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Op-Ed on Incredible Hulk Movie
posted May 30, 2003
When the Incredible Hulk smashes his way onto 3500 movie screens this June, he'll leave billions of dollars in potential profits in his destructive wake. Special effects geeks will pick apart the computer animation tools used to bring the character to life. Movie fans will track the film's effect on director Ang Lee's career and Australian actor Eric Bana's bid for American stardom. Licensors offering everything from video games to action figures to oversized plastic Hulk hands will pray for the sizeable windfall that comes with nudging a place into the public's imagination.
What almost no one will talk about is the comic books from which the Hulk sprang.
Blame Stan Lee.
The 80-year-old scriptwriter, editor, and longtime public spokesman of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee has enjoyed one of the most fascinating careers in American show business history. Entering the publishing field in 1940, Lee was a talented editorial cog in one of the many pulp production machines that churned out comic books when they, not movies or video games, were the primary progenitors of childhood daydreams. In the 1960s, as television began to dominate the attention of children, Lee expanded his role from editor and dialogue writer to part-time author. In partnership with comic book artists Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Bill Everett, Stan Lee helped create characters that by the end of this year will have earned billions of dollars in box office and licensing -- Spider-Man, Daredevil, and the X-Men among them. In 1960 Lee's fellow editors at publisher Magazine Management didn't even know where the Marvel offices were located. By 1970 Marvel had become the shining star of a revitalized industry. The Marvel formula of emotionally sensitive superheroes working through their issues while saving the world amused critics and thrilled fans.
Stan Lee didn't just make comic books in the 1960s. He was comic books in the 1960s. Lee used his editorial position to cast himself as the genial host of the Marvel Comics experience. Talking directly to the readers in letters pages and in the comic book stories themselves, Lee became a beloved figure to the millions of emotionally shell shocked and intellectually precocious children who devoured Marvel's pulp masterpieces. Lee was a slightly with-it, cornball uncle who flattered his nephews and nieces at every opportunity, providing them a socially responsible fantasy through which to filter the more unpleasant aspects of that turbulent decade. Like Walt Disney, Stan Lee made sure the public saw the company's success as his own. Unlike Disney, Marvel Comics had yet to take that last step into the mainstream American pop consciousness. When Stan Lee's reputation swelled, it was often at the expense of his co-authors, including the fiercely proud artist behind Marvel's dynamic visual style, the late Jack Kirby.
Having reinvented himself as a comic book auteur in the 1960s, Stan Lee spent the next two decades as a Hollywood mogul in training. Lee wrote dozens of treatments, and announced deals in the works for everything from Mighty Thor movies to Spider-Man rock operas. He befriended several admirers of his comic books, including New Wave director Alain Resnais. Moving to Los Angeles in 1980 with wife Joan, Lee helped establish a Marvel animation studio dedicated to plundering the comic book line's concepts and stories for simplified Saturday morning entertainment.
The comic book industry Stan Lee left behind, but was still paid handsomely to represent to the media, grew poorer for following his westward-bound example. After 1970, Marvel comic book stories became popular in large part for how they evoked the magic 1960s period represented by Lee, Kirby, and Ditko -- the concepts and characters locked into place for Hollywood pitch meetings. Beginning with Marvel, comic book companies abandoned newsstands and spinner racks for the surer profits of the comic book store, where dedicated fans could be better served at the expense of creating new readers. By the late 1990s, many comic book companies joined Lee in openly courting Hollywood, not as the end to a lifelong dream for cultural legitimacy but because development deals and licensing were the only way some comics could make money. With stars in its eyes, one of the more entertaining and vital chapters in American publishing has slowly transformed itself into an eager to please research and development field for movie and toy companies. Comic books may increasingly yield great works of art, but they are no longer a popular art, and our culture is poorer for it.
Stan Lee seems to enjoy Marvel's movie success, although it appears that he is kept well at a distance from the films themselves. Lee has appeared on the red carpets, smiled for the cameras, and enthused on Larry King. But the relationship between spokesman and company has changed in a thousand noticeable ways. It has even grown litigious. In late 2002, Lee sued Marvel for monies he believe he was owed from Spider-Man. Incredibly robust and with the natural energy of a born promoter twenty years his junior, Lee has managed two spin-off companies in recent years. An Internet start-up failed disastrously, but a television and movie developmental company designed to bring a little Stan Lee superhero magic to celebrity-driven vehicles has begun promisingly. The animated Stripperella, done in conjunction with Pamela Lee, is scheduled to bow on cable television just as this new Hulk begins to smash.
None of it will impress and amaze like the four-color wonderworks of four decades ago.