Monday, May 22, 2006

Stan Lee's politics: dodgy or what?

Stan Lee's propagandist past is not something we Marvel readers like to dwell on. It's easy to find overt political references in Lee's early superhero comics, with The Hulk and Iron Man being the worst offenders.

Here in Fantastic Four #1, for instance, we find Sue Storm nailing her colours firmly to the McCarthyite right's mast as she unwittingly sums up John F Kennedy's entire space policy.



And here, in Hulk #1, we find a disgruntled Soviet scientist berating Nikita Khrushchev, the notorious shoe-wielding Communist Party leader, for his sanctioning of weapons tests which had temporarily increased his head (the scientist, I mean, not Khrushchev) to eight times its normal girth.



I'd like to think that Lee is slyly criticising the US government here, since the main plot revolves around Bruce Banner being turned into the Hulk after a weapons test disaster. But there isn't much evidence of subtle thinking in the rest of this book, so we're probably safe to savour the irony.

These books, plot, characters and politics, are archaic to the point of kitsch. Communism is gone, but if it wasn't, it's not likely many heads would now be turned by this propagandising, so does it matter?

I think it does. Lee is one of the most loved people in comicdom. For all the complaints about self-promotion, how (allegedly) many of his ideas were those of his collaborators, and his often-cloying writing style, you can't get away from the Man's achievements. If he had written nothing else, the first hundred issues of Amazing Spider-Man would still make Lee one of the most important figures in twentieth century popular culture. Add in the Fantastic Four, Hulk, Avengers, X-Men, Dr Strange, Silver Surfer and Iron Man, and you have a measure of just how much he achieved in the Sixties.

But alongside it, he's producing aggressive political material aimed at demonising a political enemy. In publications aimed primarily at children. Isn't that something to worry about?

There are a few ways we can excuse or condone this politicking.

This stuff is so heavy-handed you can't take it seriously. Irrelevant, really. It's the intent, the reason Lee wrote those stories, that matters. Whether it had any effect on the minds of his readers is a secondary consideration.

It was all a long time ago, America was different then, the country grew up, etc. Regularly used to explain aberrant past behaviour, this explanation often pops up when we see footage of Joe McCarthy and his Senate henchmen destroying the careers of anyone vaguely left-wingish. This was a Pleasantville America, naive and young and given to foolish ways before the sixties revolution woke it up. Personally, I don't buy it. The Second World War generation had lived through the Great Depression, Stalingrad, Auschwitz, Hiroshima and Korea. That generation were not, couldn't have been, such political naifs.

Communism was nasty. Even if it was propaganda, the cause merited it. I have some sympathy with this view, as I don't think propaganda in a good cause is automatically bad. But it's difficult to stretch this view to accommodate, say, the Iron Man origin issue, where Tony Stark becomes Iron Man in order to trash an oppressive Vietnamese despot. It's all in the same vein as The Green Berets, John Wayne's laughable 1968 movie where Big Leggy himself saves Vietnam from the evil commy invaders, a plot so far divorced from reality that it appears to have been beamed in from Neptune.

To make Lee's position even worse, a few years later he was producing the Silver Surfer, where an Earth-condemned shiny-headed alien surfed around babbling like a peacenik on the lines of why can't these humans know love? before, this being comics, ramming five hundred thousand volts of Power Cosmic into the solar plexus of the villain-of-the-month. Lee, by then in his late thirties, had apparently experienced a Damascene conversion and morphed into a Haight-Ashbury hippy. Rather coincidentally, so had his readers.

And that seems to be the common thread in Lee's politics. In the censorious early sixties, Lee was happy to write like a right-wing demagogue. The public mood was hostile to comics, and toeing the party line made life easier. As comics readers grew in age and maturity, Lee adjusted his stories accordingly. But what sort of writer propagandises for both sides?

For me, I doubt if Stan Lee was ever the Cold Warrior these early comics might suggest. Without any evidence of Lee's true political views, I guess that he is probably quite apolitical, and it was this lack of belief which led to the opportunism which Lee showed in these storylines and the blatant disregard for the effects they may have had.

Whichever way you slice it, Stan Lee doesn't come out of this very well, and perhaps that's why we don't talk about them much. Because this is Stan Lee, and most of us don't want to say bad things about him.

