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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Enlisted by a team of honor students for a seminar on superheroes, a mild-mannered professor discovers his inner obsession. Assuming the powers of a novelist, teacher, playwright, and scholar, Professor Chris Gavaler embarks on a mission to unlock the secrets of the multiverse.

Cameron asks: “Dad, do you think Thor could beat Odin?”

This is after one of our daily games of chess. I used to beat him effortlessly, replaying the same basic game I stole from my father when I was his age. Then Cameron came home from chess club one afternoon and checkmated me in four moves.

“No,” I say. “Absolutely not. Fathers,” I explain, “are always always more powerful than sons. Odin was so strong he could strip Thor of his powers and cast him down to earth as a mere mortal.”

“That was just in the movie,” Cameron says, “not real mythology.” Then he cites the Greeks, how Zeus defeated Chronos, how Chronos defeated his father before that. My son has not, thankfully, read Oedipus Rex yet.

I prefer comic books. Thor misbehaves and his dad grounds him, strips his memory, makes him think he’s a human being, even gives him a gimpy leg. Or that’s how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby let their story evolve. Originally the human self was the real self, just some guy who happens upon a magic cane that changes into Thor’s hammer.

It’s a fun idea for a superhero, one of the few in the Lee-Kirby-Ditko pantheon that doesn’t involve some kind of mutating radiation.

But Lee wasn’t struck by a God-sent bolt of originality when he dreamed it up. He stole the idea from Pierce Rice and Wright Lincoln.  Their 1940 “Thor, God of Thunder” wears a cape and carries a hammer that boomerangs back to him when he throws it. He looks down at Earth and declares: “I will invest an ordinary mortal with my great power.”

Stan Lee stole most of his superpowers from his elders.

Imitating DC’s Silver Age reboots of Flash and Green Lantern, Lee kept the original Human Torch’s name and powers while penning him a new identity and origin. As far as the rest of the Fantastic Four:

Mr. Fantastic was a standard (Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, Klaus Nordling’s Thin Man, plus John Broome and Carmine Infantino’s Elongated Man created the year before).

Invisibility was the ur-power of Golden Age superheroines (Russell Stamm’s Scarlet O’Neil,Will Eisner and Jerry Iger’s Phantom Lady).

The Thing, like the instant knock-off Hulk, was a Godzilla-era Frankenstein of the kind populating monster movies and comics throughout the fifties.

The rest of Lee’s Asgard was no more original:

Spider-Man lifted his name from Norvell Page’s pulp hero The Spider, and Daredevil from Jack Binder’s Daredevil. Lee didn’t have to leave the Marvel archives to find George Kapitan and Harry Sahle’s Black Widow. The first comic book Iron Man was Quality Comics’s Bozo the Iron Man. Cyclops’s eye ray and visor belong to Jack Cole’s Comet. There was even a 1941 Black Panther. (The X-Men may bear an uncanny resemblance to DC’s Doom Patrol, but that’s a different kind of theft.)

Most of these characters are comic book footnotes, evidence of how thoroughly Lee and his Silver Age offspring defeated their Golden Age parents.

When Stanley Lieber (he didn’t legally change his name till the seventies) started at Martin Goodman’s pulp publishing company, he was barely out of high school. His cousin, Mrs. Goodman, got him the job. Jack Kirby was art director at the time. Little Stanley filled Mr. Kirby’s and the other artists’ inkwells, fetched their lunches, proofed their pages, even erased their stray pencil marks.

When Kirby and his crew jumped ship to DC for better pay, Goodman made his lone employee, his wife’s baby cousin, interim editor. Lee was eighteen. Rice and Lincoln’s Thor debuted the same year.

When Kirby left DC in the fifties, Lee was still behind the editor’s desk, but with “in-chief” instead of “interim” in his title. Lee rehired Kirby not as art director (Lee held that title too) but for freelance work at Goodman’s lousy page rate.

Kirby was only five years older, but he still thought of the former office assistant as a kid. When recalling the near collapse of Goodman’s company in 1957, Kirby described Lee as barely out of adolescence (he was 35). Kirby cast himself in the father role, comforting his weeping kid-boss with promises that he would take care of everything (Lee remembered it a little differently).

Either way, when Goodman ordered Lee to write an imitation of DC’s new Justice League of America, Kirby was there to draw it. Together the two created the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Black Panther, and the X-Men. They even resurrected Golden Agers Captain America, Sub-Mariner, and the original Human Torch.

They also pioneered the famed Marvel Method. Instead of writing panel-by-panel scripts, Lee simply described an often vague story idea and Kirby would return with fully drawn pages, the word balloons empty for Lee (or another employee) to add wise-cracking dialogue. Kirby’s pen soon defined the Marvel look, with new artists required to imitate the house style.

The Method broke down by the late sixties, with both Kirby and Steve Ditko, Lee’s other key collaborator, fleeing Marvel. Martin Goodman followed them. Lee’s boss sold his family business to a corporation in 1968, but stayed on as publisher until 1972 when Lee replaced him. Goodman started another comic company, introducing its own superpowered pantheon, but they couldn’t hold their own against Marvel in the marketplace.

Little Stanley vanquished his Uncle Martin.

Cameron and I saw Thor on a father-son outing in a mall in downtown Melbourne last April. Kenneth Branagh and his writers overthrew Lee and Kirby’s secret identity plot. This Thor plops to earth like a steroid-pumped asteroid, his memories intact. I was more impressed with the mall—a massive super-structure with a domed glass roof built over a historic factory tower. The new owners didn’t destroy the old building, they preserved, while changing everything about it.

What Branagh did to Lee and Kirby. What Lee and Kirby did to Norse mythology.

Kirby died in 1994, the year Marvel’s top artists rebelled and formed their own company, sending Marvel into bankruptcy. Marvel Entertainment has since been purchased by Disney for $4 billion and its pantheon transformed into a string of Hollywood blockbusters.

Now Kirby’s children are suing for shared copyright on the Lee-Kirby creations.Marvel says Kirby was an independent operator employed on a “work for hire” basis and so exempt from creative credit.

Lee always described him as an equal partner, but in his 2010 deposition, he toed the Marvel corporate line. The art director that the teen Stanley used to fetch lunch for in 1940 was just one of Lee’s hired pens taking the equivalent of artistic dictation in the 1960’s.

Another father vanquished.

That’s how comic book mythology is written. Retroactively. The past can always be changed. When Kirby handed Lee his finished art pages, Lee started filling in Thor’s dialogue balloons with “thee” and “thy.” Pretty soon one of them noticed their main character wasn’t just some guy with Thor’s powers. He was Thor. So they followed their own lead and explained away his secret identity as a spell Odin had cast on him. He’d been Thor in disguise from the beginning; they just hadn’t known it yet.

Cameron liked the movie. It had funny bits and some good battle scenes. I liked the ending, how the repentant son apologizes to his dad for being such a jerk. But the most complex character is Loki. Everyone thinks he’s Odin’s bastard son, but he was secretly adopted from the frost giants. Either way, it’s hard on the poor kid. He kills his biological father just to prove his worth.

If you’re planning to rent the DVD, I’d be quick. The story could be overwritten by the next generation of writers at any moment. It wasn’t memorable enough for Cameron to watch a second time. He’d rather play chess.

My game’s improved, so we’re pretty even again.  For now.

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