Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Wrong Side Of The Lee: The Politics Of Marvel's Loudest Voice

(Note: this is part of a larger piece I wrote in 2015. I’ve made a few tweaks this week to tighten the arguments, reference something I wasn’t previously aware of, and – obviously – reflect Lee’s death.)

I want to take this opportunity to discuss Lee's politics, and how they came to influence his writing. Some of what follows was gleaned from Lee's own Amazing Fantastic Incredible, but the main influence here is Sean Howes' The Untold Marvel Story, without which this essay wouldn't have been possible. I highly recommend Howes' book (Lee’s is interesting too, though the limitations of its usefulness in the pursuit of understanding who he truly was are presumably obvious).

Let's start at the beginning. Born the son of a Romanian immigrant and a native New Yorker, Lee's family struggled badly with money whilst he was growing up. It would be entirely too pat to suggest his parents' difficulty keeping him entertained on their budget (Lee talked about a gift of a pedal bike being life-changing, and said he has no idea how they found the money for it) is what led him to start dreaming up superheroes and alternative dimensions. That said, there is one aspect of his childhood worth lingering, and that's the story he told of leaving his local cinema each time he watched an Errol Flynn film and riding on his bike around the neighbourhood looking for women being harassed so that he could intercede.

As Lee admitted, it's fortunate for his own sake that he never actually came across a woman being harassed. Which is to say, of course, any woman he understood as being harassed. That's an important distinction to make, because this seemingly random slice of Lee’s childhood manages to summarise precisely what made Lee so inconstant a political actor. The central tension arises from two fundamental truths about the man. First, he abhorred bullies. Secondly, he wasn’t all that good at actually recognising bullies, or knowing what to do about it when he did.

(I hadn’t realised when I wrote this back in 2015 that Lee himself had been accused of sexually harassing women in his employ, but that fact adds another level of not just ugliness to this story, but irony too.)

That’s the diagnosis, then. What’s the pathology? Lee’s basic error, so far as I can tell, was a conviction that the US government was, broadly speaking, a force for good, or at least not so bad that its claim to be the country's ultimate moral authority (divine beings aside) could seriously be doubted. Sure, there were individual members of that government who could fail to live up to the responsibilities and duties their positions placed on them (Lee wrote one or two of them himself), but as an aggregate unit, Lee seemed willing to believe the government is always doing the absolute best it can. As Lee had Iron Man announce in 1966: ``No-one has the right to defy the wishes of his government! Not even Iron Man!''.

Say what you like about Lee – he walked the walk. Several of his fellows at the then-called Timely Comics were drafted during WWII, but Lee went in voluntarily. One can quibble over whether this decision was made out of a wish to serve America as a political structure or as a national ideal, but there’s little enough sense elsewhere in Lee’s life that he thought too much about that distinction in any case. If there is meaningfully different alternative explanation for Lee volunteering, it’s more likely to be his established hatred of bullies. Perhaps Lee simply wanted to help out his colleagues and fellow Jewish men who had been so ahead of the country’s mood in condemning (and provided four-colour shit-kickings of) Adolf Hitler.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter whether he signed up first and foremost to serve the United States, or to oppose Hitler. Either way, Hitler was most certainly the kind of man Lee liked to oppose. The label “bully” falls as short of adequately describing Hitler as does the phrase “leery of diversity”, but that isn’t to say it’s actually inaccurate. Describing fascism as bullying with a body-count isn’t terribly sophisticated, but there is certainly truth there. It genuinely isn’t difficult to imagine Lee enlisting because he wanted to play a role in Hitler’s downfall. To sum up his decision, as does Captain America in the MCU, by noting his dislike of bullies.