15 Comments:

Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

Stan's politics reportedly irritated the two big guns of the Marvel Era. Ditko thought Stan too liberal, Kirby thought Stan too conservative. I'd wager that you're right, that he's basically apolitical and willing to lean whichever way the wind blows.

The anti-communist stuff in early Marvel reads like WW2 comics with redrawn hats on the bad guys. (Subtract gray helmet, add fuzzy cap.) The "reds" provided simple heavies for the simple tales. Plus, hey, it sold.

That same thinking gave us the cinematic -ahem- "classic" you were so good to bring up, The Green Berets. Few comedies ever made me laugh so hard. The bucolic final scene of The Duke, Mr. Sulu, the Hot Girl, and the Gee-Whiz Kid stare at the setting sun ranks as one of the great subtle jokes of all time. They stare out over the ocean and watch the sun set...in the east. HA! COMEDY GOLD!

That Duke, he was a funny man. Usually not on purpose, true, but funny nevertheless.

9:22 pm  
Blogger Blockade Boy said...

I can't think of Stan Lee without recalling an old quote of Roz Kirby's from an article in the Comics Journal: "He was 'Mister Personality,' that's who he was." I think you've hit the nail on the head about his political views. Ol' Stan just wanted to be popular.

12:29 am  
Anonymous David M said...

I've considered this period before and wondered what effect the Soviet targeting of Jews had at this time. Consider how much of a golem story "I created the Colossus" was.

9:16 pm  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

Harvey - I'd never noticed the sun setting in the East in Green Berets before. I'm still laughing about it.

I suppose the Communist portrayals were rewrites of old WW2 stories. And, as you say, they sold. But for me that explains, rather than excuses, them.

blockade boy - And we do love him, Old Stan. Or I do, anyway. He'll always be a kindly, slightly strange old uncle who had the knack for making comics seem magical. I'll forgive him pretty much anything.

David - I don't know enough about the history of the Soviet Union to know whether Jews (as opposed to other minorities) were at that period specifically targetted by the authorities, so I can't comment. But it's an interesting idea.

9:06 am  
Blogger Phillip said...

I think you've got it right about his politics. He just wanted to be liked, but I can't imagine trying to agree with Ditko and Kirby. Talk about polar opposites!

1:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exactly which comic book stories being written in 1964 or 1966 were not some kind of propaganda? Part of Lee's achievement was making it possible for mainstream comics to tell stories that aren't like those older ones.

8:49 am  
Anonymous Hoosier X said...

I'm trying to figure out how Stan SHOULD have handled the Cold War. Should he have ignored it, the way DC did? Should he have told us about what a nice man Khruschev was? (You know, for balance!)

The "Commie" stories in those early '60s comics are not nearly as bad as the "Nazi" and "Jap" portrayals of the '40s.

One of the last issues of "Battle" had a Kirby-drawn story about Castro that (I've heard) was fairly sympathetic to Castro. This is very early in the 1960s, probably written mere months after the overthrow of Bautista. Does anybody know anything about this?

I think the characterization of Stan Lee in this post is very premature, based as it is on a few comic book stories.

1:28 am  
Blogger Cory!! said...

I don't know if the point you are making works for what comics were back in the 50's and 60's. Timely/Atlas/Marvel came into being on the back of "Our heroes beat up Nazis" before any of the other publishers hopped on the bandwagon, and after WWII, Commies were the bad guys. They were the default villain for spy movies, action movies and the like, and Stan was just writing the same kind of "Go America" stuff that he'd cut his teeth on.

Reading about Stan now, he has been at a lot of Clinton fundrasiers and he let his writers drift leftward while he was EiC of Marvel.

Still, back in the 60's, he was writing action stories for kids, and all pop, throw away culture would have the same sentiment as these stories. Watch a Corman monster movie (which Stan was channelling for most of the VERY early Marvel hero tales) and they had the same "Rah Rah" dialogue.

7:04 pm  
Anonymous Shawn Levasseur said...

To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a comic book is just a comic book.

9:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, Jerkwater!

