Comic Books, and How We Remember.

I’m going to talk about comic books. Even if you don’t like comic books, I’d encourage you to read, because I’m going to touch on broader issues.

Through the 1950s, one of the many moral panics that swept through America targeted comic books. Strict self-censorship guidelines were enforced, driving Western and pulp gangster comics entirely out of business. Superhero comics drastically dwindled. Those that remained were simple tales of epic heroes battling evil, getting along swimmingly with their teammates, and living uniformly happy lives that conformed with the values of the times.

That changed with the publication of Fantastic Four in November, 1961. Stan Lee, the editor of the newly rechristened Marvel Comics, worked with artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to bring new emotional dimensions to the medium. The signature trait of Marvel was that its characters would not only battle villains; they would operate in conflict with one another, and they would be conflicted themselves. So in the first Fantastic Four, not only do the characters have to battle the Mole Man, but they are constantly bickering like any family would, and are grappling with the grotesque changes visited upon their bodies.

Working with Kirby and Ditko, Stan Lee co created and wrote Spider-Man, the Hulk, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Daredevil, Thor, the X-Men. Lee is credited with writing them all contemporaneously during the early 1960s. All of these titles sold incredibly well, because they were thematically sophisticated enough that they attracted readers of all ages. This became known as the Silver Age of comics. Pretty impressive for one man, right?

Well, not exactly. According to Kirby, who himself had created Captain America 20 years prior, and Ditko, they did the real writing. According to them, Lee was just a canny salesman who took the credit. Isn’t it a simple matter to look into the records and settle this? Well, not exactly.

At the time, they used what was called the “Marvel Method.” Lee would write outlines for the issues they were going to write. Kirby, Ditko and the other artists would draw the issues, leaving dialogue bubbles blank. Then Lee would go back and write the dialogue. The trouble is, there is serious contention about how detailed those outlines were. According to Lee, he wrote several pages. According to every artist who worked for him at Marvel, he wrote a paragraph, and they did most of the creative work. Unfortunately none of the paperwork from Marvel, including the outlines, have survived. We will never know definitively who is right.

So if you’re a comic book historian or enthusiast, it all comes down to who you believe. I mean, Kirby was an industry titan for decades before and after his collaboration with Lee. As much as he is an icon in the geek community, Stan Lee never achieved much creatively after he stopped collaborating with those artists in the early 60s. On the other hand, the industry at large widely adopted the storytelling strategies Lee is said to have pioneered; and if we can say anything about his later work, it seems that Lee could never give up the earnestness of the early 60s, even when much darker and grittier storytelling was in vogue in the late 70s and 80s.

So what’s the solution? Well, if you want to think about comics seriously, you have to accept both accounts as true. Both! And neither! The feud between editor and artist probably became so vindictive that both parties drastically underestimated the contribution of the other.

The point is: the truth is complicated, and to understand the past, we have to reject any simple explanations. To study History is to understand that core premise.

The problem is, history is full of similar conundrums. Take the founders of the United States. Which meme is right? Are they marble-carved dispensers of freedom and democracy? Or are they old men who didn’t want to pay their taxes? Well, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s probably a very human answer in the middle of both those extremes.

A lot of people are skeptical of academics and intellectuals because of those shades of grey. That really clashes with the ways that most people are raised. Many people are raised to think in these binary, heaven and hell kinds of terms. There is one definite answer. Corruption versus purity. Morality versus decadence.

The fact that most of everything requires some degree of mental effort to parse feels overpowering at times. That’s why myths have so much power. That’s why politicians and parties who offer simple solutions gain so much traction. Most people cling to simplicity at all cost. When in truth, a big part of being alive is that we have to weigh evidence continuously and make hard decisions, no matter how hard that can seem.

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