12 March 2011

Stan Lee’s Dialogues

Bleeding Cool just published a long transcript of Stan Lee’s deposition about the emergence of the Marvel superhero universe back in the early 1960s, as part of a lawsuit between Jack Kirby’s heirs and Disney/Marvel.

Most of Lee’s deposition consists of stories he’s told before, in much the same fashion. I saw no surprises about the “Marvel method” of comics storytelling, the creation of specific heroes, or Lee’s long personal respect for Kirby as an artist. That doesn’t change how in the 1960s comic-book creators all signed work-for-hire deals.

One of the issues in the lawsuit appears to be how much dialogue Kirby might have composed in the margins of his artwork. Here’s a pertinent exchange from Lee’s deposition about the notes on one surviving page of original art:

STAN LEE: Well, that’s Jack’s handwriting. That’s the way he wrote them. Yes.

Q. And could you tell us, for example, in this instance I see that there’s a dialogue that’s actually in the different blocks. Tell us who did that dialogue. How was the process done?

STAN LEE: Well, I wrote the dialogue and the captions, but Jack would give me notes. For example, in panel 4 of that page, the next to the last panel –

Q. Right.

STAN LEE: — Jack wrote what he suggested the dialogue might be. “I will rule. My years underground will end.” That was to let me know what he felt the fellow should be doing or saying.

So I wrote, “My conquest will be complete. I, the Mole Man, banished from my fellow men half a lifetime ago, will return at last as Master of the Earth.”
Yeah, that’s the way Stan wrote them. And I suspect the published version had more exclamation points.

A similar deposition with artist John Romita, Sr., addresses the same question. Romita would pencil possible Spider-Man dialogue for Lee, with the result:
He invariably would not use them, and I asked him once “why wouldn’t you use — why wouldn’t you let him” — he said something similar. He said, “because I can’t speak in somebody else’s vernacular.” He says, “when I am writing my characters, I am writing in Peter Parker’s personality and Aunt May’s personality and I write the captions in my personality. If I start putting your personality in there, I am going to confuse the reader.” So he used to — he told me — he invariably did not use anything that was in the margins that was cleverly suggested by the artists, because he said he did not want to stray from his normal approach.

He had a dialogue going with the reader. Saying “dear reader, this is your editor speaking right now.” He used to do that. It used to drive me crazy. I used to tell him “you are puncturing the illusion.” It’s like opening a door in the theater and letting the sunlight in and everybody realizes they are watching a movie now. I said “you are ruining” — he said, “it doesn’t matter. I am talking to my readers.”
I think Stan Lee took the idea of a snarky conversation between the comic company’s “bullpen” and its loyal readers from similar messages in the EC comics of the early 1950s. It was certainly a hallmark of the Marvel superheroes comics he co-created in the 1960s. And that dialogue never punctured the illusion. Rather, it drew readers into a fun-filled conspiracy to suspend disbelief.

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