Have you actually seen the Green Berets? Obviously not! If you had you would have knows that Capt. Nim (George Takei) dies more than a half-hour BEFORE the end of the movie when the NVA (not VC) overrun the SOG camp. Furthermore, the sun is RISING at the end of the movie not setting! Sgt. Peterson (Tim Hutton) is killed by the tiger trap right at the crack of dawn while the team is headed to the extraction LZ. The Hueys then returns the rest of them safely to Da Nang within the hour. The film ends with a SUNRISE to add connotational condiment to Bulldog's (John Wayne) corny consolation for Hamchunk (Craig Jue):

"You're what this is all about."

Oh, yeah, Lin (Irene Tsu) doesn't get to watch that sunrise, either, since she gets onto a jeep with Col. Cai (Jack Soo) and is driven away for debriefing.

10:05 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stan Lee is really just someone who wanted to be liked, seriously. Besides, his character, Darkstar, shows that there were people within the Soviet Government who had good intentions.

To me, he just wanted to show us the different shades of gray, not wanting us to see things black-and-white. Of course, I could be wrong.

12:46 am  
OpenID dwatersman said...

This is a very interesting article. Well-written, sir. Personally, I don't see a problem with Lee whether he's a conservative (which I am) or liberal. He's still a genius. It makes me think of the "Batman" comics. I think its fair to say that "Batman" is written from a more liberal P.O.V.; one sees this particularly in the way the supervillains responsible for lots of death, destruction, and debauchery always end up in Arkham Asylum rather in jail or six feet under (with a few notable exceptions, particularly in the films that are generally not as true to the comics).

Anyway, despite some of the liberalism and perhaps even socialism that we see in "Batman," I'm a huge fan. I don't really think it matters. Personally, I would have to believe that Lee is in fact more conservative than not, at least when it comes to economics and foreign policy, given what we see in comics like "Spiderman" and "X-Men." One common theme that a conservative would include is an intense dislike for the media, which we see in his comic, caustic portrayal of Jameson and company at the Daily Bugle.

But in the end, I don't really think it matters. Lee is a genius, Bob Kane of "Batman" fame was brilliant, and Siegel and Shuster who created "Superman" were amazing too. While it is interesting to try to delve into the political and religious views of someone like Lee, I don't think it prevents one from enjoying his contributions and gaining something from them. A lot of it depends on how you personally internalize things, kind of the same way that I have hyper-liberal and hyper-conservative friends who both love "Spiderman" and go to the movies together. Just some food for thought...digest if you'd like.

12:18 am  
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3:38 pm  
Blogger Woz said...

Stan Lee's parents were Romanian born Jews. While I'm sure he never felt the brunt of eastern-european anti-semitism as they did, I'm sure he heard a LOT about it, since they likely emigrated with the wave of Jews who left Romania under *Very* *Strong* *Recommendation* by the Romanian government at the time. Pretty much everyone was out to get the Jews in that area and when the Soviets came in, they weren't any different. The Soviet regime in general is characterized as atheistic. While some allowances were made for traditional Russian Orthodoxy, even the 'pet' church of Russia was only authorized to print 10,000 Bibles (in a nation of millions). The Jews weren't allowed any religious leeway, weren't allowed to make and sell religious items to fundraise for their synagogues, etc. So if he had any sympathy for his parents and his ancestry, Stan Lee had every reason to be anti-communist, Russia, and eastern Europe in general, and very pro-US.

Beng a gentle seeming sort, the 'cant' we all just get along-ness' of the Hippie era likely suited him well..*He* hadn't been chased out of Romania or seen family members drowned in the Danube, so could probably forgive history a little easier than the old world generation, but I'm positive that it would have been a love for the US and the possibilities here that would have allowed an extension of love and empathy to the rest of the world in the mid-60's. And yes, being in a creative field, he probably saw good friends and colleagues have their allegiances (possibly rightly) questioned.

The point is, McCarthy went a bit nuts, so he reads as a bad guy in our historical lens, but to people of the time, especially ones with direct familial memories of what McCarthy was chasing, it made a lot more sense at the time.

Political history is definitely colored by the lens of the teller--'dodgy politics' now made a lot more sense in the moment.

1:55 pm  
Blogger Woz said...

Also wanted to add--his story lines involving Magneto should serve as evidence that while he had sympathy for Jewish suffering vis a vi his parents, he also was aware of and cautioned against the dangers of going too extremely in the opposite direction in retaliation. HIs consistent message has been one of the each individual in his own flawed but heroic way rising up to defeat oppression from whatever corner it emerged.

2:26 pm  

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