Which, obviously, is the right instinct. It’s quite clear that Lee wanted an end to overt bigotry. The problem is, it’s hard to find evidence that he ever thought very hard about how to do it, and whether that could be enough. Lee was vocal about how much he hated racists, for example, but had very little grasp of what racism actually was. Sure, he wrote several pieces for ''Stan's Soapbox'' about the transparent ridiculousness of racism (including the one currently blanketing Twitter like a carpet of faintly self-righteous snow). But he also responded to a letter criticising Marvel for a dearth of black characters and deriding Black Panther as a token by arguing it wouldn't look realistic if there was a sudden increase in the number of black people ``stampeding'' through their comics. As though realism was something Marvel had to take pains to maintain – at that point more of their heroes were reformed alien invaders than were people of colour – hell; that might still be true. Regardless, a rapid uptick in black representation would not somehow have broken any carefully maintained laws of plausibility.

 (Lee also wanted credit for the fact Man-Ape was black, which is probably even more clueless a defence of Marvel's commitment to diversity than bragging about creating a gay character named ``Pinky'' Pinkerton, which Lee also did. On the other hand, in the same response nodding to the Man-Ape, Lee mentioned Sam Wilson, the Falcon, despite the minor obstacle of Wilson not actually existing as a character at all. After writing his response, Lee and Gene Colan immediately huddled and created him, meaning that Lee both managed to give the original writer what he wanted, another heroic black character - and ultimately a Marvel mainstay - AND take the full credit. No-one ever looked at Stan Lee and asked whether he thought he needed a bit more chutzpah.)

What a sudden surge of African-American characters would have done would hurt sales, and as Howe puts it, ``[Lee would] happily preach tolerance, but he was not going to get caught taking an unpopular stance''. Which at that precise time, when Lee was responsible for the entirety of Marvel's comic output, was probably true. While Lee's approach and output during the late '60s put more than one nose out of joint (including the guy responsible for drawing Iron Man's nose, as it happens), his decision to take the path of least resistance at that point can at least be contextualised by the fact he was certainly aware that if Marvel collapsed, he would not be the only one hurt, nor the one hurt most. Just a few short years earlier, when Lee was busy helping to build the empire he would ultimately be responsible for, he was far more willing to take risks. Problem was, those risks were often in exactly the wrong direction.

Let’s talk about Iron Man, a character whose origin story focusses around his narrow escape from a clutch of sneering Asian Communists. Lee spent a lot of time coming up with sneering Asian Communists. One could easily infer from this that a) he hated Asians, b) he hated Communists, or c) both.

I don’t actually think this is the problem, however. I don’t think Lee was anti-Asian, or anti-Communist – at least in terms of coherently objecting to their politics. I think it’s simpler than that. Lee hated bullies, and thought that’s what the Communists were.

This lack of political nuance not only explains why so much of Lee's output involved Commie-smashing (seriously, Captain America: Commie Smasher was genuinely a Lee-written book title for a while), but how an apparent liberal - even a ``casual'' one, as Howe puts it - could decide the best way to run counter to the prevailing mood and generate an unexpected hit would be to create a superhero (Iron Man) whose alter ego specialised in creating weapons to fight the Communist overseas. We’ll come back to the Communists in good time, but for now, let’s marvel (hah!) at the sheer ludicrousness of imagining Iron Man could possibly represent some kind of deliberate inversion of the status quo. Somehow, amid the spiralling international tensions that would lead to the Vietnam War breaking out just a year later, Lee managed to come to the pig-headed conclusion that a hero designed to be “counter-cultural” would take the form of a man who made his fortune through getting commission on international murder sprees (or pretended this was the reason and figured people would buy it, which amounts to a similar failure to understand the contemporary political climate).

It is of course, beyond obvious that Tony Stark is not a hero from within the counter-culture, but one that stands opposed to it; a purely reactionary figure. Seeing the anti-war movement as the prevailing attitude of the time is, likewise, a fairly unambiguously reactionary position. But it isn’t the reactionary element of Lee’s take here that jumps out, so much as the incoherence. Lee was undoubtedly genuinely searching for another hit – genuinely thought it was smart to (claim to) swim about the current as a way of being daring and different. The fact he so completely to understand what that current actually was isn’t evidence of terrible politics, it’s evidence of a terrible grasp of politics. A fundamental inability to actually understand the complexities of the prevailing mood. Lee didn’t hate the zeitgeist. He just couldn’t recognise it unless it put a sheet over its head.

We see further evidence in his inconsistent attitude to protest movements, and in particular student protest movements. Lee wasn’t against student activism in and of itself. At one point he even replied to criticism of Marvel's poor treatment of hippies (which Lee was a part of, though how much his caricatures of the Beat generation were meant to be affectionate is an open question) by arguing he was actually very much in favour of activism on campuses. At least that way, he argued, they were engaging, making less likely that students would drop out.

Alas, his approval of passionate student engagement with the politics of the day only lasted as long as protesters acted in a way he approved of. Make your point, sure. Just don't yell, because yelling upsets people. It upsets the peace, and that might get you into trouble for which you can only blame yourself. It's this kind of cognitive dissonance - I agree you need something desperately and immediately, but please ask those nice government types politely for it - that meant Lee could simultaneously support the Civil Rights movement and write a comic about a hated minority that has an FBI agent secretly helping that minority, as oppose to plotting to assassinate Xavier if he ever became too effective. Lee might argue that there was no way in '63 he could have known how deep the FBI were into the government's attempt to stifle the move toward civil rights, but that hardly helps - he didn't know because he wasn't listening, and when he heard something by accident he demanded people quieten down.

An almost perfect synecdoche of Lee's approach can be found in his dialogue for Amazing Spiderman #68. Here Spidey encounters a group of students protesting their university's declsions ion how to use its land. At first Peter is sympathetic to their cause, but like Lee it doesn't take long at all for him to decide that whilst they might have a valid case, they're going about it in entirely the wrong way. ``Anyone can paint a sign, mister! That doesn't make you right!'', our hero yells at one point. The issue ends with the protesters framed for vandalism and arrested, with Spidey swinging away, amused that their entirely unfair and potentially calamitous brush with the law might give them time to calm down. This was in 1968, the year of the Columbia University protests.

Once again, we see evidence of Lee's beliefs regarding the basic decency and natural authority of, well, authority.  He will grant you the right to talk back to those in power, so long as you do it quietly, and accept it immediately if they rule against you.

The problem here will be familiar to many of you. Setting yourself up in opposition to those compelled to shout, just so they can be heard, is obviously going to mean taking stances against protesters and minorities - these being the people who have to yell themselves hoarse simply to be heard. Of course the quietest voices are those of the status quo. There's no need to shout your message when it can be heard everywhere at all times. When your position has become the heartbeat of your very country, there is no need to reach for the snare-drum and mark time for the march.

Demanding those without access to a microphone keep their demands sotto voce is no more than a plea to not have to hear them at all. It's a way for the poerfupp to salve their consciences, by ensuring every problem is either one they don't know about, or one they can feel justified in ignoring because of how "badly" those who notified them of the issue are behaving.

The reports of Lee getting frustrated over demands by Kirby and Ditko to receive their fair share of Marvel revenue is perhaps germane here - Lee knew he wasn't prepared to do what was necessary to secure them equitable deals (and in Lee's defence, it might have taken threatening to quit, with the risk that Martin Goodman would have called his bluff) so he became audibly frustrated with the fact they wouldn't quietly swallow their displeasure.

The common thread throughout all this is Lee’s desire for people to get along. If people couldn’t agree, they should just agree to disagree, and then forget the whole damn thing. The most generous interpretation of this impulse is that Lee genuinely believed the system was generally sound, and just needed people to behave a little better. The less generous view is that he just wanted everyone to quietly allow him to enjoy his wealth. Whichever it was (or what ratio existed between the two), Lee was fairly undiscerning in his curmudgeonly shushing. Lee didn’t want racists to be overtly racist, but he didn’t want students to be loudly political. He didn’t want fascism taking over Europe, but he didn’t want the Communists causing a fuss either.

I said we’d come back to the Communists. There’s absolutely no doubt that Lee liked to put the boot in where the Reds were concerned. And why wouldn’t he? The last time the US Armed Forces he onced signed up to had headed for war, it was to stop the nightmarish actions of Hitler's Nazi Party. Why should first Korea, and then Vietnam be any different? When you look at how the US government was portraying foreign Communists at the time, why wouldn't Lee see them - as Captain America himself puts it - the ``Nazis of the 1950s'' and beyond?

It’s instructive to consider what Lee’s experiences in the Army actually were. Lee spent his time there writing narrations to training films and designing posters warning GIs about the dangers of VD. Important to the war effort, no doubt, but by spending the war Stateside, Lee never got the chance to experience the realities of war or, more importantly for our purposes, the difference between the propaganda's presentation of the enemy and the enemy themselves. He never learned to doubt the official line, up to and including some pretty racist assumptions about Asian communists that led to some fairly disgraceful representations of them at Marvel. In fairness, Lee later admitted his mistake on this, but racist thinking was essential to his conceptionof the Communists, who were forever the sneaky foreigners being deservedly punched by square-jawed representations of American imperialism.

And yet there’s X-Men #14-16, the introduction of the Sentinel robots. Those three issues are simply packed with veiled references to people like Joe McCarthy, and groups like HUAC. Lee might have disliked the Communist abroad, but in his own country it was the witch-hunt for domestic Communists that seemingly put his back up.

One might cynically suggest here that Lee was, hardly uniquely, nervous about the McCarthy juggernaut treating middle-class white men (many of them writers, no less!) as though they were somehow equivalent to those sneaky foreigners. Honestly, though, I think Occam’s razor suggests Lee was just doing what he always did, and suggesting the best thing for everyone is if people could just calm down a bit. Lee’s criticisms of McCarthy were vastly more elliptical than those of the Communists of Indo-China, but they arose from the same impulse – what Ultron called, in easily the best moment of his eponymous MCU turn, “mistaking peace for quiet”.

Quiet was always the goal. Lee himself stated proudly that he tried to ensure the politics of his story-lines were vague enough to keep both left and right happy (though one imagines what he saw as ``the left'' was warped by his self-imposed deafness to certain positions, and clearly Lee had no problem grotesquely offending the foreign market). To return to Tony Stark, though, the limits of this approach are readily apparent. Refusing to either explicitly condemn or support the status quo is not to remain neutral, but to implicitly support the status quo. When a co-founder of the Libertarian Party can compliment Marvel for ``the fact that the heroes run to being such capitalists as arms manufacturers... while the villains are often Communists (and plainly labelled as such, in less than complimentary terms)'', you're no longer letting sections of the right see the patterns they approve of in the inkblots. You're using your fountain pen to write what they want you to write.

In fact, whilst we're dragging him over the coals for throwing red meat to the Libertarians, we should note that, were Lee truly as keen as he claimed to keep Marvel clear of the rocks and shoals of political commentary, it was an idiotic move to let Steve Ditko take control of Amazing Spider-Man to the point he was directing Lee (in the page margins; the two were no longer speaking) to have Spidey spout terms straight out of Ayn Rand's horrific philosophy. Ditko bit hard and deep into Objectivism, a political stance so objectionable it broke up at least one further collaboration - calling those who require assistance to survive ``parasites'' tends to have that effect. If Lee had any qualms about a superhero nominally dedicated to helping the less fortunate spit venom at those who failed to meet Rand's ugly (and profoundly hypocritical) standards of acceptability, however, I've seen no evidence of it. Again, this is not letting those who espouse harmful political philosophies think they see echoes of their position in the text. This is letting the text sound out those positions.

(This is an essay about Lee, not Ditko, but I couldn’t let this moment pass without pointing out the profound irony of Ditko insisting his co-creation of Spiderman justified him using the character as a Randian mouthpiece, given that Parker’s refusal to stop a criminal because there wasn’t anything in it for him proves to be the foundational mistake atop which his entire character is built. Spidey is an asshole about stopping a criminal, and a half hour later his beloved uncle is dead. No, libertarianism, fuck you.)

I realise much of the above comes across as quite critical of Lee, but the truth is the worst that can be said of his political philosophy is that he wanted to do good, to be a force for tolerance in the world, but simply wasn't sufficiently interested in politics to manage this consistently, or without actually working against it on multiple occasions. His chaotic, contradictory political stance is exactly the sort one expects from someone who doesn't really believe they have a political stance, or at least one who insists a person's writing can be apolitical. 

There's certainly some evidence that politics just isn't something Lee finds important, at least in comparison to whether or not he likes political figures personally. In Amazing Fantastic Incredible he spends as much time fondly reminiscing about meeting George W Bush as he does the Clintons, which both get approximately the same amount of space as Lee running into George Clooney (Lee's trip to the Carter Whitehouse gets more space, but only because the US Secret Service tried to shoot Green Goblin in the face for scaring Amy). That Clinton was far closer to the kind of politics Lee tended to subconsciously gravitate towards, and Bush very much wasn’t, doesn’t seem to have mattered in the slightest.

Lee isn't the only person who didn't take the chance to spit in Dubyah's face when given the opportunity, of course. Perhaps he decided the boost in visibility for his own brand of philanthropy was worth the implicit endorsement of a war criminal. More likely, Lee never conceived of that trade-off in the first place. Which makes things tricky. It's hard to choose the right path out of a dilemma when you don't recognise that dilemma to begin with.

I've spent plenty of time above talking about how Lee's frequent failure to take or even see the road less travelled led to some very problematic pronouncements and publications. But perhaps it has been no less often that Lee has somehow stumbled blindly onto precisely the correct path. The X-Men may only have been intended to criticise the most obvious forms of racism, but over the years the franchise has offered up no shortage of more cutting and more vital criticism, of a kind of genuine value to those looking to understand and combat systemic inequality (especially as the franchise is finally being wrested away from the stranglehold of cis-het white men). Lee might have created the Sentinels to claw at a potential personal threat, but the story he generated can be picked up and used by any number of people seeking to kick out against the spread of anti-left hysteria. And whilst Sam Wilson only existed at all so Lee could strengthen his case during a textbook example of whitesplaining, the Marvel Universe - first on paper and then on celluloid - has become a more inclusive and interesting place for his creation.

Stan Lee. He could have done so much more. Doesn't mean he didn't do plenty.


Joe S. Walker said...

"Faintly self-righteous"? Look who's talking!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katy Preen said...

"I've spent plenty of time above talking about how Lee's frequent failure to take or even see the road less travelled led to some very problematic pronouncements and publications. But perhaps it has been no less often that Lee has somehow stumbled blindly onto precisely the correct path."

It is frustrating to see powerful, often cis & white, men trying to get it but not quite managing it. But they are one step on the path towards a better society; their audience contains a lot of other cis white men who might not even have reached that stage so at least it's given them a glimmer of progress to think about.

But the question is at what stage do we need to move beyond that - what if the creator wants to be progressive but only up to a point, so that they are stuck in their ways and think that anything further is "going too far"? What about the fans who are years ahead of the messages in the material who not only feel insulted by the lack of representation, but patronised by storylines that treat their issues as simplistic?

I like the approach you've taken here, in analysing Lee's views, and his work, in a way that is both separating and connecting the art and the artist. I think the only truth we can derive from this is that Lee, himself, was the most complex of all his characters.

SquidFromSpace said...

@Joe Fair point.

@Katy Preen. Thanks for your comment, and and I'm glad you liked my approach. Honestly, as a cis-het white man myself, there's probably a low ceiling on what I can usefully offer as a response here. I think you're right that, generally speaking, people like Lee taking a few steps in the right direction is of genuine value, even if we can simultaneously complain they should have done so much more. In fact, one of the big problems with people like him/me is the tendency to argue that the fact they're trying means they should be exempt from criticism that they're failing, or even just that their successes are not total.

You're right about Lee's complexity, too. What's really interesting to me there though is that he ended up being a complicated character on the subject of his politics precisely because his own politics weren't that complicated at all. By refusing to march in one direction, he ended up crossing his own tracks so often that the resulting pattern needs serious work (and I'm neither claiming to have done that work, or to be able to do that work) to understand.

Unknown said...

I thought your post was well-written and well thought out, balanced, and informative. I'm sure that most comic book fans would not agree and consider it heretical and promptly burn you at the stake. I would burn on the stake next to you, sir! I have often felt the same --i.e. ambivalent or even incensed--regarding Stan Lee's politics.

I love the Marvel characters, I love them more how I imagine them to be in my own head, and I appreciate that Lee, Kirby, Ditko, et al created them. They are so much fun! But when you look back at Stan's Soapbox, or read his responses in the various letters pages--I agree: he is someone whom I might like, but whose opinions diverge from my own. From the little I've read about his treatment of Kirby and Ditko, I see Lee as a self-promoter, a businessman first, even slightly cutthroat--but whose products happened to be fantasy and adventure--things I loved as a child and love as a man-child! So, it's hard to reconcile the two because you want your heroes, idols, and sources of moral/manly inspiration to reflect your own moral code. That's not always the case. After reading the biography on Lee (largely laudatory), he comes across more as a huckster--an idea man, an ad man, not a great writer, and definitely not someone who was particularly sensitive to issues important to minorities. That sensitivity only appeared when profits were threatened or there was money to be made. But...it is a business. If we printed fun comics that overtly contained...IDK...SJW messages or politics...would they be comics for sale? Or would they be pamphlets we would pass out like the ones you find in the laundry mat describing the benefits of a particular religion? I have not resolved that problem for myself yet. I digress.

I think the first epiphany I had about my beloved Spider-man character was during the student riots. Peter Parker did not side with the students! He acted like...an old fogey! The words that came out of his mouth were the words of the previous generation--they were not even the words of an angry YOUNG conservative white male--"You should fight for your country!" "Destroy all Commies!" etc. Spidey was weirdly oblivious and when prompted to join, his response was to my mind out of character. I think in that same issue, Robertson and his son had an exchange and--customary for comics at that time--resolved their acute differences about how to deal with civil rights, suppression of black rights, with "Gee, golly, dad, you have a point. Maybe we can struggle for equal rights from within the system." Such arguments in my family never unfolded so sanguine or polite, I can tell you. But it is a comic book written in the 60s.

Unknown said...

Of course, I only became aware of this strange dichotomy in my four-color heroes upon re-reading the issues as a much older, more politicized adult. As a young child, I was only dimly aware that the comic introduced topics that were only tangentially relevant to the adults around me (poor Latin neighborhood, struggling to make ends meet).

After you mentioned Ditko and Objectivism, I feel compelled to re-read his Spider-man issues to find those nuggets of Randian philosophy. You really dislike her. I read her major works and disagreed with a lot of what she had to say, but only because I felt that at the end of her argument, you would see a great deal of inequality and oppression, even if it was inadvertent. Some of it on purpose. She grew up hating communism with very good reason. The communists did not do themselves any favors by ignoring the horrors in Stalinist Russia. My point about Rand: I honestly think she would have done a complete U-turn if she had lived to see the science behind Global Warming and after the numerous economic crises the world has experienced (after her death) when very intelligent hairless apes are allowed to tinker with and game the financial system because their maths are better than the average person. That is perhaps a naive and overly positive take on Ayn Rand, but I like to think that her rational side would pin to the mat her philosophical side and take up arms for the protection of the environment and controls on Wall St for the benefit of "the individuals" on the planet. I'm probably wrong; I know. It's just a thought. Well, her views on the Vietnam War were well within her rational scheme and philosophical framework, so maybe. Maybe.

She did not live to see the results of Reagan, Bush I and II, Clinton, Trump, 9-11, etc. Lee did. And he never came out with definitive statements for SJW issues, or however you label alternative moral philosophies (I AM NOT AN EXPERT--just sharing, please don't gut me)--so, yeah, Lee: a BUSINESSMAN...who happened to peddle four-color dreams in my barrio. I think my challenge is to take those dreams and make them my own and better yet...make my own.

Great article sir!