Hippie Squared: Forget Foucault! Damn Derrida! Stan’s the Postmodern Man!

Stan LeeI’ve been reading some of the old Marvel comics lately (look no farther than Three Line Lunch #239 for the evidence) in collections—early issues of Spider-Man in the Marvel Masterworks color reprint series and tonight one of the first Iron Man comics in Essential Iron Man, a black and white collection.

It’s fun stuff. It’s also incredibly postmodern. I think that might be one of the reasons so many currently hip literary guys—Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem leap to mind—not only liked comics, but Marvel in particular.

What initially struck me as so postmodern is the self-consciousness of the hype. Issue #11’s cover blazes: “The Long-Awaited Return of Doctor Octopus!” It’s only issue #11—how long could the wait have been? Issue #12’ cover calls itself, “The latest…the greatest Spider-Man Super Spectacular.” When it’s really just another issue, and everybody knows it. But the hype is done with a wink. It’s all part of the fun.

The postmodern stuff seems to all come from Stan Lee. I think he’s an archetypal postmodernist. There’s a whole meta-narrative created by his constant referencing of himself, the artists, and the fact and process of creating the comic books you’re reading—much of that meta-narrative carried in and around the hype.

The splash page of issue #14, which introduces the Green Goblin for the first time (and guest stars the Hulk), proclaims—in three separate word boxes, each a different shape: “Only the Merry Marvel Madmen could have dreamed him up!” — in an arrow-shaped box pointing to this rectangular box: “Here’s how it happened: The gang at the bullpen said let’s give our fans the greatest 12 cents worth we can! Let’s get a really different villain…a bunch of colorful henchmen for him…and let’s even add a great guest star!! So, we did!!” Then the third box has spikes radiating from it all the way around, and it screams: “And here’s the result…Another Mighty Marvel Masterpiece!”

The very issue before that one, #13, had a cover that read: “We’ve done it! We’ve created the greatest villain of all for ol’ Spidey!” and a splash page that echoed: “The editors sincerely feel that this may be one of the most gripping tales of the year!”

There are also the jokey credits in each issue, with the usual pattern being flights of hype for writer and artist, then a fall from those heights at the expense of the letterer—which also serves as the wink at the hype itself. For example in issue #17:

Ruggedly Written by: Stan Lee
Robustly Drawn by: Steve Ditko
Recently Lettered by: S. Rosen

Or a little more elaborately, in issue #12:

 Written in the white heat of inspiration by: Stan Lee
 Drawn in a wild frenzy of enthusiasm by: Steve Ditko
 Lettered in a comfortable room by: Art Simek

1964’s Spider-Man annual really got me thinking about all this. It’s filled with guest appearances from other heroes in “the Marvel universe”—not called that yet–most for no more than a few panels. Each referring the reader to that character’s own magazine. It’s such a self-conscious artificial device, it quickly becomes a game: which character will they do this with next? Thor? Iron Man?

But the real gold nugget of meta-narrative is a little three page feature called: “How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man!” It’s remarkable how much this little story parallels what has come to be the conventionally accepted narrative among many comics fans of Stan as the pushy guy who tormented the artists and took credit for all their work.

It’s of course written by Stan, and shows him calling up the artist Ditko in the middle of the night with his latest idea. “And just for kicks,” the Stan written by Stan says, “we’ll do twelve panels to each page!” To which the Ditko drawn by Ditko replies, “Waddaya mean we?? I do the drawing, while you practice singing your name all over!”

That gets the Stan character wound up. He says, “Look, Bub! Who gave you your first job? Taught you how to draw? Bought you your first pair of shoes?” Ditko responds, “I dunno—who? It sure wasn’t you, Lee! I was a happy man till we teamed up!”

Later the next day Stan calls to ask Ditko if he’s done drawing the story they first talked about the night before,telling him it’s already two weeks late.

The feature ends by saying, “Naturally, dear friends, we’re only kidding! But wait till next “Annual” time! We’ll probably have Spidey tell how he created Stan and Steve!”

That’s right: you heard it right here, Fierce and Nerdy fans — for the first time ever, the most brilliant insight you’re likely to run across anywhere in the blogosphere within the next ten—make that twenty (that’s how confident we are)—mouse clicks: Stan Lee was not just a postmodern genius, but one of the unsung architects of the postmodern sensibility in pop culture.

And he clearly had a lot of fun doing it.