, at 21, became one of the youngest syndicated cartoonists of all time with his strip "Odd Bodkins," which began its run in 1964. Over time, however, O’Neill’s sensibilities began to shift as he became more politically and socially involved in the emerging counterculture scene, leading to more pointed and subversive material in the strip. The audience, he told Civilized, loved it. The syndicate? Not so much. "There were three firings," he said. "By the last one I knew I was finished, so I thought I might as well try and get my copyright back."

He figured that if he engaged in copyright infringement, the syndicate would surrender the strip back to him out of fear of a lawsuit. So, he incorporated nearly 30 characters into the strip "before they brought the hammer down." It didn’t work. The paper let him go, but opted to retain the copyright anyway.

Mike Lynch points to a recent interview with Liza Donnelly:

—Misc. Lynch also found a speech by Signe Wilkinson.

And Ben Towle writes about the influence of Steve Ditko.

A large part of any artist’s legacy is their effect on the art and artists that follow them–their influence–and indeed the headline from that NY Times obituary refers to Ditko as the, “Influential Comic Book Artist.”

But here’s a curious thing: the word “influence” or “influential” appear five times in that article, but in every instance other than its use as a general accolade in the headline, they all refer to people who Ditko was influenced by–Ayn Rand, Mort Meskin–not anyone being influenced by Ditko.

Compare this, for example, to the NY Times obituary of Ditko’s contemporary, Jack Kirby, who died in 1994. In just the first few paragraphs there are specific mentions of things Kirby influenced–how superhero comics post-Kirby are different than superhero comics pre-Kirby. Indeed, Kirby’s aesthetic influence on superhero comics is as ubiquitous as it is self-evident. Grab any modern superhero comic off the rack at your local comics shop and you’re looking at something that’s been shaped by Kirby’s influence.

A casual flip through a few issues of a contemporary superhero comic, though, is unlikely to yield any sign of Ditko’s visual style. Why is this? I think, because despite the tremendous regard in which Ditko is held by most comics people (myself included) his stylistic influence–such as it is–falls outside the genre in which Ditko’s best-known work falls. If you want to see Steve Ditko’s stylistic influence on comics you need to look not at superhero comics, but at indie comics–specifically indie comics of the late 1990s.


5 Responses to Sea of Tapioca

  1. Antek says:

    Who is Stan Ditko? Hello Freudian slip :)

  2. Jack Buscema says:

    Um, it should be Stan “The Man” Ditko.

  3. Tim Hodler says:

    Yikes, I’m an idiot, and one who has written the word “Stan” way too many times over the last week…

  4. Joe McCulloch says:

    Face front, rational actors! Ol’ Cerebral Stan has got one pulse-pounding package of provocative pages fit to frustrate the abdignation of the self through compromise with force, fraud, and further fatal faults, effendi! Senses-smashing suspense in the awesome Aristotelian approach! There are only two choices!

  5. Brad Brooks says:

    Joe wins

    :D

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *